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Psychonauts is one of those ‘well loved, cult classic, OMG you haven’t played…’ games. This is not without good cause. Psychonauts has on overwhelming sense of charm that carries most of the game. Unfortunately it also has several glaring technical and design problems that make it a bit harder to tolerate today.
Take for example a very simple thing, jumping. While it may have been perfectly fine in 2005, it is now the weakest part of the game. The problem is that there is a near half-second delay between when you hit jump, and when Raz, the main character, actually jumps. This leads to countless iterations of jumping underneath platforms or simply falling into an abyss. It is not unbearable and your brain will probably adjust, but the majority of this game involves jumping from one thing to another and missing the same jump again and again really diminished the fun I was having.
That fun was again diminished every time I found myself lost and wandering in circles. Now, I do not need a waypoint marker to always point me towards the next objective, but Psychonauts had me more turned around than I care to admit. The back half of the game features some brilliantly unique levels that can become so twisted up that it is nearly impossible to tell where to go next. I would often find myself getting to the next area and wondering if I just broken the game to get there. Other times I would visit the same platforms over an over again, just trying to suss out where I was supposed to go next. The levels themselves are varied and inspired; just not in a way that is always fun to traverse.
This is, in part, due to the puzzle nature of each stage. The first few levels of Psychonauts are based solely around platforming, with little to no emphasis on engaging your brain beyond ‘get here, hit this.’ While jumping may not be spot on, these levels are straightforward enough to just sit back and enjoy. Things dramatically change about half way in, starting with the Milkman level, and become more heavily focused on solving puzzles rather than jumping. This change is by no means a bad thing, just abrupt. Up until this point the game never really focuses on using your powers or items for anything more than traversal or combat. So when the time came to engage my brain, I was wholly unprepared. None of the puzzles become excessively difficult and if you have ever played through an adventure game, Tim Schafer’s forte, then you should have no problem solving the problems.
The last point of contention is the combat. Putting it bluntly; with the exception of the bosses, the combat felt vestigial. Normal enemies are nothing more than a roadblock to your goals. They offer nothing to the game except as a time and health waster. The Opera stage in particular had enemies that drags the entire level, which was an amusing play by children in flower suits, down into a muck of tedium. None of the normal enemies are difficult to overcome, they just lack any of the game’s flair and are a low point every time they appear.
It may seem like I am tearing into this beloved game, and to a point, I am. The essential gameplay and level design is more fun in concept than it is to actually play. But to a point, that is not the point of Psychonauts. Where the game has soured in gameplay, it has ripened in story.
Not that the story in Psychonauts is anything special, but rather it is the characters that are exceptional. If you just plow through Psychonauts, level to level, you are going to have a bad time. But if you take the time to explore, talk to characters, fiddle around with items, you are going to really enjoy yourself.
DoubleFine always excels at one thing, heartwarming humor. The characters in this game are grotesque, cartoon portrayals of (mostly) humans and yet I cared for them so much. Just chilling out in camp, playing hide and seek, talking to my campmates, discussing hyphens with a man living in my ear; it is all superb.
There is a general charm to everything in the game. The levels are wacky and neat, if only in concept. Characters range from silly goofballs, to so self serious that they become silly goofballs. The bosses, while not always fun to fight, are more unique than most anything you will find in a modern game. Above all that, the game is funny. Very rarely can a game pull off comedy in a way that makes the player laugh out loud, but this game accomplished that with me, time and time again.
Psychonauts is a cult hit for a reason. It excretes weapons grade charm and wit like few other games. Despite their cartoonish nature, the characters are more loveable, and believable, than anything your modern, super HD shooter aspires to be. Unfortunately the basic gameplay just does not hold up anymore. The precision required to pull off the more challenging sections is just not there. Oftentimes I had to do the same thing over and over again, not exactly knowing why it would work, and then it suddenly would not work. Even with that, I had a lot of fun with Psychonauts. If you are willing to put up with some poorly aged jumping you are sure to find a fun experience that will stick with you for a long time.
Should you play Psychonauts?
- Engaging characters and world/ worlds that you might just want to relax in.
- Full of wit and unique ideas.
- The moment to moment gameplay has gone more than stale, diving headlong into sour.
- Typical camera issues from that era.