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Saturday, 16 August 2014

Psychonauts


Psychonauts.


 I am forever baffled that I haven't reviewed this yet. Twice now I've had to check my list of reviews just to see if I actually have reviewed it, and twice I find I haven't – although I have reviewed one of Tim Schafer's more recent works, adventure game Broken Age Part 1. It warrants reviewing, I think, for two reasons: Firstly, that there's been hints and suggestions of a Psychonauts 2 entering pre-production after Broken Age is done in its entirety, and it has always been my policy to respond to looming sequel-age with an enthused review of the original; and secondly, because Psychonauts is, in a way, iconic, despite its initially low sales and relative obscurity compared to giants like Tomb Raider or, god help us, Call of Duty.

Psychonauts, a 2005 adventure-platformer-puzzle game by Double Fine and especially former LucasArts employee Tim Schafer, puts you in the shoes and goggles of Razputin 'Raz' Aquato, a young psychic boy attending (sort of) a Psychic Summer Camp under the watchful eye of two psychic secret agents and a man too short to enter the army. He's there less than a day when he discovers a conspiracy spearheaded by an insane dentist to make children sneeze out their brains so that they can be used to create psychic death tanks and take over the world.

Defeating this conspiracy will require Raz to project himself into the mental landscapes of various characters, including a delusional security guard (whose mind is a twisted, too-bright suburban neighbourhood filled with spy cameras and secret agents unconvincingly pretending to be normal people), a lungfish (in whose mind Raz is a vast, Godzilla-like monster known as Goggalor), and an artist (whose mind is a painting on black velvet, in which a troupe of painting dogs are threatened by a great, angry bull).

Pictured: Angry bull.

If it sounds weird, that's because yeah, it really is weird, and that weirdness never really lets up, whether you're in the 'real world' environs of Whispering Rock Summer Camp (where the geography is warped and twisted, the animals are hostile and psychic, and your fellow students will variously talk about their crushes or about how death will make them more powerful) or in one of the many minds you visit – and you do visit a lot of minds. Enough that I feel that if this game was being made today, when games seem to have shrunk in length considerably, you might only enter four minds or so, less than half of the minds available to visit in the actual game as is.

Which would have been a shame, because those minds are really what makes the game shine. They're not the only good thing - The gameplay is mostly well-balanced, and the dialogue and humour is consistently sharp and witty – but they are the game's most striking feature, and a feature which allows things like the gameplay and the dialogue writing to really shine.

Each bizarre world has a different core gameplay mechanic to play with, both in terms of which one of your many powers you're using and in terms of the kind of geography you're traversing, which in one case might require you to switch between three different sizes on a massive game board, or might have you picking up props that allow you to blend in with various different gangs of disguised spies.

Each world in turn also shows off the writing skills of the developers by giving them opportunities for contextual humour, a range of characters with different voices and mannerisms, and a chance to slip in subtle hints of various underlying horrors. The writing is excellent for this game: Sharp, eminently quotable (most people who have played it could quote The Milkman Conspiracy and Lungfishopolis at you for hours), and always very fresh. It's also incredibly dark. Not in an overt way: Everything is very bright and fluffy on the surface, but there's a vein of darkness running beneath which is really only flimsily hidden, and unintentionally so. As a general rule, the brighter and fluffier a level seems, the darker it actually is: So the cheerful bubbly dance party with a pinball mechanic actually has children crying in the background sounds, and has a secret room in which shapes emerge from fire to scream at you about letting them die; while the cityscape with a burning orange sky and a monster rampaging through it is really just the fevered imaginings of a fish that watches too much television. 

The perfect disguise.

It's not a perfect game, though. After my effusive praise of it, that probably sounds like a weird thing to say, and it's very close to perfect, in a lot of ways. One big sticking point is the Meat Circus, the final level, which brings with it an absurd difficulty spike and combines three elements that every gamer hates: Endlessly respawning enemies, difficult platforming sections, and the escort quest. The Meat Circus is a vile thing that combines terrible gameplay with a sudden increase in difficulty with, actually, one of the least interesting designs of the game.

The game also dips more than occasionally into being really awkward. Boss battles are often characterised less by frenetic action and more by frustratingly awkward gameplay features, such as having to run across a lake floor in a moving bubble of air, preventing you from going either too slow or too fast; or having to fight while looking through the eyes of the boss; or having to use highly inaccurate telekinesis. The boss battles in this game are, by and large, not good. They're not game-breakers, any of them, but they're not anything you really look forward to, and they almost exclusively come off as clumsy and half-baked. Often times, even non-boss sections will be painfully awkward, such as a race where you have to get first place. 

What a lovely laboratory.

I'm struggling to think of any more flaws than that, which says a lot about the game, I should think, especially since I've played it and watched it played about six times in total, and am by now fairly well-acquainted with all the little parts that don't quite gel and don't quite work. Psychonauts is a very good game, and a refreshing change from the torrent of gritty, 'hyper-realistic' games that hit our markets in what seem to be constant, slightly desperate cash-grabs. That's it been almost ten years without a sequel is almost a travesty, albeit one that owes more to audiences being idiots than to any fault of Double Fine.

But if you have a – well, it's on Steam, so if you have a PC, then check it out. I promise you won't regret it. 

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