Version tested: Xbox
People keep saying to us: "Ooh, I like the sound of Psychonauts, but I wish it wasn't a platform game." But more on that later.
There's a bit in Psychonauts that, for us, captures the spirit of the game in a single exchange. It takes place after a few hours and a pivotal plot event, and - modified a bit to save spoiling it - starts something like this: "Are you ready to join me?" With an option of two responses. "Yes" or "No, not yet"
Playing through this, our gamer senses kicked in. Gosh, we thought, what if this is a significant breaking point, and we'll lose access to all that's come before? Maybe it's asking us because it knows we might need more time? Maybe we should save first, and then agree. Mmm. "No, not yet."
SLAP! "How about now?"
It's a laugh-out-loud, Tim Schafer moment. The man who made games like Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango so fantabulous has returned in a different genre with similar design principles. The thing that's great about the above joke is that most people won't see it. It made us spit Diet Coke all over the wall, but anybody who clicks "Yes" will be robbed of the laugh. It illustrates not only how far Double Fine has gone to make sure that everything you can poke has a feather waiting to tickle you back with, but also how well the developer understands gamer behaviour - and preys upon it.
Psychonauts undoubtedly comes close to reaching the levels of saturation-humour achieved by other games on Schafer's best-of list - and more or less everything sees you coming. Learn Telekinesis, accidentally pick up your mentor, and he'll say something like, "Yes, very good, now let's try picking something up that won't kill you if you make it angry."
The humour isn't an excuse for a weak or entry-level platform game, either. The platform game underneath would have been fine without it. The controls are spread logically over the Xbox pad (or the PC gamepad you must employ to fully enjoy it), it has an enormous campsite hub area full of things to climb, things you can't climb yet and hidden depths home to pick-ups, a nice progressive system of accumulating tools, health and unnecessary trinkets, a very well-masked structure that marks out the plot without settling into a predictable rhythm, and more lovely level ideas than Andy Warhol's aborted attempt to design elevator doors. It's also a lot funnier than that last line.
The latter (clever levels, that is; not malformed witticism) are often borne of the fact that you're wandering through people's minds. A Psychonaut, see, is a psychic soldier, who jumps into people's heads and fights their personal demons. Literally. And each person's mind is different. A lot of games would give you this premise and expect you to swallow it without question - quite possibly occupying the jackboots of a grizzled veteran of several psychic wars. Or summat. But Psychonauts takes quite the opposite approach, putting you in the shoes of a ten year-old boy, Razputin, who's found his way to psychic summer camp - where he aims to become a full-fledged Psychonaut.
Hence the training level is an obstacle course set in your army veteran coach's head, starting off in a recruitment office, snaking through minefields, past circling bombers, up walls that are being shelled, and so on - all carved out of a convincingly astral plane, complete with slightly quirky marching tunes, which patter off-key like the arch of someone's eyebrow. All the while you're being hounded by your coach, Oleander. "Is your name Joey!?" "No." "Because I'm going to call you Slowy Joey!" "That's not my name." "What's that, Slowy? I can't hear you! You're talkin' too slow!"
Before too long, you're exploring minds out of necessity rather than academia, as the routine of psychic summer camp takes a backseat to the machinations of a psychic evildoer in its midst. It's a bit like Harry Potter, except, you know, funny. And with a likable lead. And likable everything else. Including a camp bully whose hair resembles a giant Nik Nak.
Except, there's a problem with all of that. We said, "The platform game underneath." Go back, look - see? Silly of us. The platform game isn't underneath the funny; it is the funny. It's impossible to talk about the way Psychonauts looks, plays and feels without wandering back to the way it makes you laugh, as the two are inextricably linked. You don't play to get to a joke, like you do in Jak & Daxter. You play and laugh. And it's a reviewer's dream, because most of the jokes you feel like spoiling won't be seen by most, and there are 100 other funnier ones.
Your collectables, which contribute toward markers that increase your "rank" (unlocking better abilities, over time, increased health and firing capacity for your psi-blasts and the like) are translucent 2D images called figments. Of your imagination. Gosh. There are others too - there are loads to collect, in fact. It may sound a bit cute and cynical - blue blobs contributing to your "mental health", for example - but let us leave you in no doubt that this is a platform game. There are multiple-multiple collectables for each stage - things like psi cards, challenge markers, figments, and the like. You have to cover every inch to get them all. You have to think back to past areas where new skills might apply. You have to clamber over things, swing from branches and trapezes, climb pillars and flagpoles, sidle along edges, and add it all up to progression. The game understands your gaming conventions and desires - and spends as much time sating them as it does hiding jokes in amongst them.
Stroll along a walkway on the inside of a rotating cylinder, which expects you to wait cautiously for the ground to line up beneath your feet, and the coach yells, "Ah, the old rolling tunnel of crazy logs bit." It second-guesses your cynicism. It's a bit like us in that, except, you know, funny. We wish we were Psychonauts.
Fortunately we can pretend we are for aaaages. We read some forum threads full of anecdotes drawing on bits we loved - and half the time we were left thinking, "Hang on, that's brilliant, where the hell was that?" Replay value is assured - even as you revisit the same levels on your first run-through, you're greeted with different jokes.
Animation and voice acting are up to a standard barely witnessed in any other series - and the latter is ubiquitous, with no secession to text-based filler in-between cut-scenes [you see what you're missing LucasArts? YOU SEE? - Ed]. Half the time the audio is incidental - walk up to a pair of arguing kids in the campsite area and press Y to engage them and the game flicks to a prescribed exchange between all three of you, but just stand there and the conversation that excludes you is actually funnier. You'll want to listen to everyone before you actually talk to them. And when you do, you'll find more life in their little Tim Burton-esque faces than every NPC in Jak & Daxter put together. In fact, are there any NPCs in Psychonauts who don't have something for you to remember them by? We can't remember.
It's like a Pixar film, with an infectiously comic-serious tone - embracing and laughing at the self-importance of ten year-olds, twisting stereotypes into memorable characters like secret agents pretending (badly) to be street workers inside the head of a conspiracy theorist, whose inner psyche regularly corkscrews as you run through it. Steal a stop sign to disguise yourself as one of the secret-types and it's all, "Hello, fellow road crew worker." Get busted and you're given a brief, random stream of questions under a spotlight. "What is the purpose of the goggles?" "Who is the milkman?" "What did the rainbow squirts tell you?" Different every time.
It feels like every time something threatens to be mundane, something else happens to keep you happy. That's not totally true of course - on a macro level there are plenty of irritations, like questionable camera control on the more exotic (i.e. twisting/upside down) levels, some occasions when you fail to grip a ledge, and uninterruptible combat animations that screwed up one of our boss encounters royally.
But on a grander level it's definitely true. Any time we started to wonder if it was slowing down, it brought out a new level idea that more often than not took the game in a new direction, introduced a new mechanic and found ten thousand new gags to crack. You find your way to the bottom of a lake at one point and fight a Lungfish boss who lurks just outside an air bubble. After hitting him a bit, he starts moving the bubble around and you're forced to run along to keep up, navigating all sorts of obstructions like wrecked boats and the like. Incidental touches abounds, like seaweed flopping down within the bubble and then springing back up in the water. And it occurs to you that this is a forced-scrolling level. Like the ones in Mario Bros. Somebody's actually justified one at last, and it's brilliant.
Some levels promise more than they deliver, admittedly - the inside of Agent Nein's head, which is set up like a very eerie cube that you can run to each side of, becomes a bit of a game of "run, jump, turn and shoot, run, jump, turn and shoot," and the level set in an underwater city, whose inhabitants are barely ankle-high, saddles the player with a Godzilla-style clunkiness of movement that makes the combat, in particular, frustratingly sluggish.
But even in its weaker moments there are usually hundreds of warming sights and sounds to get you through - having got Agent Nein's head straight, Raz asks if this is where he gets another speech and learns another lesson. "No, here's your merit badge; let us never speak of this again". While you're saddled with Godzilla-style clunkiness under the lake, you're also saddled with a Godzilla-style moniker by the locals, whose propagandist TV newsflashes regularly interrupt your stomp through town to elicit celebrity opinion on your antics, before the focus switches back to you stomping around, with locals yelling, "There he is! He hates children!" and so on.
And you're so often outfitted with new tools, and have so much to collect, and such a wide variety of sights to see that it's as fresh after ten hours as it is after ten minutes. Your inventory and arsenal of psychic powers grows and grows throughout, introducing things like clairvoyance, which lets you see the world through someone else's eyes - ideal for picking out a security code, for example, or understanding how thick somebody is - and, our favourite, levitation. Levitation, it turns out, involves standing on top of a glowing Space Hopper, which lets you leap 50 feet into the air and then parachute down underneath it.
And for those of you recoiling with a cynical wariness borne of Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank games that you didn't find particularly amusing, it's worth trying to hammer home that this isn't just "also a game for adults"; it's aimed squarely at us.
When you track down a mental vault and whack it, you see a slide show. It can just be something laughable. Or it can show you that person bringing up her children, and then having to watch them burn as she's powerless to help, and then having to fight past it alone. Later, you might stumble into a room off the beaten track of her mind and discover yourself surrounded by burning spectres calling out for their mother. There's a lot of serious, grown up stuff in here - even if it's far more comic than tragic in most cases. It occurs to us now that these slide shows are concept artwork repackaged; character history sketches used in-game. Psychonauts makes us like concept art. Pinch us!
Whether you get on with its sense of humour is crucial, obviously, to getting past the few flaws that are inherent, but ultimately Psychonauts is perhaps most deserving of praise because even though it's been, we'd imagine, deliberately engineered to smooth out a platform game experience so it's suitable for all comers - never too hard, never obtuse, rarely even confusing, optionally kleptomaniacal - it knows gamers well enough to wink at them from anywhere you might expect to look for a mistake.
Funnily enough (it is funny enough), it's one of the least memorable boss characters who sums that up best. He (actually, first of all: "least memorable" is somewhat relative, given that he's a flying bug-eyed superhero who responds to character assassination with "I don't speak 'annoying child'") circles you, before gearing up and attacking like so: "ooooverly elaaaboraaaaate... combination attack!"
But gosh, eh? Some of you will wish that it wasn't a platform game.
It's true, some of you will. And some of you platform gamers won't find much in here that hasn't been done before. SLAP! Have we had a Tim Schafer platform game before? Innovation takes on many guises; this isn't this generation's Super Mario 64 in terms of reinvention, but given its comprehensiveness and attention to detail, you might liken its impact on us to that of Yoshi's Island. Except, you know, this is funnier.
So there you go. If you reckon that sounds like your kettle of Lungfish, not much else remains. Except to ask: Are you going to buy Psychonauts?
2. No, not yet.
SLAP! How about now?
9 / 10