Amidst the seemingly incessant tedium that pervades the rigmarole of daily life, genuine surprises are few and far between. Even then, most of the deviations from the norm we experience are of the more infuriating ilk. You know what I mean; itís those excruciating moments of bona fide helplessness that sour our otherwise dull existences, such as when your shoelace snaps just before youíre about to leave the house or when you come to the realisation that someoneís replaced your milk with battery acid. I donít know about you, but that one gets me every time.
Last week, however, owners of Double Fineís 2005 cult classic, Psychonauts, were greeted with a surprise that was Ė wait for it Ė genuinely positive. Upon waking up and indulging in their daily ritual of booting up their Steam clients out of a quaint desire to gape at their ever-expanding backlogs of mediocre titles purchased during the latest discount sale, Psychonauts enthusiasts around the globe were delighted to discover that their beloved adventure platformer had not only been updated to allow for better graphical quality, but that it now accommodated the flashy modern facets of achievements, cloud saves and Xbox 360 controller support. Finally, a game seemingly long consigned to the festering pile of commercially underwhelming titles had been thrust emphatically into the modern era of gaming, giving it a new lease of leave for gamers old, new, borrowed and blue. Trust me on that one; Papa Smurf plays a mean Guitar Hero solo.
Anyway, if nothing else, seeing one of the most unique games in recent memory enjoy another brief foray into the spotlight gave me ample reason to reflect once again upon what set Psychonauts apart from everything else that had been released before and, indeed, anything thatís come along since.
From the very first cutscene, itís rather obvious that the gameís storyline isnít your regular tale of death, destruction and bravado. Far from it, in fact. You play as Raz, a prodigious young psychic whoís fled from his past life as a circus outcast under his oppressive father and wandered innocently into a holiday camp that functions as a training facility for other psychically gifted children, run by the uncompromisingly militant and boisterous Coach Oleander. These youngsters are to be rigorously trained in the art of delving into the minds of other sentient beings in order to fight their fears, demons and insecurities, and Raz, finally eyeing up an opportunity to put the powers that have caused him to be shunned in his regular life, wants in. He wants to be a Psychonaut, a psychic cavalier sworn to provide hope to the mentally unstable and psychologically unbalanced. But he has to complete his training in a few short days before his father comes to fetch him from the camp and forever condemn him to a life of misery and resentment.
What that all means, then, is that all the thrills, spills and Buffalo Bills of life in a psychic training camp must be condensed into a minuscule timeframe, ensuring that Raz has little time to waste in embarking on his mind-bending adventures. And what adventures they are.
Each of the gameís story missions centre around Razís capacity to jump into the minds of a selection of mentally conflicted individuals, and the results are, to put it bluntly, quite staggering. Every single mind conjures up a distinctively unique level, all of which are designed with every last shred of artistic creativity thatís expected of a project fronted by Tim Schafer. One moment, youíre sneaking through streets inhabited by shifty secret agents in the quest to uncover the conspiracy orchestrated by a psychotic milkman; the next, youíre rallying an army of board game characters to war against a ruthless legion of warriors led by Napoleon Bonaparteís doppelganger. Whatever youíre up to, you can guarantee that itíll be a completely different experience, and itís this approach to imaginative creativity that gives Psychonauts an element of character and personality that lives with you long after youíve finished with it.
And itís pretty darn funny too. Each of the levels accounts for a splendid amount of humour both like and dark, all embodied in a hearty mixture of visual landmarks, action-packed cutscenes and verbal witticisms that put most American sitcoms to shame, not that thatís really that hard to do. Accompanying the well-crafted script is a cast of talented voice actors thatís more than up to the task of whatís effectively a drive to bring a rag-tag bunch of cartoon characters to life in a manner thatís convincing enough to draw the player into the surreal Psychonauts world, but one thatís unflinching in reminding us not to take things too seriously, lest we forget that games are meant to be fun.
While Psychonautsí stylish exterior presentation takes it to places previously unchartered in the gaming stratosphere, itís admittedly a little heartbreaking to report that its gameplay has a tendency to bring it crashing back down to Earth. Having previously plied a successful trade as a respected point-and-click adventure game developer, Tim Schaferís attempts to bring platforming into the equation with Psychonauts represented his first real effort to move away from the antiquated pointy-clicky environment. At best, the results are mixed and, at worst, theyíre rage-inducingly finicky. Sadly, Psychonautsí controls are devoid of the solidity and tightness of the likes of Super Mario 64 and Ratchet and Clank, meaning that judging distances between platforms and obstacles can often be a sickening practice of trial-and-error. Under normal circumstances, this might not be such a problem, but the fact that the game makes use of the old-fashioned lives system, known in this instance as ďastral layersĒ, means that thereís only a certain number of times you can sail agonisingly too short of or too far from your intended target before having to start the whole level again. Heck, even when you donít fall to your death, youíll probably end up back at the bottom of a series of awkwardly-constructed platforms that you just spent several nerve-jangling minutes trying to ascend in the first place, forcing you to trawl through the same set of assault courses time and time again until youíve got everything right.
Strangely, it would seem, therefore, that the imaginative level design that earned Psychonauts such plaudits back in the day is the very thing that also holds it back from reaching gaming majesty. While the environments are certainly very pretty and memorable, they often donít lend themselves well to the copious amounts of running, jumping and floating that youíll have to do, and mentally juggling between the lavish aesthetics and frustrating control scheme can be a conflicting affair indeed. If that werenít enough to account for the increasing rapidity of your hair loss, youíll also be pleased to know that the game also forces you to make do with an extremely unfriendly auto-targeting system when fighting swarms of enemies, often resulting in unintended targets being highlighted whilst hordes of little sods nip away at your health bar. Just picture the idea of painstakingly navigating a long series of clumsily-constructed platforms, only to be slain by a few weak minions thanks to the targeting system opting to focus on a gnat at the other side of the room and youíll begin to see a new twist on the term, ďballacheĒ.
Itís also quite clear that, in overseeing the development of Psychonauts, Mr. Schafer wasnít yet ready to shake off some of the bad habits he picked up during his days as point-and-click guru. Though Psychonauts may be a platformer at its core, it retains the inventory system somewhat reminiscent of the old-school adventure game genre, an aspect that may first seem like a blessing, but one that ultimately falls flat as a consequence of its own unintuitiveness. No only are the item menus cumbersome to navigate, but thereís also a fair chance that youíll spend ample amounts of time wondering exactly what youíre supposed to do with the expanding collection of trinkets youíve been accruing, only to stumble across the solution by pure chance after fiddling about for what seems like an eternity. Mercifully, it never quite reaches the Monkey Island level of ďHow was I meant to work that out?Ē but it certainly could have done with a little fine-tuning.
Psychonauts isnít the bastion of perfection. In fact, it falls considerably short of gaming nirvana. If you want an out-an-out platformer, there are plenty of better alternatives and, if you want a pure adventure game, you can also find better examples elsewhere. But thatís not really the point. Whatís truly difficult to deny is that Psychonauts offers something wholly different and refreshing, something that stands out so strongly on its artistic merits that itís almost immune from the aging process that haunts so many classic games. It may hurt you from time to time, but itís just so charming that it rarely fails to bring a smile to the face, making sure that the experience lives with you long after the faster-paced romps of most other games fade from memory. Psychonauts is, quite simply, a game that every avid gamer should experience at least once, even if only as a reminder that a little innovation can still go a long way. Just look at it as either a thought-provoking insight into gaming culture or a fun little slap-up with a brain-snatching dentist and a telekinetic bear. Whichever way you look at it, you canít go wrong.