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?