Our giddy love of Psychonauts probably says as much about the dreadfully po-faced nature of most videogames as it does about the relative merits of Double Fine's cult classic. It's hard to think of too many other games that have ever inspired such heart-warming bursts of pure fun merely from the quality of the writing alone. It's as if critics the world over exploded in a righteous froth at the undiluted joy of being released from the harrowing shackles of reviewing intolerably beardy World War II/Sci-fi/stealth/D&D epics and actually allowed to play something that made them laugh. When you spend most of the year with a knitted brow saving the world from insane megalomaniacs, the chance to, um, save the world from an insanely funny megalomaniac has a disproportionate allure. Especially once you realise that 'Sir' Tim Schafer's one of the men behind it.
But then you tell people it's a platform game, await the inevitable emission of a hundred thousand audible 'harrumphs' and prepare to string together your most convincing argument ever. You'll insist (without hesitation) that it's damn near the funniest game ever, that it's got more invention on a single level than most games have in their entirety, and with justification compare it to the best animation movies you've seen. Eventually, you'll even begin to reel off obscure anecdotes about those infinitely hilarious bits that you'll probably miss the first time around, exchange utterly hilarious quotes and wallow in the stand out genius of The Milkman Conspiracy. The warm afterglow of Psychonauts completion is best enjoyed accompanied by a fat cigar, silk sheets and attentive, impossibly attractive slaves. And grapes. And other people who've played the game. In the quotability stakes, it's the videogaming equivalent of Spinal Tap, or Withnail and I.
Fathers for justice
And then people like us demand fist-shaking justice. We throw logic out of the window and go and vote it our Game of the entire bloody Year. We wave our gaudy home-made Psychonauts placards at you outside our local Game, damn you and demand you go and sodding well buy it. "Seriously", we wail, "you'd be mad not to buy it."
"But I'm not a fan of platform games," comes the inevitable reply.
"But you'll like this one. Really".
A game chock full of such obvious quality that's been so widely acclaimed shouldn't be a hard sell, yet somehow all the brilliance is ignored the second people realise you can double-jump. Ah well, anyway.
Rock Psychic Summer Camp provides the backdrop for this delightfully unhinged adventure, and you take control of the precocious wannabe psychic soldier Razputin, or Raz as he prefers to be known. In the game itself you flit between the 'real world' hub of the camp and the 'mental world' of other people's minds, with the general goal of defeating their personal demons in order to make progress. After some basic Psi Cadet tuition (amusingly in the war-torn mind of military obsessive Coach Oleander) you begin to win all manner of Merit Badges, which grant Raz with useful new abilities. Beginning with Marksmanship, completing numerous tasks earns Raz the ability to perform Telekinesis, Pyrokinesis, Levitation, Invisibility, Clairvoyance, Shield and eventually Confusion - abilities that all come in exceptionally useful at one time or other.
As seems to be the Law of Platform Gaming, Psychonauts comes fully stocked with an utterly ludicrous number of predictably superfluous collectibles to ferret out during your adventures. Initially the most useful are the numerous arrowheads which litter the landscape and provide the game's currency. In conjunction with the various Psi Cards that are hidden away in generally hard-to-reach places, you can increase your Psi Rank, unlock ability upgrades and later exchange your winnings for objects (like the Dowsing Rod, Cobweb Duster and Mental Magnet) which enable you to gather even more collectables.
Give it to me
In case you're already rolling your eyes to the heavens at the prospect, such obsessive-compulsive kleptomania never feels that much of a chore, though. This is largely thanks to some generally excellent level design allied to the sort of progression structure where being through always seems to reward the player with something genuinely worth having, be it a new ability or a hidden memory. Hard to believe, but even Psychonauts' concept art is worth having. It's all in the presentation.
Better still, this quest for endless tat is by no means compulsory. Despite it being possible to upgrade to level 100, there's absolutely no need to get anywhere near that level to be strong enough to polish off the game's storyline. As it should be, many of Psychonauts' extras are just that, and even without abilities like Psychic Regeneration or Sensory Scramble, the difficulty level is never so tough as to force you into unnecessary kleptomania - so there's no need to worry about pointless object-collection as a reason to wriggle out of buying this.
For the vast majority of your time with Psychonauts, it's a journey so chock full of moments to make you smile that you won't mind one bit that you're pulling off another round of tricky jumps and bashing health-sapping critters around the bonce for the gazillionth time of asking. For the vast majority of the time, the sheer level of invention in some of the levels is wrapped up in so much warm humour that it's worth every second of effort required to solve the task at hand. Who could fail to not fall in love with the surreal daftness at the heart of the Milkman Conspiracy level, or not be left with a stupid grin after the Waterloo world? Just listening in on the conversations between random characters is enough to make me fall in love with this game.
Begging for forgiveness
Yet, only the most forgiving gamer in the world could fail to spot some of the flaws that lay within. You may have noticed a couple of paragraphs ago, though, the words "generally" and "excellent" sat suspiciously side by side. Reading the ravine that lies between those words lies some of the unspoken truth about Psychonauts and whether it really is as absolutely amazing as people seem to be willing it desperately it to be. You see, for every two levels of stunning, memorable gameplay genius there's one that will drive you 'round the bend with old school instant-death design conventions, ill-placed checkpoints and manoeuvres designed to test the resolve of the most placid of gamer.
Naming and shaming, the wretched Meat Circus level with its array of overly precise jumps allied to an unrealistic time limit (something the game wisely avoids placing on the player for almost the entire game) makes it a hugely frustrating way to see out the game, but it's not the only low point. Sasha's Shooting Gallery is uninspired, Milla's Dance Party with its focus on ascending the heights with the levitation ball is plain irritating, or how about that effing Bull in Black Velvetopia? Gah!
But the negatives aren't merely consigned to quibbles with specific levels (among a swathe of brilliant ones). The bosses, on the whole, offer no resistance (surely defeating the object), while some of the most memorable irritations result from the lack of signposting during the whole game. For example, despite being able to call on Cruller's help on demand, it's surprising how often you're left fumbling along with the kind of vague guidance that leaves you high and dry in annoying cul-de-sacs. Even during the so-called tutorial levels the game, shockingly, neglects to mention crucial little details; things that can leave veterans of dozens of platformers spitting mad with incredulity, never mind newcomers. Elsewhere, the general mechanics aren't exactly perfect, either, with even some of the best levels having a tendency to throw up jumps of such ludicrous difficulty that you're left wondering whether they were strictly necessary. By all means make the secret objects hard to reach, but you can't help but wonder why certain routine tasks end up being some of the hardest (and therefore most frustrating) in the game.
A differing viewpoint
Some have singled out the camera as being the main source of the game's problems, but it's really not as simple as that. Sure, it's not the most on-the-ball of camera systems that you'll ever come across, and yes, it can tie itself in some awful knots, but normally you'll cope just fine. Most of the time when you mess up, you can see perfectly well what's going on, and if anything that makes it even harder to tolerate your failure. No, what's at fault here isn't one of control systems or camera flaws, but basic occasional level design issues that don't endear themselves to the player: time limits that are too tight, just so jump sequence that require too great a level of pixel precision (and result in tiresome back-to-the-bottom-of-the-level-repetition), less-than-clear object manipulation. As with any game, problems that aren't of the player's making only do one thing: strip away layers of fun. Just as well, then, that there are so many layers of fun, really, or your goodwill may have long run out before you can finally understand Tom's Pokeylope reference.
All of this pains me to point out. It's real pain, real tears, because in so many ways Psychonauts is a game made specifically for people like me, with a sense of humour like mine, made by a company featuring some of all-time heroes of the games industry, making a game in genre that I love. How could it go wrong? There's so much that's flawless about this game: the art style (on the PC running in high resolution, at least) and presentation is simply exceptional, looking for all the world like the great LucasArts cartoon platform adventure game they never made. Likewise, the audio is similarly of the very highest calibre, just as it used to be in every other project Schafer's been involved with. Whether it's the little incidental ditties running throughout (again, very LucasArts in style and feel, unsurprisingly) or the voice acting (ditto), you'll be wide-eyed in awe at how fully realised it all is, and how much it shows up other games by comparison. And once the final piece of that particular jigsaw, the script, is slotted in, it's clear we're talking about one of the finest pieces of comedy gaming ever conceived. If it was a cartoon series, we'd all buy the box set and endlessly quote it; it's that good.
But just because it's full of great ideas and benchmark-setting writing and production values, that doesn't grant Double Fine exemption from criticism over some of the weaker elements of this generally excellent game. Just because it made me laugh more than just about any game of the last ten years, that doesn't mean I have to be nice to it. Just because it sold bugger all in the States, I'm not going to neglect to mention the bits that really pissed me off in the hope that you'll buy it. If only it were that simple.
The harsh reality is perhaps the most obvious observation of them all - Psychonauts is probably not as good as it could have been because it's a platform game. Would it have been rated any better as an adventure game? Probably, but that's irrelevant now. What's unavoidable is the fact that almost all of the problems that weigh Psychonauts down are borne out of the legacy that the platform genre itself has, and Double Fine - like so many other developers - has largely been unable to avoid falling into the same pitfalls of inconsistent level design and unwise difficulty spikes. Dammit.
That said, the most gratifying part of summing up Psychonauts' worth is that its good points are simply so exceptional that they almost drown out most of the grumbles you might have about this level or that jump. By the time you've had the chance to get some distance upon finishing the game you'll begin appreciate that - on balance - it's such a thoroughly, intensely enjoyable experience for the vast majority of the time that you want the whole world to experience what is easily the funniest, and therefore most fun game of the year, or any other year. But if you're honest about it, you'll also admit that judged purely as a platform game it's by no means perfect, but who needs perfection when there are games like Psychonauts to play?