All across the Internet, gamers and critics have agreed on very few things. However, in the last decade, there has been one universal statement: “You should play Psychonauts.” In fact, more people have probably said that aloud than actually seen the whole thing through. At the time, the game was the first step of a beloved creator and his independent band of misfits known as Double Fine. It is still brought up today for its creativity, its originality, and its unique premise. However, without the rose tinted glasses, in the age of 1,000 indies, does the game hold up? Is Psychonauts truly the timeless classic it seemed destined to be? After playing the game for the first time in 2015, I think I’ve come to an answer.
Psychonauts tells the story of Razputin, a young child with psychic powers who left home to visit a summer camp to develop his powers. Initially, you take part in the training, but over the course of an eventful few days, you master various abilities, rescue your new friends and save the world from a mustache twirling villain. The plot makes sense in the moment but really breaks apart when any pressure is applied, which is somewhat disappointing considering the story pedigree of who’s involved and the narrative Double Fine were able to weave in Brutal Legend a few years later.
Really though, the game exists as an excuse to run through a series of fanciful mindscapes, and they are all certainly unique. The milkman’s 50s utopia, the lungfish’s miniature city and the infamous meat circus are all unique and colorful locations, and the variety of gameplay is initially much appreciated. However, I don’t feel the intense admiration for these locales that others seemed to back when the game was new. In fact, the intense variety between locations leads to a lack of cohesion that sometimes took me out of the overall experience.
As you go through the levels, you slowly but surely gain new powers to experiment with. You can chuck boxes around with your mind, levitate on a little ball, see through the eyes of other characters, and set things on fire. One of the best parts of the game is using these powers against friendly NPCs and seeing what they’ll say as they plead with Raz to put them down or stop burning them. This carried over from games like Monkey Island, ringing out every little joke from a scenario before moving on, and they’ve packed in a lot of them.
This is just one facet of the game that makes it painfully obvious that Psychonauts was a cautious step out of adventure gaming for many at Double Fine. There are several inventory-style puzzles throughout the adventure that would be fine in a more focused adventure but feel like busy work when you have to traverse the environment to pick up your trinkets. There are a lot of collectibles to pick up on those repeated journeys as well, more than seems really necessary or warranted.
One of the collectibles is a currency with which to buy a handful of things at a shop. One of the things you can buy is a tool needed to pick up another collectible, and you turn those collectibles in for a bit more health and psychic energy. It’s a long process to get a lackluster upgrade, and I hadn’t even bothered with any collectibles until the game threw a hard roadblock in my face and forced me to gather enough purple rocks to proceed.
However, Psychonauts is primarily a platformer. When he is jumping, Raz is very delicate with where he wants to land and what he regards as a platform. I just got burnt out on several levels just because I ran into time-consuming roadblocks that challenged my patience rather than my ability. You can get stuck occasionally, landing in a spot where you can’t jump or hanging in midair even when not using your levitation power. Combine this with some vintage hunting for where to go in some places due to the game’s nostalgic lack of a waypoint, and you have platforming that feels more like mountain climbing in Fallout than crossing gaps as Mario.
This poses a problem in the later stages of the game, when gameplay shifts from giving friendly tutorials to requiring masterful control of its mechanics at the drop of a hat. The game keeps ramping up this way, leading to a final level that is probably one of the most frustrating levels I’ve ever played in any game. This game is not precise enough for moving platforms, but the final level is nothing but moving platforms, swinging while unable to see due to a time-appropriate camera, and an unneeded escort mission. It’s the sort of thing you just don’t see in games nowadays, and there is good reason. Players want to finish a game off after investing hours and hours, and they should be rewarded with a culmination of the experience, not a vision of a harder sequel that never was.
If there’s one thing I will give Psychonauts credit for, it is the writing. Every character in the game is well-defined and unique, and there are several very funny moments throughout. I spent more time going around the camp and talking to campers than I did in some levels platforming. This was before the halfway point of the game of course. After that, everyone in the camp is unceremoniously turned into brainless zombies, and then instead of witty dialogue you get another collectible to try and find in the remaining levels. This does bring a sense of urgency to the proceedings that wasn’t there before, but the unique setting is ruined on a “save the world” type story when it really wasn’t necessary at all.
Overall, in 2015, I can safely say that it is perfectly fine to skip Psychonauts. In 2005, the game’s style brought it most of the way in a world of bleak shooters. In 2015, there are more indie games than anyone can reasonably touch, and they all bring their own unique style. The variety of levels in this game can safely be supplanted by a healthy diet of games like Super Meat Boy, Guacamelee, and Ironcast. If you’re looking to Psychonauts for a platforming experience, you’ll be sorely disappointed by the lack of polish in the gameplay and the inventory puzzles that keep getting in the way of going with the flow. There are things worth checking out here, and you can see why the game was praised years ago, but a modern player might best be served checking out the game on YouTube rather than stepping into Raz’s boots themselves.
Psychonauts was reviewed on Steam with a copy the reviewer purchased himself.
Psychonauts has a group of unforgettable characters in an imaginative setting that unfortunately takes place inside a middling platformer. It could be a great cartoon, but as a game, it's far from perfect.