Psychonauts is a 3D platform game starring a gifted young psychic named Raz as he attends school to become a member of a top-secret intelligence organization. As part of his academic "studies," Raz must enter classmates' minds to solve their problems, ranging from childhood trauma to borderline personality disorders. Accomplishing these feats involves using the character's unusual talents to manipulate the strange worlds created by the subject's mind.
Raz literally walks through an individual's fears, delusions, and rage to solve various object-oriented puzzles and to eliminate potential threats. The human brain guards itself against foreigners poking around the subconscious and will manufacture enemies and barriers to stop Raz before he can resolve whatever psychological ailment is plaguing the host. Among the special powers Raz can call upon are invisibility, confusion, mind control, psychic blasts, and telekinesis.
Psychonauts is my favorite of its genre in years and years: the genre, of course, being story-driven, puzzle-focused graphical adventures for which its creator, Tim Schafer, is famous. Granted, it might look like a 3D platformer, but then, Deus Ex looked like a first-person shooter when it was really an RPG, and Phantom Dust looks like a melee action game when it's really about cards.
The same sort of bait-and-switch is going on here, and it's really only to be expected given the direction Schafer took with his last game, Grim Fandango. In retrospect, you can see it clearly as a stepping stone from his previous traditional graphical adventure games and what he's achieved with Psychonauts. Grim Fandango's most apparent harbingers of what Schafer would do later had to do with its interface: rather than click on the environment to point to where you wanted to go, which was the way the SCUMM engine had always handled things before, it let you move the way you would in an action game, through either a camera- or character-relative control scheme. It also featured a simplified context-sensitive inventory and action system, which replaced the usual list of commands such as "Pick Up," "Use," "Push," "Turn On," and so forth.
Though it was decidedly a PC-style graphical adventure, it was also so much a console game that if it had come out a year or two later, it almost certainly would have joined current graphical adventures like Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon in getting a console port. So it's not surprising that Psychonauts takes what Schafer did with Grim Fandango and goes even further toward a console-style game, originally designed specifically for the Xbox.
The result is something that, as mentioned, looks and plays a lot like a 3D platformer. But there are entire worlds where combat and acrobats are minimized or nonexistent, and you simply have to solve puzzles in the way you would a graphical adventure. The difference is that your toolbox for solving these puzzles flows out from standard 3D platforming tropes, eliminating what few concessions to "traditional" graphic adventures remained in Grim Fandango.
As a result, it could be the best adventure game Schafer has ever produced, and I don't say that lightly. His games are renowned for their humor, writing, and in Grim Fandango's case thrillingly unique setting, but looked at purely in gameplay terms, they didn't always work: often, the puzzles were dragged down by arbitrary-seeming solutions (the anchor puzzle in Grim Fandango being a prime example). At times, they were the PC equivalent of a few modern RPGs where the game was an active barrier to the fun story parts you wanted to see.
That's all gone from Psychonauts, which carefully draws from the best of the modern 3D adventure genre to incorporate puzzles which always have a solution at hand somewhere in the level, and there are always enough subtle but real clues to help you find the answer. Even when the answer to a problem is less obvious, the kind of lateral thinking required to solve the problem will never be completely unintuitive: in one world, after penetrating to the heart of a neighborhood by wearing a series of disguises, you're confronted with one sentry who won't be fooled by any of them. While the solution isn't set up in a game sense, it becomes clear after you apply a little common sense.
Along with the improved adventure gameplay comes story, dialogue, and art up to the high standard set by Schafer's previous games. The humor will make you laugh, not smile: the writers tend not to go for the obvious joke, and the uniformly spot-on voice acting -- not just for Raz or his immediate supporting cast, but for virtually every character in the game, which number in the hundreds -- gives each out-of-left-field payoff the impact it deserves.
The visual style is also refreshing in a gaming landscape currently dominated by anime-inspired Japanese games or the militarized aesthetic in most Western titles. The character design in Psychonauts doesn't strive for either the realistic or the cartoony, it's more like playing a puppet show or one of Henry Selick's movies like Nightmare Before Christmas. The art has a way of making even ugliness charming, like the stray lock of hair always swinging past Agent Nein's high, pasty forehead, or the dead-eyed fish look of the young cowboy J.T.
The only problem with Psychonauts is comparatively very minor, and might not even have been an issue had the game not been plagued with delays. The actual platforming elements, smooth and fun to use as they are, are still pretty derivative: Raz has Link's lock-on targeting, Sonic's rail-grinding, Ratchet's inventory selection, and so on. They've taken from the best, which makes the platforming elements highly polished -- apart from an occasional difficulty with depth perception in the camera -- but if you take it at face value as a platformer, you might get the sense that you've done this before.
Whatever travails Psychonauts endured throughout its development history, the end result is a gem. It's a brilliant debut for Double Fine, and here's hoping it's just the start of what we can expect to see from them.
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