Have you ever imagined what the inside of your mind looks like? Would it be an odd mishmash of all the things that make up you, with characters and objects living in a personal world? Would an army officer’s mind look like a training camp, or a performers mind be set out in a theatre? Psychonauts takes this concept and bases its logic and design around the wonderfully weird minds of its unique characters.
The player controls Raz, who has run away from the circus in order to train at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. At first, Raz goes through training with each of the Psychic teachers, but as a mysterious scientist begins stealing the other children’s brains, Raz is left to save the day.
The design of Psychonauts involves a dark, warped, cartoon style, with a light hearted humour. Everything is enhanced through the musical score by Peter McConnell. It has a blusey feel to it, often using a mixture of harmonicas with a bouncing base to give everything a fun but mysterious atmosphere.
The game-play follows that of a platformer, while using Raz’s Psychic powers in order to traverse the areas and beat enemies. There are a number of ‘powers’ to learn throughout the game which get stronger as Raz levels up. Switching between these controls in the menu can get annoying as the player can only have control of three at a time and can cause a certain amount of panic during boss levels while working out which ones are needed and remembering which button on the keyboard does what. (I played the PC version, so people playing on the Xbox or Playstation versions may have a different experience).
The difficulty level goes up at a good pace, allowing gamers to get a hold of the controls while each area adds a new challenge. The final levels, the meat circus in particular, are famously difficult and will take a number of tries, particularly for casual gamers. Despite the temptation to give up (due to the difficulty at the end) the style, music and catchy story pushed me through. I wanted to know what weird thing was going to happen next, and it was always worth it.
Anyone that has played Psychonauts can gush about the story, humour, atmosphere and game-play. But given the failure to get off the ground in initial sales, it became something of a cult game. So why didn’t more people picked it up? There are a couple of theories about this. Firstly, when Psychonauts was released nobody knew who Tim Schafer (head of Double Fine) was. People are often weary to hand over money to a name they don’t recognise, even if it looks good. This was perhaps hindered further by the choice to aim the game for consoles, Xbox in particular. At the time of release (2006) the Xbox wasn’t well known for its platformers, so maybe Xbox users weren’t prepared for this genre. While gamers argue over wanting unique games and game-play, they only really want this from games and titles that they already trust.
Psychonauts is not the game to end all games. The game-play is pretty standard for a platformer and some of the controls and collectible finding can be frustrating. Where it truly shines is its unique world, characters, innovative story and all round sense of fun.
Psychonauts – Double Fine