Thursday, 9 May 2013

Psychonauts (PC)

Today I'm breaking with tradition and playing something someone might actually care about. I figured I might as well seeing as people asked me nicely... months ago.

Policenauts is a 1994 adventure game made by Metal Gear Solid producer Hideo Kojima, but that's not important right now seeing as I'm actually taking a look at Psychonauts, a 100% unrelated title by Double Fine. It was their first game in fact, and they were lucky it wasn't their last considering it sold just 100,000 copies in the first year. I usually try to come into a game without preconceptions, but everyone knows that commercial success is a infallible indicator of a game's quality and artistic worth, so I'll be expecting the very worst.

(Click images to view them at an insanely huge 1280x960 resolution. Well it probably would have been pretty big in 2005.)

The game begins with a prerendered video showing a former soldier turned psychic scout-master scaring a bunch of misshapen... organisms at a top secret government run summer camp for trainee telepath children.

But his speech is interrupted by the sound of a creature crashing through the pitch black forest behind them, and the camp's teachers immediately jump into a defensive formation.

It turns out though it was just a rogue telepath called Razputin trying to sneak into camp. Raz gives a heartfelt speech to win the staff over, but only manages to buy himself a couple of days before his parents arrive to pick him up.

So that's our hero's quest then, become a master psychonaut in just a few days. It might not be such a dumb goal though, considering that the teachers believe has vast untapped psychic potential. Enough to make them secretly argue over who gets to... make use of his mind.

The gameplay itself seems to be of 3D platformer variety and thankfully it supports a controller on PC, because it doesn't seem like the kind of game that'd suit a keyboard and mouse.

Coach Oleander (the ex-soldier with a cork on his helmet spike) yelled at me earlier to visit his class first thing to begin the first mission, but Raz also had a mysterious dream last night about a creepy old man telling him to look for sparkly things, so I'm going to wander around the area for a minute instead and see what I can find.

Psychic double jump, very nice.

A bit of exploration led me to my first PSI Card, spinning on the top of a cliff in a cloud of glitter. The weird old man in my head told me that if I manage to find 10 of these and then combine them with a PSI Core bought in the shop, I can craft a PSI Challenge Marker which will raise my PSI Cadet Rank by 1. No idea what that's about yet, but I know enough to understand that it's in my best interest to grab these things when I see them.

These purple sparkles mark the other type of collectable I can grab in the area: valuable psitanium arrowheads, used as currency in the camp. I ran into a kid on the way who explained that this whole place is built on an Indian burial ground you see. Specifically a burial ground for arrowheads.

Some games have struggled to grab my attention at the start, but this knew exactly how to lure me in. Too much story and set up can send a player to sleep before the game's even started, but few people can resist the allure of hunting free level up cards and money. 20 arrowheads in my wallet later and I'm invested enough in the game to be ready to go work on getting invested in the plot.

This notepad also has a journal and a map pointing me towards the next objective, which is awesome. Though I'm going to have to deduct points for it having a picture of that creepy old man from Raz's dream looking concerned on it..

I can't see any more cards around so I suppose I should get Oleander's level over with. The rest of the camp is off limits until I complete it and get my Basic Braining merit badge.

The game's had more than a little bit of a classic LucasArts adventure feel to it so far (not really surprising seeing as it was made by Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer), but sadly although I can talk to everyone I meet, this is the first dialogue choice I've had. Still, the conversations did made me smile and the characters are likeable, so it's not a big deal.

 Right, I guess I'm climbing into Oleander's brain then.

Okay, Coach Oleander's class seems to be an introduction to movement skills, taking place inside his own battle-scarred psyche. Any game that has plants made up of ammo belts, ladders made of military ribbons, and images of your instructor projected onto giant knives is probably doing something right in the art design department.

The gameplay on the other hand... well, it seems fine so far actually. Only regular fine though, not double fine. This weeping suitcase here is emotional baggage, which I can remove by finding and returning with the correct tag as an optional bonus objective. Might get annoying later, but fortunately this time I can see its label bouncing around from where I'm standing.

Having mastered the skill of moving forward through memories, climbing imaginary ladders, and double jumping over metaphorical chasms, I've moved up to a beginners class in violence. Fortunately Raz had already mastered the art of manifesting a giant orange psychic fist before the game even started, so I merely have to tap the punch button to apply the apparition effectively.

And now I guess they're teaching me how to fail, over and over again. I actually know the correct method to charge at a machine gun turret after years of playing first person shooters, and it involves not charging at a bloody machine gun turret. You move between cover, get behind it, anything but run right at the thing, though my options in this case seem to be limited.

The gunner is slightly sluggish at turning, so I suppose I'm suppose to weave from one side to the other, double jumping over the stream of bullets when I hit the tree line. At least I seem to have infinite lives at this point so there's no chance of getting a game over before the tutorial's over.

Man, I don't know what Coach Oleander is thinking... well okay, I do know what he's thinking, I'm in his brain, but how are any of the other cadets suppose to make it through an obstacle like this? Raz only stands a chance because he has superhuman gymnastic skills. That blue kid from the intro with a head like a fish looks like he can barely walk.

Oh by the way, that glowing sketch up there is actually figment of the imagination and I'm supposed to be collecting them as I go for a reward. They're kind of annoying though as it's hard to judge their depth on screen, especially the ones that move around. They like to arc through the air and drift through walls.

Wait, is he trying to tell me something? Can I punch through that cracked piece of wall? Man if that's the actual way out of here, then that's pretty damn subtle.

For some reason I assumed that the controls in this would be a little clunky, but nope, they're actually very good (even though it keeps displaying the keyboard controls when I'm playing with a controller). I don't even have to tap left and right to keep Raz balanced on these tightropes, which is always something that annoys me in games. But I'm still struggling to make it up to the top of this wall.

It's kind of difficult to make accurate jumps in 3D space with no depth perception or even a shadow to judge my position, so I keep missing the rope I'm aiming for and having to climb back up again from the bottom. At least it lets me spin the camera around with the right stick so I can kind of get it angled to a side view.

It was worth it in the end though to see this view. The man's got boats on the brain.

A few rooms later and I escape back to reality with a brand new Basic Braining badge for my backpack! It switches back to a 640x480 video clip as another teacher, famous Psychonaut agent Sasha Nein, offers to give me some advanced training in his secret lab. Though his tests are apparently unauthorised and he can't actually tell me where his secret lab is, so he hands me a red button instead and walks off.

Now I'm finally free to explore the entirety of Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp and ask everyone about my button. Or I could just jump down a hollow tree trunk and continue my search for sparkly things.

Whoa, there's a secret base down here, though not the secret lab I was looking for. This is actually Psychonauts HQ, run by the mysterious creepy old man from Raz's dream! His name's Ford Cruller and he explains that this facility can convert Mental Cobwebs into PSI Cards, which can be combined with PSI Cores to make PSI Challenge Modules to increase my PSI Rank, and if I get enough PSI Ranks I can get new PSI powers, and... there really has to be a more straightforward levelling system than this.

There's also a fast travel system down here as well, letting me move from any area of the camp to another, jumping from tree trunk to tree trunk. I think my first stop should be the shop though. If I'm supposed to be collecting cobwebs from people's brains then I should probably buy the device to do it sooner rather than later.

Holy shit, the thing costs 800 arrowheads? Damn, and I thought I was doing well finding 28. I guess I need to do more exploring.

The camp is split up into a few different areas and they're all pretty tiny, though I'm encouraged to investigate every square inch of them: climb every cliff, crawl through every cave. It's nice to find a game that doesn't just allow me to jump on rooftops, it rewards me for it.

It seems that some the stuff is out of reach for me though, no matter much how many times I try to jump up nearby rocks. I suppose I'm meant to come back for them later when I've learned some new psionic superpowers.

Wow, look at that beautiful Xbox era water. I almost feel like I've wandered back into Beyond Good and Evil by mistake.

Just down the road from the shop I reached the lake area, and it turns out that touching the water is a bad thing. Like a lot of video game characters, Raz dies if he lands in the water, but unlike most he has a good excuse. You see, Raz's entire family has been cursed by gypsies to die in water. I don't know what his dad did to piss them off, but it seems that gypsies don't fuck around.

You can barely see it here, but whenever I get too close to water, a hand shoots out and tries to drag Raz to his watery grave. It's a really clever way to turn a limitation into interesting backstory, especially considering that the game seems to be about exploring memories.


Psychonauts Whispering Rock map
Well I've been playing for about an hour and half now, I've been everywhere and talked to everyone, and I still haven't got even a fraction of the money I need for this Cobweb Duster, so I suppose I might as well head to the green crosshair on the map and go visit this secret lab.

But first, some Psychonaut training with my bro Ford. You see, I found just enough cards along the way to get me to rank 10, which unlocked my first psychic power: psychokinesis! Basically now I just have to stare at an object for a few seconds (while holding the button obviously) and it will ignite into flame. Seems like it could come in handy, though Ford makes me promise to only use the ability when it's absolutely necessary, or amusing. He also warns me that it's not a good idea to use it to impress girls that have been using lots of hair spray.

Interestingly the developers use the tutorial to fill in a little more of Raz's backstory, as it takes place inside his own mind. He explains to Ford that his parents are circus acrobats, and seeing as the very first thing that sprang into his mind when he was asked to burn something down was a circus tent, it seems he's got a few issues there.

Right, okay then, no more distractions. I'm going to Sasha's secret lab.

Psychonauts inventory
But how do I get into the secret lab I wonder. The entrance is a padded isolation booth from the 50s, lined with buttoned fabric and missing a single button, and Sasha did give me that red button earlier...

Oh by the way, the bacon is used to summon Ford for advice on what to do next and to ask him questions, kind of like using the codec in the Metal Gear Solid games. Except crispier.

It does actually make perfect sense in game. Kind of.

Whoa, Sasha's got a nice place down here. I'm not sure what art style you'd call that, but whatever it is, the room's dripping with it.

Sasha wants to take Raz inside his own mind, for science, which seems like a plan that can't possibly have any drawbacks. I move to stand dangerously close to the giant brain gun device while it does its thing and I'm finally off to mission 2.

Actually it seems I've ended up in some kind of mission hub, maybe? Who could have guessed that the inside of the human psyche would look like a quiz game on the 3DO?

Sasha tells me that this is the collective unconsciousness of everyone at the camp and that stepping through the open doorway will take me into Raz's own mind for a bit of 3D platforming. Either that or a presenter will appear in glorious low-res blue screened FMV and tell me it's time for a bonus round mini-game, where I can earn double points and move ahead on the board 3 spaces to take the lead!

The door actually took me back to pyrokinesis tutorial level at the circus wagon in the dark, but with a bit of exploration I found a vault running around. A bit of violence convinced it to open up and inside I found this slideshow showing how Raz learned about the top secret Psychonauts camp from a mysterious pamphlet, and his decision to escape his circus life and ride the world's smallest pony to Whispering Rock.

I found something similar to this in Oleander's head actually, so it seems these little comics are going to show up in every level. They're like the visual alternative to those audio diaries that have started showing up in everything these days, filling in some of the character's backstory. Definitely more interesting than a PSI card or an arrowhead.

Uh, actually you know what, I think I'm bored of my own head now. Time to leave. Right now.

Sasha realises that I'm not quite ready to face my inner demons just yet, as they'd likely eat me, so he pulls me out for some PSI-blast self-defence training in his own very tidy mind.

These little blokes in suits are called censors and they're the brain's natural defence against thoughts that aren't supposed to be there (wow, Inception like totally ripped this game off), and I'm here to shoot as many as I can with a borrowed PSI-blast skill. A direct hit (or a punch) makes them explode into health, ammo or... arrowheads weirdly, and it has Zelda style targeting, so aiming isn't an issue. 

Sadly though I have to kill something like a thousand of them to complete my training, and I just don't have the time. They just don't pop out of the pipe fast enough. Though there is a control lever nearby...


Well, things happened and I kinda broke Sasha's mind. Turns out that releasing a thousand censors at once can turn a carefully controlled art deco mind cube into a chaotic dreamworld formed out of past traumas.

Now I'm back to platforming as I need to get close enough to these pipes to shoot them closed. So I'm also back to 3D platformer issues, like not being able to exactly judge where I'm going to land, and it doesn't help that these assholes like to get onto the platform I'm jumping to and knock me back off.


Well, it turns out that blocking off all the pipes wasn't a great idea either, as now all the censors have fused under the pressure to become one giant mega-censor, and he's eager to stamp me out.

I have to admit that I'm not a huge fan of boss fights, especially the 'shoot them 4,000 times to drain their life bar' variety, but being able to run around the outside of a cube is awesome so I'll let them off this once. I do like a bit of verisimilitude in realistic games, but in a game literally about exploring the imagination, it makes so much sense to turn these levels into a playground of the impossible.

Okay I'm bored of imagination now. I'm going to beat up some rogue censors chasing me around, refill my mental ammo, then take this asshole down with a sustained volley of mind bullets before I lose any more lives.

Sasha gives me a little advice, then I jump back into the fray and get back to rolling backwards and tapping the shoot button.


Right, I'm back at the shop and this time I have a bit more cash on me. I still don't have enough to buy the Cobweb Duster (not even close), but I do have enough for the dowsing rod! This thing is designed to sniff out more valuable arrowheads, buried deeper underground. A few of these and I'll surely be rich!


Man, I don't know what Double Fine were thinking when they put this minigame in. I have to walk around with this rod out listening for beeps, with faster beeping meaning that I'm heading in the right direction. Then when I finally reach the point of maximum beeps I have to hammer the button quickly to draw the arrowhead up. Then I get to repeat this over and over and over again, because it turns out that deep arrowheads really aren't worth as much as you'd think. It's not even like this is encouraging exploration as I don't have to go anywhere special to dowse for arrowheads. Nope, all I do is walk around with a glowing stick listening to beeps.

Yeah I think this is a good place to stop playing.

Well after some careful consideration, I've come to the conclusion that Psychonauts is actually a really creative and entertaining game. Who could have guessed that the fans, critics, and everyone else who's ever played it would all be telling the truth? But holy shit it gets frustrating at times.

I continued playing it for a little bit longer after I was done taking screenshots, (well okay a lot longer, I've actually nearly finished the game), and there's been so many points where I was ready to just give up on it because it was seriously winding me up. It's like a smart, funny cartoon series that keeps accidentally punching you in the face every now and again in its eagerness to keep you interested.

"Whoa, an awesome looking underwater level in a bubble, with menacing gypsy curse hands stalking me the murky depths beyond! Oh wait, it's actually one of those 'keep moving or die' stages constantly interrupted by boss fights."
"Damn, it's a Godzilla stage... and I'm Godzilla, fighting tiny little tanks! Oh, actually fighting tanks is kinda rubbish."
"Holy shit, the dialogue in this Milkman Conspiracy stage is amazing. Or at least that's what I thought before hearing it repeated for three hours while searching a street full of identical houses for the next disguise item."
"Fuck this I'm going back to camp where it's safe to get some more PSI Cards. Oh crap I've hit a plot trigger and now it's too dark in camp to see anything and the place is full of wolves that can set me on fire from off screen with their mind."

It doesn't really matter in the end though what I think about the gameplay flaws, because the story, the characters, the art, the music... everything else about the game has brainwashed me into a state of unwavering reverence. The game's just too likeable.

Speaking of things that are likeable, Raz kinda sounds like a higher pitched Michael J. Fox, and there's something very Marty McFly about him I reckon (and not just in the way he hangs around with a white haired mad genius). He's endearingly confident without being arrogant, and you want to see him achieve his goal, beat the bully, help his weird fish faced friend, and get the girl. Sadly those three barely show up in these screenshots, but they're all over the game I assure you, along with a lot of other interesting characters. This may not be an adventure game, but the spirit of classic LucasArts comedy adventures is strong with this one. Also Raz keeps calling squirrels 'nutrats', which is worth a gold star by itself.

Want to discuss Psychonauts, my shocking opinions about it, my humble website, or anything else related, then feel free to leave a comment. You know, share your thoughts.


  1. It's funny because all the reasons people give as to why they love the game – "the story, the characters, the art" – is precisely why I dislike it.
    I find that type of art design thoroughly unappealing and all those "whimsical" characters very annoying and paradoxically mundane, since that's often what people seem to mean when they think "original".

    1. I don't think you're alone there, because a whole lot of people saw Raz's shiny goggles staring up at them from the game box, then went and bought one of the games sitting next to it instead.

      Personally I wasn't a fan of the art style at first either, but it has grown on me. It reminds me of Wind Waker in a way, in that I couldn't stand it in screenshots, but when I saw how expressive the characters were in motion I could help but like it. I'm still working my way up to liking Double Fine's newer game art though.

    2. Well I did try the demo at the time, and the gameplay didn't entrance me either. I never played the Wind Waker but I like how it looks.

      As for the latest Double Fine games, I'll never play them because of the art. Feels like I'm turning into a curmudgeon.

  2. Oh and still... nice article.


Semi-Random Game Box