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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A SHORT WHILE LATER.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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...
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.
A FEW SIDES OF THE CUBE LATER.
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.
Sasha gives me a little advice, then I jump back into the fray and get back to rolling backwards and tapping the shoot button.
A DOZEN DEEP ARROWHEADS LATER.
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.
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