Tag: xbox

Psychonauts

This post is in its legacy format, awaiting an editorial update pass.

Overview:
In this action platformer you play as Raz, a precocious preteen psychic at a mentalist secret agent summer camp.  You explore the camp and the minds of its denizens using Raz’s acrobatic skills and psychic powers, uncovering a nefarious plot by one of the instructors to harvest the young psychics’ brains for his own purposes.  Levels are themed according to the mental condition of the mind you are entering, giving each a highly unique feel.  Gameplay generally follows the platforming/shooting mechanics of the Ratchet & Clank games, but a few clever puzzle-solving applications of the psychic power set feel original.
 
What I liked:
It can’t be overstated how much the clever writing and endearing characterization (a common facet of Tim Schafer’s games) add to the experience of playing.  Raz is a delightful protagonist, so earnest and enthusiastic amongst his patronizing teachers and jaded campers that neither the other characters nor the player can help but be infected with his spirit.  Raz manages the difficult task of balancing looking cool and remaining approachable, which so few games seem to pull off.  Despite a large supporting cast (including 20 fellow campers AND many imagined figments inside the mind-levels), each and every character is individually realized and memorable.
 
The art style is distinctive and interesting, evoking Nightmare Before Christmas without feeling overly derivative.  Each mind-level visited has its own look and feel, many of which are nothing short of inspired.  The artist’s mind, done over in a black velvet style, is simply gorgeous, and the hex-based war game terrain of the strategist’s mind is delightful.  Facial animations throughout tie the witty writing to the characters, and the voice acting is universally spot-on.
 
What I’d have done differently:
One area where I felt the game missed an opportunity was the campgrounds in the real world.  The odd terrain, psychic animals, and platforming challenges combined to make the camp seem in many ways just as odd and surreal as some of the mindscapes you visit.  In order to emphasize the strangeness of the minds you visit, I’d have tried to present the camp in a slightly more realistic, believable fashion and left the strangeness to the mind-levels.  In particular, I would have limited use of most or all of the psychic powers Raz collects to the mind-levels, making the player just a normal kid on the outside but a powerful force to be reckoned with on the astral plane.  This would require a re-drawing of the laws of psychic in the game world and perhaps change the nature of the Psychonauts’ work, but the payoff would be a sense of danger and vulnerability in the real world (to be capitalized upon by more active opposition) while offering a thrill of power upon entering a new mind and getting all Raz’s cool powers back.
 
Closing:
Psychonauts was without question my pick for best game of 2005 and Tim Schafer deserves the accolades he has received from the press and game developers since.  That the game did not sell well may simply be a product of a game-playing public which is not interested in characters and story; unfortunate, but ultimately out of the designer’s hands.  That said, this is an art piece which elevates the medium, and regardless of commercial return that IS valuable.
 
Would I recommend it?: You mean you haven’t bought it yet?