Psychonauts is a quirky, offbeat game set in a special summer camp for clairvoyant kids, in which a group of psychic children end up in a wacky adventure filled with brain-stealing hijinks, psychic secret agents, and a little romance on top of everything else. It's rooted in the sorts of 3D platforming sensibilities we've all come to know over the years. But there's a spin to the game--its psychic theme--which adds some cool puzzle-solving to the usual platform-jumping and swinging associated with the genre. Psychonauts also bears the unmistakable mark of designer Tim Schafer (known for classic adventure games Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, and Day of the Tentacle), thanks to a hilarious array of peculiar characters and a story that never fails to entertain. Psychonauts doesn't reinvent the platformer, but it still delivers an experience that feels wholly original in every aspect of its execution.
It took four years and two publishers, but Psychonauts is finally here, and no worse for the wear, it seems.
The heart and soul of Psychonauts is Razputin--or, Raz, for short--a big-headed, goggle-sporting psychic prodigy who sneaks his way into a mysterious summer camp that happens to be a training ground for the titular psychonauts, a group of psychic secret agents. Raz, it seems, has run away from his home in the circus and wants to become a psychonaut himself. Grudgingly, the counselors of the camp accept Raz into the group (albeit only for a day, until his father can come get him and take him home). However, it doesn't take long for strange things to start happening around camp. Raz, as well as other children, find that they're suffering from similar nightmares. Strange psychic interference seems to be popping up all over the place, and not long after that, the brains of the other campers start disappearing, leaving the campers as soulless, TV-obsessed husks. As the hero of the story, Raz is on a mission to solve these various mysteries and uncover the crazy conspiracy behind it all.
The basic plot itself reads like typical platformer fodder, but there's a lot more to Psychonauts' story than can be summed up in a single paragraph. This is largely due to the game's bizarre cast of characters, of which there are many. Raz himself is a highly likable hero; he's cute, heroic, funny, and also a little awkward at times. He fits the bill of the overenthusiastic yet not-quite-ready hero to the letter and it's hard not to feel sympathetic to his plight. But beyond Raz, there's a great supporting cast, with roughly two dozen other characters who play parts both large and small in the story. The counselors consist of Coach Oleander, an overly aggressive drill sergeant; Milla Vodello, a somewhat ditzy and party-happy go-go girl; Agent Nein, a pale-skinned, sweater-sporting scientist of indeterminate Eastern European origin; and Ford Cruller, a mysterious old man who seems to exist in about eight different places at once. These counselors join the crazy array of campers, as well as other strange people and creatures you'll encounter, to drive the storyline, and thanks to the game's excellent design, you'll have no shortage of opportunities to get attached to them.
Initially, Psychonauts feels like a very open-ended game, especially because upon your first venture into the camp area, you'll find yourself able to just wander around, chatting it up with other campers or even just listening in on their completely insane conversations. The camp and its many areas make up a hub world, where you can access lots of different things, including a camp store, where you can buy helpful items, an underground tram that cuts down on backtracking, and all sorts of little hidden areas that yield bonus items. However, the biggest boon for the camp world is all the little bouts of dialogue you can discover. Depending on what stage of the game you're at, the conversations change up quite a bit, meaning you're not often going to hear a lot of repeats. This is great, especially because there's just so much of the dialogue. In some instances, you can literally just stand next to a pair of characters while they converse for about five minutes or longer and never hear the same line twice. And it's almost always really funny stuff.
However, the most interesting aspects of Psychonauts' characters don't come from their real-world conversations, but rather from their internal monologue. As Psychonauts revolves around a bunch of psychics, the bulk of your time will be spent traversing the perils of people's minds. This is where Psychonauts truly shines. You'll be able to enter the minds of more than a dozen different characters in the game, and each mind serves as one of its main levels. Each level is completely unique. For instance, when you enter the head of Coach Oleander, you'll find a war-torn landscape filled with constant explosions, plants made out of ammunition, and, for reasons not immediately apparent, lots and lots of meat. In another example, you enter the mind of a crazed security guard named Boyd Cooper, who is utterly obsessed with nonsensical conspiracies and someone called "The Milkman." His mental landscape looks like a 1950s-era suburban neighborhood that's been picked up by a pair of hands, twisted into a topsy-turvy fun house, and occupied exclusively by shadowy agents in trench coats who try to convince you that they're just simple street workers, or hedge trimmers, or grieving widows, despite their obviously ulterior motives. It's all totally weird, but also undeniably unique.
No two minds are exactly alike in Psychonauts, both aesthetically and in terms of gameplay. Granted, you will be spending at least some of your time in each level engaging in the usual platforming shenanigans, like jumping and double-jumping over platforms, swinging from poles, walking tightropes, and so on. When the game is in full-on platformer mode, it plays very well. The controls are tight, the camera is rarely ever a problem, and it's generally pretty easy to get Raz around without screwing up, at least on the Xbox. The PC version controls well enough too, provided of course you have a good USB controller, as the keyboard and mouse controls just don't feel right for this type of game (and even with a USB controller, camera control can be a bit of a pain). If there's any one criticism to be mounted here across both platforms, it's that the game is rarely ever that difficult, save for a few specific parts that are actually quite tough. You can't call the game a total breeze, either, but most experienced players shouldn't have any problems mastering the basic play mechanics pretty quickly.
The inside of a person's mind can be a pretty crazy place.
Even though the game isn't particularly hard, at least it's not repetitive. The goals and challenges of each level are totally exclusive. In one level, you'll find yourself playing a bizarre board game against a mental projection of Napoleon Bonaparte. You'll shrink down to "fun size" to recruit new pieces to your cause, and then you'll return to your normal size so that you can move them around. In another level, you're fighting neon-tinted luchadores and a big, hulking bull in what looks like a velvet painting of a congested Spanish city. It's with this kind of variety that Psychonauts manages to achieve its high level of quality.