I recently finished a playthrough of Double Fine’s Psychonauts as one of my many LawfulGeek Plays series. In doing so, I had to confront my memories of the game and see it without Nostalgia Goggles. Does it hold up?
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: Double Fine
Release Date: April 2005
Played: Full story
Platforms: PC, Linux, OSX, PS2, PS4, XBOX
Purchase At: Steam
Psychonauts takes place in a summer camp for psychics, think Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters but with a lake and cabins instead of a mansion that gets blown up every other month. Razputin is one such gifted youngster who sneaks into camp after escaping his home in the circus. The counselors decide to keep him around the other kids until his father comes to pick him up, but Raz has other plans. He wants to prove himself enough that they’ll agree to train him to be one of the elite psychic agents, a Psychonaut.
The world of Psychonauts is weird. There are psychics all over the world, and even the flora and fauna have mental powers. It’s not uncommon to see pyrokinetic wild dogs and telekinetic bears. While most characters are stereotypical, their portrayal is so over the top you can’t hold it against them, their writing is so quirky and sincere that makes you love them despite how bland some of them may be. The counselors are the biggest stereotypes, from the authoritarian military coach to the scheming German special agent and the party girl, but while that would be a terrible thing in any other world, in this one, where you explore their mindscapes, they are great, fitting in perfectly.
The mindscapes are the true star in Psychonauts and while some are rather boring, the majority are amazing, with fun situations and interesting gameplay elements. My favourites are Milla’s party zone and the one where you’re Godzilla. They each portray elements of their hosts’ personalities and mental state better than any exposition could ever do. Sasha Nein is a precise man, and so his mindscape is square box that opens up with secret compartments, showing you what he hides up there. Milla’s is all about the music, dance and the groove, and it reflects her upbeat and easygoing personality.
Psychonauts’ visuals have aged quite well to be honest, and that is due to the strange and slightly cartoony visual style. Shapes in the world of Psychonauts aren’t regular, everything is at odd angles, and that includes the characters. Their heads are huge, or tiny, or they don’t have necks. The unusual and surreal visual style helps the frankly dated graphics hold up quite nicely under current systems.
Music, aside from a few pieces—such as the Psychonauts anthem that plays when you get new powers—is largely forgettable. Having recently finished the game I remember sound effects and voice acting more clearly than I do music pieces. Having said so, the aforementioned anthem and Milla’s mindscape soundtrack are fantastic. Voice acting is a mixed bag, with the main actors having convincing voice acting but the secondary ones, including one of the villains, being too over either the top or not enough, their performances feeling insincere, as if the actors couldn’t wrap their heads around the weird world they were playing in. The Milkman and the Theatre Actress are a particularly low point, while the Spanish Artist in the Asylum is a pretty strong one.
You can divide Psychonauts’ gameplay into three major categories: platforming, psychic powers and grinding. Yes, in this game you’ll grind your butt off for Psytanium (unobtanium, thatllbehandium, Iwishwehadabitofthatium) Arrows, the go-to currency around the camp. Here’s a quick advice for game developers and designers: if I need to buy a key item from a store, don’t make the cost of it so prohibitive that I have to buy a dowsing rod to help me grind. Also, don’t make the dowsing rod a button-mashing tool! Button mashing is not good! It’s never good, not when it’s a keypad, not when it’s on a keyboard and not even when it’s with your mouse (looking at you Witcher 2 and Deponia Doomsday!). The fact that I had to record an extra 20-minute episode of my playthrough series just to show the grinding should tell you how bad that was!
In addition to this, you can collect cards and other knickknacks to raise your Psy Rank, which determines when you’re getting new powers. I liked these, just hated having to buy the cores from the store, felt unnecessary as it took me away from the exploration, the fun of finding the hidden secrets of the camp.
Finally in the dreamscapes you have Figments, which are transparent coloured 2D images around the environment that give you points, with every 100 giving you a new rank, and Baggage. You can find duffle bags, suitcases, steamer trunks and other such luggage around characters’ mindscapes and if you bring them their bag tag, they’ll go away and give you…nothing whatsoever. Yes, if you collect all of them in a mindscape stage, you’ll get artwork and other extra media, but there’s no real mechanical benefit for you, no ranks or anything similar, and so they feel worthless to me. At least the figments act like Super Mario Bros. coins, giving you a benefit the more you collect them.
Platforming and exploration are the major mechanics of Psychonauts, as you’ll spend most of the time jumping, gliding, climbing and balancing around the environment. I would love to say the platforming is solid but it’s not, it’s rather messy and it’s very easy to miss a jump because of how imprecise it is. It’s Crash Bandicoot bad (yes, I said it!), where you can miss even the simplest of jumps because of unbalanced acrobatics or fly into a pole you can swing from and fall straight through, because you didn’t hit it at the exact angle the game needed you to. The last stage of the game is particularly infuriating, as you need to do a lot of platforming and you can see all these issues clearly.
I would love to tell you that I found the powers fun and interesting, but not exactly. The powers are quite functional, don’t get me wrong and their controls and balance are tighter than the platforming will ever be, but they’re one-trick ponies. You can only ever use them for their demonstrated purpose. There aren’t stages where you need to use them cleverly or a puzzle where you need to think outside the box with them. Even the bosses, which require combined use of at least two powers, just use them in the same way always. The powers lack depth and even the upgrades you get at high enough Psy-ranks don’t address this issue—also those upgrades unlock at ludicrous ranks.
In the end, Psychonauts is not the glowing jewel I remember. It has many more rough edges and some of its design decisions are frankly infuriating. But its quirky world will always have a place in my heart, no matter how much I dislike the developer.
3/5 – Alright