Psychonauts is a classic 3D platformer where you play as Rasputin (AKA Raz), a boy who runs away from the circus to go to a psychic summer camp, run by international secret agents with psychic powers. But all is not well, as an evil dentist is stealing the brains of the campers to put into psychic death tanks, in a bid to take over the world.
Yes, it is one of *those* kinds of games.
Psychonauts is, at its heart, a comedy; this is a game full of witty dialogue, silly-looking characters, an absurd but still somehow logical plot, and silly challenges. The core of the game is diving into the minds of various characters and helping them work out their internal mental issues. Given that most of the characters you do this with are insane, this leads to a wide variety of pretty absurd levels, from a level where you play as a giant monster in a city full of lungfish, to a twisted conspiracy theorist level where secret agents wear paper-thin disguises while conspiring against the girl scouts, to a level where a primma donna’s ego refuses to perform on the internal psychic stage due to a critic complaining about their performance. This is not, in other words, a game that takes itself very seriously, but in so doing, the player is able to enjoy a wide variety of unusual and very silly challenges that make good use of the game’s mechanics.
As a 3D platformer, this is a game where you can run, jump, double-jump, and use the “levitation” power to jump much higher and float down at a slower speed. As Raz is an acrobat, you can also can swing around on bars, climb selected walls (covered with netting or similar things), and climb some objects. There are also some “on-rails” segments where you jump on a railing or similar thing and coast down along it, sometimes jumping between parallel rails or across gaps in the track.
As far as 3D platformers go, these mechanics are largely bog standard, and the game doesn’t really do anything particularly clever with them; the platforming is mostly competent, with a few odd hiccups here and there, but the game is never really all that clever with its platforming. There are a few moments where you have to make some overly precise jumps, but mostly the game errs more on the easier side of things, and with the levitation power, it is at times possible to “cleverly” skip some platforming and do it much more easily than it seems like you were supposed to, making me suspect that some levels weren’t designed with the power (which you get very early in the game) in mind.
There is combat in the game, and indeed, there is a pretty wide variety of enemies – a shocking variety, in fact, considering that most games like this have a very limited variety of enemies, and that the game itself is not all that long. The enemies, however, are mostly very easy, and it is mostly a matter of figuring out what you’re supposed to do the first time, then applying it. To the game’s credit, the game knows its combat is easy, and doesn’t actually swarm the players with pointless enemies; indeed, the game is pretty sparse on its enemies on the whole.
This is a good thing, because the game believes in giving you powerful psychic powers, and unlike most games, which give you super awesome powers that are seldom useful, these powers are pretty much always useful in situations where you’d expect them to be. The invisibility power turns you invisible, and enemies genuinely cannot see you; the shield power will block any attack as long as it is up. You can kill most enemies with the ranged shot attack, set them on fire with pyrokinesis (the ability to set things on fire with your mind), or pick them up and throw them with telekinesis, and when you can’t, it is usually clear why. Only the bosses really restrict your attacks on them by and large, but even then, your shield and invisibility powers still work just fine.
The game expects you to use these powers to solve various (mostly simple) puzzles, and while they aren’t really complicated (mostly using 1-2 powers to solve), they actually feel kind of nice, as while they’re pretty trivial, it makes it feel like your powers are actually meaningful.
But where the powers really shine is being used for silly things. Out in the real world, wandering around the camp and the nearby obligatory abandoned insane asylum, you can talk to your fellow campers, spy on them with invisibility, try to set them on fire with your mind, pick them up with telekinesis, and show them various items, all to get various silly reactions out of them. The location and dialogue of the NPCs changes between missions, and exploring around the camp has you stumble upon various little encounters and conversations which give the game the opportunity to characterize your fellow campers, as well as the people in charge of the camp, all of which are very silly. While most of the characters are deliberate 2D stereotypes, they’re gloriously hammy and spend a great deal of time chewing on the scenery.
Best of all, later on in the game, you gain the clairvoyance power, allowing you to see through the eyes of other characters and see how they perceive Raz himself – and they all see Raz as a 2D stereotype himself, in the way they see themselves as relating to him. While this power is actually almost never useful outside of the initial area you gain it in, it is probably the funniest power, and the fact that the game developers bothered to give almost everything in the game a unique reaction to Raz using it is quite amusing, and really speaks to their priorities.
All of this helps to reinforce the humorous tone of the game, and is general high level of silliness, and the game does all this quite effectively. Indeed, even the game’s visuals help to reinforce this – the characters are all very exaggerated and odd-looking in their features, with the levels – both the camp itself and the dream landscapes – being similarly exaggerated. While the game is deliberately ugly, it is a funny kind of ugly, and it has aged quite well.
Released all the way back in 2005, the game is very much a product of its time visually. While the game is capable of displaying at a modern resolution, the game was clearly not designed for it; the text looks a bit strange at 1080p, and the videos, all pre-rendered, are clearly at a low resolution and are noticeably grainy. This is a game with excellent style, but the actual graphical fidelity is not exactly amazing.
This game’s greatest weakness is likely the core gameplay itself. While the game is enormously creative, and gives the player an excellent variety of landscapes to explore, the actual levels are at times hit and miss. Of the first four levels you explore, three of them are the least-inspired and interesting levels in the game. Likewise, the very final level of the game, the Meat Circus, is a level almost entirely focused on platforming and combat (and, of all things, an escort mission – second only to trailing missions in the list of “things players groan at”). While its aesthetic is undoubtedly bizarre and perhaps a bit disturbing (though the low resolution graphics make it hard to really find it too gross), the actual gameplay in that part isn’t very clever at all – and indeed, this is a problem throughout the game, as the levels where there isn’t any sort of clever twist tend to be the weakest. The levels where the game is at its weirdest – such as the previously mentioned conspiracy theorist level – is where the game shines, and noticeably, that level has absolutely no combat whatsoever apart from the final boss, and indeed, very little platforming, instead relying on the player disguising themselves in paper-thin disguises to blend in with the secret agents (wearing similarly paper-thin disguises, in a Flock of Wolves kind of way).
The other weakness is that one type of collectible – the figments you find in the dream levels, the game’s equivalent of Mario’s coins or Donkey Kong’s bananas – are at times pretty annoying to collect. Mostly they’re pretty simple, but a few are hidden in easy-to-overlook places, while others move around constantly, making them a bit tedious to collect. The fourth level of the game is notable for containing a racing portion with a large number of these collectibles, in an environment where it is very difficult to see them, making them extremely annoying to find, even though mechanically, none of them are at all hard to collect.
However, the game manages to avoid aggravating the player by keeping itself short. All in all, the game only took me 18 hours to 100%, and if you don’t care about collecting all the various little collectibles, it goes by even faster. The levels are pretty short, and the game manages to keep the comedy flowing by frequent interactions with various other characters. Even the in-game hints – accessible by waving a piece of bacon by Raz’s ear – are delivered in a humorous fashion, and help keep the player from getting stuck.
If you are looking for some kind of finely-tuned mechanical masterpiece, this game is not going to make you happy. If, however, you enjoy comedic games, witty dialogue, and silly situations, this is one of the finest examples of such.