I’ve just finished Psychonauts, so I can have my life back. It’s a surprisingly good third-person platform/shooter/RPG from for the X-Box and PC, from some of the minds of people who made Full Throttle and Grim Fandango.
Taken at it’s simplest level, it’s a jolly 3D romp through twisted landscapes in the style of American McGee’s Alice, but it’s a particularly well-balanced one: a wide variety of “psychic powers” – levitation, psychic blast, invisibility, psychokinesis, and pyrokinesis, to name a few – ensure that there are always a variety of ways to solve any given puzzle (climb the ropes, or bounce up using levitation, or float down from elsewhere on the map, or find another way to get the object you need…). Sadly, it suffers in many of the ways that console games – and many modern games – do in that the scope for adventuring is still somewhat limited: there are no puzzles, for example, based on persuasion of the NPCs, or on solving mazes, or on finding unusual uses for objects or combining objects. What puzzles exist are typically of the “find item”, “take key to door”, “deduce riddle” and “spot pattern” varieties.
But on another level, the game takes a deep (and, sometimes, dark) look into the human psyche, in a way that’s sometimes as funny as the political mentalities of Beneath A Steel Sky, and sometimes as chilling and disturbing as Eternal Darkness. You play a young psy-cadet at a psychonaut training summer camp (the psychonauts, it is barely explained, are mentalist crimefighters). At the start of the game you find yourself running around the real world, but as the game goes on you begin to spend an increasing amount of time in the “mental realm” (inside people’s heads), and that’s where it starts to become a little more clever.
Early in the game, during an exploration of your characters’ own repressed memories, you encounter ‘interference’ from another psychic, and there’s an interesting intermingling of character presences which isn’t fully explained until far later on, resulting in strange, dreamlike, fractured scenes. Later, you find yourself inside the head of a conspiracy theorist who’s driven himself mad with his incessant paranoia: in his mind, running through his subconscious, you find yourself surrounded by objects that seem to be watching or photographing you, and agents in disguise track your every move. In another mental realm – the mindsphere of a manic-depressive actress, you witness her life re-enacted on a stage, where the changing lighting reflects the mood swings through which the pictures of her history are repeated. In one scene, turning the lights to the “happy” side reveals the freedom the young actress felt at being able to leave home and do her own thing: turning the lights to the “depressed” side shows the suicide of her mother, throwing herself from a tall building… and later, as you’re clambering through her memories and fears, if you fall from a particularly treacherous ledge – if your volume is high enough – you hear her “depressed” voice mutter, “Just like mother.”
It’s sweet, and funny, and dark, and it plays like a dog on all but the beefiest of PCs. But it’s a wonderful little jaunt and a fun little adventure, despite it’s somewhat linear storyline and slightly repetitive puzzles. It’s got reasonable replay value, too, as there’s always the option to go back and “do things better”, although this doesn’t help relieve the game of it’s image as just another console platform game (which are infamous for trying to increase gametime by encouraging the player to redo things “for a better score”).