Friday, September 16, 2011

Psychonauts (Xbox/PS2)

Tim Schafer is an underrated genius.

I know, I know. "Genius" is a big word. A word weighty enough to crush a cruise-liner and as misused, abused, altogether overused as an NES zappergun. However, if one were to hit pause and look at the catalog of games that have spilled from his mind and fingertips; it's truly an awesome sight. Writing, programming and/or designing such amazing games as The Monkey Island games, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, Brütal Legend, and more. The world of adventure games owes a huge debt to him and the work he pulled off at LucasArts as well as his own Double Fine Productions.
Official Seal of Awesomeness

Sadly, adventure games are more or less a dead genre nowadays. They turned Leisure Suit Larry into a goofy, clunky, unfunny platformer (Box Office Bust,) King Graham is nowhere to be found (Though I read that Telltale Games might reboot Kings Quest) and games like Schafer's own Full Throttle and Grim Fandango should have done way better than they did financially. These are hilarious, well-written, well-designed games. So guys and gals who love a funny, quirky script and an emphasis on plot and puzzles over "bang-bang, shoot 'em ups" jump all over these games when they can find them. Or at least, they should. That's where Psychonauts comes in.

While not an adventure game according to the strictest definitions, Majesco's 2005 game Psychonauts is an action/adventure platformer that (not unlike most of the games I review here,) deserved to sell far more copies than it did. In Psychonauts, the player controls Raz, a gifted young boy training to be a Psychonaut at a psychic summer camp. Training to be a super-secret, ultra-awesome psychic agent. The camp is run by a Patton-esque general gone mad coach Oleander, groovy disco chick Milla Vodello, and cold hard scientist Sasha Nein. Raz makes friends with various other Psychodets all training at the camp and also gets training from Ford Cruller, a batty old man who walks around in various disguises throughout the game and teaches Raz his various psychic abilities.

Ford Cruller droppin' pure gaming science on you

The first thing that you'll notice about Psychonauts are the tremendous and lengthy cutscenes. Those who don't dig humorous banter, plot-crucial cinematics, and a little bit of character development need not apply. For everyone else, this game is a breath of fresh air. In some games, the cinematics take you out of the action - but not in Psychnonauts. It's like watching a really funny Saturday morning cartoon (remember, the ones that used to actually make you laugh?) and then being able to control the action at crucial times. It's not unlike the cinematic nature of Rockstar games such as Bully, The Warriors, or Red Dead Redemption if they were full of quirky, acid-trip-esque characters and hilarious back-and-forth banter.

No Psychonaut ever won a war by dying for his psychic abilities...

Controlling Raz is a piece of cake. Anyone who has played a modern 3d platformer should get the hang of the controls really quickly. Once you start progressing through the game and developing your Psychic abilities, walking around and completing tasks gets easier with things such as the levitation ball to help Raz reach otherwise tough spots. The only real downside with the controls is getting used to mapping out your psychic abilities to the controller (something that was easier to manage on the PC version.) That being said, there are many other games that require you to pick-n-choose which actions you want hot-keyed to your button layout so this should also not be too challenging for folks who are used to this sort of control scheme.

As far as difficulty is concerned, I would rank this game as easy. Like nearly all platform games, there are a couple of spots where you'll get frustrated for dying over a "stupid mistake." Should have jumped sooner, should have jumped later, etc. The game is also packed full of fun if you are the kind of cat who likes to chase down things like "psychic baggage" and other little collectables to raise your psychic ranking. The gameplay is not unlike Conker's Bad Fur Day, which also has a similar difficulty - However, Psychonauts seems to control a little smoother which helps to limit the amount of annoying pitfalls.

The graphics are colorful and the characters designs are definitely original. The various characters in Psychonauts from the camp counselors all the way to the psychodets look like they would fit in nicely in one of those animated Tim Burton flicks ala "Nightmare Before Christmas" or "Corpse Bride." Everyone's got wacky sharp angles and everything from level design to character sprites feels skewed in the most deliberate and wonderful way. As mentioned before, it feels like a wacky version of the best Saturday morning cartoons from your childhood. While the graphics may not have pushed the upper limits of the Xbox or Playstation 2's capabilities, they are more than appropriate for a game as sideways and crazy as this one.
The way with the giant lava pit. That's the ticket!

As well as crisp and game-appropriate graphics, the music is awesome and the voice acting is one of the main highlights of the game. Throughout most of the early stretch of the game, you'll be controlling Raz around the camp - accompanied by some fun, droopy country-esque music with wailing harmonicas and drunken sounding guitar licks. The score shifts into Danny Elfman territory whenever Raz slips into one of the psychic realms. Horns, orchestral stings, etc.

The adventure game genre is more or less a thing of the past. However, once in a while games like Psychonauts will come along that may have the physics of a platform game, but have the humor, heart, and soul of a true adventure game. This game was woefully ignored by the public, so here's your chance to right that mistake! At the time of this article, Lukie Games has a copy for the Xbox right NOW! It's a wonderful game for anyone who likes a fast, funny adventure-style platformer. I also recommend it to anyone who loves games like Conker's Bad Fur Day - it's a very similar game with a slightly more family-friendly shine to it.