A Trip Down Literal Memory Lane
Psychonauts is a game that’s always been labelled as a cult classic, known for being way ahead of its time and supposedly being very slept on. 16 years after its initial release, a sequel is finally out, and a lot of attention is put on this game made for the PS2 era. So, when I went back to finally finish this “hidden gem” (after multiple false starts), I had mixed feelings.
What Psychonauts excels in without a doubt is its style. Even for a budget-title, its artistic direction has let Double Fine’s first effort age like a fine wine. Tim Burton-esque visual and character designs stand out, and has become a staple for the team ever since this release. The variety in aesthetics and locations when you jump into the minds of others makes it unique and pleasing to the eye. It is the use of colour that truly glues everything together, mixing dark tones in some levels to create such an atmosphere that most games only dream to have.
The story is another thing that stands out, and sets the foundation for the style of humour and writing Double Fine would employ in the future. It’s your typical Saturday morning cartoon affair, almost feeling like a pilot for something you’d see on Nickelodeon. Characters are memorable and have flaws: safes you find provide dark backstory, showing how people that seem fine on the outside carry a lot of baggage. If you’ve seen that hidden room for Milla, you probably know what I’m talking about. The 12+ rating it got at the time meant it could deal with darker topics and dish out more adult jokes while still appealing to kids. To top it off, Raz is a really entertaining character to play as for how he carries himself - and for the odd time he takes a crack at the 4th wall.
The gameplay is not all there. If I could describe it in one word, it’s clunky.
Here’s where those mixed thoughts come in: the gameplay is not all there. If I could describe it in one word, it’s clunky. Collision detection is inconsistent, movement is either way too slow or way too fast, and the combat is extremely mediocre. Platforming is fine in the very open hub world levels, but when it comes down to precise functions, the level design works against you. Once you receive this levitation powerup, you can roll around, balancing on top of this psychic ball. It’s a trade-off between speed and lack of control, and what’s worse is how game-breaking it can be. Instead of climbing up this long ladder after a series of tricky jumps, I can just jump on this rock at a funny angle to shoot up 50 feet in the air - so what’s the point?
Another frustration is within the gameplay design and its heavy reliance on puzzles. The team at Double Fine worked on Lucasarts adventure games before this, and those were infamous for puzzles that would have you opening a guide within the first five minutes. At many points, the same thing happens here; the Milkman level is an example of this, a great concept bogged down by confusing segments.
While the gameplay really is nothing to write home about, the rest of Psychonauts does show why it has the status of an underappreciated gem. If you’re fine with some questionable 3D-platforming and using a guide (especially in the latter-half of the game), give it a go and let your imagination take the wheel.