Psychonauts - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
Psychonauts was originally released in 2005 to some critical acclaim but muted commercial success, completely passing me by. Over the next decade, however, the game seems to have built up a dedicated following, often appearing on listicles for ‘underappreciated games’ all over the internet. As Shadow of the Colossus would often appear in those same compilations — and there was a game which I had adored on PS2 — I began to give a bit more thought to actually tracking this game downand seeing what the fuss was all about. With Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin released last year (a VR spinoff), and a full sequel pencilled in for 2019, I decided to have a look back at the title which started it all.
One Minute In
Oh, mercy. I’d forgotten how terrible a publisher’s logo could be in ye olden days, and Budcat Creations might have the worst I can remember: a horribly, horribly animated cat vomiting up a controller. Not the best promise of quality, but if you take into account that Naughty Dog had a most obnoxious, sunglasses-wearing pooch in their logo when the first Crash Bandicoot games came out, maybe we can look past this.
Twenty Minutes In
Our protagonist is one Rasputin ‘Raz’ Aquato, a diminutive, goggles-wearing teenager; visually a cereal box mascot designed by Laika Studios. Caught sneaking into a summer camp for training psychic abilities in children, Raz delivers an impassioned speech about his desire to master the psychic arts. It’s enough to convince the camp leaders to allow him to stay and enrol in basic training (or at least until his dad can come and collect him).
I love this early summer camp setting, with bunk beds, campfires, treehouses and nature to explore. Each student at the camp has their own personality, and they are brought to life by a script that is genuinely entertaining. The character interactions have already taken me in, and I’m impressed by the voice cast (who are clearly having a great time). So many other platform games from that era, and still to this day, rest on their laurels with grunts and giggles as text boxes scroll above a character’s head for dialogue (Yooka-Laylee being the most recent and least favourite example of how annoying this can be). To be able to sit back and learn more about the world instead of fumbling to skip the dialogue is an unexpected treat.
It’s a pretty big world, the Psychonauts map. Load screens aren’t terrible as you scamper from area to area around the campsite and its grounds, and it’s been fun exploring for arrowheads and tussling with floating, psychic bears. Raz is a bit clumsy to control, with his sizable turning circle and variable stopping distance when lurching to a halt. The double jump move is cute, with a mentally projected ball appearing beneath your feet to give you something to spring off. It’s a new way to visualise the double jump in a game, fits perfectly with the quirky designs, and best of all comes with a satisfying bwomp noise each time you make it appear.
Forty Minutes in
The main thing I’ve taken away from Psychonauts so far is this: you can’t predict what is going to happen next. Each level outside of the campsite takes place inside a character’s mind — a small door latches to their forehead and surreally opens a portal for you to enter. From there, your job is to progress through their mental labyrinths and overcome whatever training exercise they have prepared for you and the other campers. As a result, each world is unique and individual, with different elements of level design and powers to try out - psychic bullets, invisibility, floating, and setting things on fire (all with your mind, of course).
This game has collectibles everywhere; fragments of memories, emotional baggage (literal suitcases to be reunited with their tags), and mental cobwebs are just some of the items that litter the world. These naming conventions are nice, representative of you clearing out whoever’s mind you’re currently exploring, while also learning more about them: Coach Oleander, with his military background, offers a training level filled with snippets of wartime iconography as scattered memories to be collected; translucent clip-arts of planes, bombs and tanks. The nice idea wears thin after a few minutes in each world — once I’d got the gist of what the theme was and the memories begin to repeat, they’re just in the way and obscuring my path.
Further scavenger hunts can unearth more specific items, but none of them seem particularly useful. You can exchange arrowheads at the camp store for new gadgets, but most of them simply don’t seem necessary to progress in the game and are more for completionists (why do I want to grind away just to change the colour of my psychic projections? I don’t. I really don’t.). The hitbox for gathering items is so frustratingly small I’ve found myself jumping through suspended objects time and time again to find the correct angle to pick it up. The same goes for health boosts and ammunition; they hop around in random, maddening patterns, forcing you to work harder to pick up your reward for defeating an enemy.
Two Hours In
The first few levels of training and getting to grips with the odd concepts at play here are over, and immediately the game gets a lot more unhinged. Raz’s friend Lili has been kidnapped by an oversized lungfish (obviously), so after a short boss fight with the monster we can enter the fish’s mind to find out where Lili has been taken. What happens next is ‘Lungfishopolis’, a scenario which casts you as a Godzilla-sized monster, destroying a tiny city of fish citizens as they run screaming, with interspersed FMV cutscenes of local newsreaders updating the populace on your path of destruction. I found the Rampage-styled gameplay sluggish and repetitive, but the mission is just about redeemed by the script as tiny lungfish react to your actions (“He’s impervious to bullets… and love!”).
Five Hours In
The far and away winner of this game so far is the level ‘The Milkman Conspiracy’. Diving into the mind of a paranoid postman, this level is a skewed 1950s middle-America suburbia, with a car in every garage and a trenchcoated G-Man at every turn. I found this some of the most entertaining dialogue in the entire game, as these secret agents’ disguises stretch as far as a prop and some hilariously feeble, deadpan dialogue meant to convince you of their belonging in each area: including the plumber (“Hello, sewer worker. I think we met at the union meeting.”), the road worker (“Our backs are killing us”), and the grieving widow (“I wish my loved one had remembered to indicate me as his beneficiary in his 401k plan.”).
The world spins out in front of you with little deference to gravity or normality; the familiar cul-de-sacs corkscrew into the distance and their residents deliver their bonkers non sequiturs to anyone who will listen — think Inception as directed by David Lynch. My favourite part about this section is that there’s little platforming, no real action elements — just simple disguise swapping to get you through the level, allowing you to just enjoy the dialogue and topsy-turvy world of a troubled mind.
Eight Hours In
I hate to admit it, but the game drops off a lot after ‘The Milkman Conspiracy’. What follows are several further levels as you enter the minds of asylum inmates, looking to help them overcome their personal demons and in return be granted access to the next area. Each level is distinct, but no fun to play. They’re each fixed on a single high concept — witnessing a play being acted out, in order to scale higher in the theatre when the props are moved to different positions; shrinking to a miniature size to recruit and then command troops around a medieval French board game; a black-light Mexican theme of matadors and luchadores, whilst a rampaging bull threatens to push you back to the previous checkpoint if you land in his linear path. Having written that last passage, it sounds like a lot of fun. Just not to play. I found these levels dull and more often than not frustrating, as endless enemies and precisely timed jumps — the two things Psychonauts can’t let the player handle comfortably — dominate proceedings.
Twelve Hours In
The last couple of segments have you ascending the derelict asylum to reach the roof, where your friends’ brains are being held captive. The vertical levelling is well put together, and you’re marched past more warped corridors and cracked staircases as you go, but when Raz can never decide if he wants to grip onto a platform edge or not, you’ll be replaying and re-climbing the same stretch of level over and over again without a real checkpoint in sight.
The trouble with Psychonauts is that they crammed so much stuff in without looking back at what worked and what didn’t along the way. Halfway through the game I had accrued a number of items and powers which could be swapped in and out of gameplay at any time as situations presented them. Any three special moves can be mapped to shoulder buttons at a time, but to swap them in and out means pausing the game, going to a menu, selecting the ability you want to activate, and returning to the gameplay. It kills your buzz, and I couldn’t be bothered to swap out these powers by the end, just attacking enemies with melee or avoiding them entirely if I didn’t have an offensive capability already at hand. Ratchet & Clank is the example to follow here: those games present you with a huge arsenal, and you can select them in a split-second by pulling up a weapon-wheel (which only slows down time, not stops it entirely). Just as frustrating is the item selection menu, which jumbles the placement of each artefact in the selectable menu as you swap them in and out. This makes a quick selection of often used items impossible, as each time I had to take in the whole screen to identify my choice. And at the end of all that, it doesn’t feel rewarding to use these things.
The overall design, concept, script, and voicework are great, and make Psychonauts a game like no other platformer I can think of. At the end of my playthrough I looked up the scriptwriters and it turned out to be Tim Schafer (writer of Day of the Tentacle, the Monkey Island series) and Erik Wolpaw (who went on to write both Portal games, among others) — fans of those titles should at the very least play the first couple hours of Psychonauts for more of their comedic writing.
I found this a frustrating experience to play. Psychonauts has a confident tone and thoughtful subject matter in Raz’s mission to help each person unpack their mental blockages. For each area that Psychonauts succeeds, there are two more that reduce the game to a dreary chore. The jumping and climbing controls are awkward and temperamental, and as a fundamental part of the game, it sours the whole experience. There are things that Psychonauts does better than any game like it, but the core mechanics are fundamentally broken to the point that the fun wears off after a couple of hours.
While I have every hope that the forthcoming Psychonauts 2 will be an improvement in every way, I can only recommend this original Psychonauts with the following caveat: stop playing after the initial excitement vanishes, before you’re left with a ropey, unresponsive platformer.