For two years Voodoo Vince reigned supreme on Xbox as the system’s best action platformer. With its undeniable character, witty dialogue, creative level design and great graphics, Voodoo Vince seemed destined to hold that title on the current Xbox system forever. Then a game called Psychonauts sauntered in. With just as much character, equally witty dialogue and amazing graphics, all it needed to equal my beloved Vince was creative level design. And lo and behold, it blew Vince’s level design out of the water. Don’t worry Vince, I still love you. But Rasputin and his Psychonaut friends are now tops on the Xbox platformer list.
To understand and appreciate Psychonauts, it’s important to understand and appreciate where the game takes place. In other words: it’s important to know the twisted and fragile nature of the human mind. Psychonauts tells the tale of a summer camp for teenaged psychics, kids who can communicate with squirrels, levitate across canyons, set fire to telekinetic bears … standard summer camp fare. But just as Rasputin, the new kid on the block, begins to feel at home in this training camp for psychic secret agents, things start to go wrong, and it’s up to him to find out why his bunkmates are suddenly brainless.
To solve these mysteries, Rasputin (“Raz”) uses a card-like device to enter people’s minds and uncover the secrets that not only make those people tick, but also help him complete his missions. This lends itself to some of the most well-planned, creative and demented levels in any game this side of sobriety.
The earliest level takes place in a boisterous coach whose mind is filled with war memories. As a result, the challenges Raz encounters involve cannons, flak guns, missiles and just about every other war-themed obstacle imaginable. Later levels include bouncing through the mind of a woman obsessed with retro night clubs, spiraling through the twisted mind of a guard certain that everyone is out to get him, running through the organized Rubix-cube-like brain of a high-ranking Psychonaut, even ransacking an imaginary town inhabited by fish in a Godzilla-like rampage.
As varied as the levels are, so too are the powers Raz acquires to help him in his quest. Given the game’s summer camp theme, each power is represented by a merit badge and, like the skills learned to earn a merit badge, can be used at any time after learning it. These powers each play specific roles in the level in which they’re acquired, but they also enable players to achieve various optional objectives and solve otherwise-complex puzzles.
For example, telekinesis allows Raz to use his mind to toss certain objects (and even people) from one location to another. Early in the game, this becomes useful for moving objects, but telekinesis is required later to throw bombs at a boss, the only way to defeat it. Levitate, meanwhile, is a power enabling Raz to jump incredibly high and float down to the ground like a feather, while invisible lets Raz sneak by guards and unsuspecting squirrels imperceptibly. Shield and clairvoyance are two later powers, and they too help Raz defend himself and find his way. Amazingly, though, never do the powers feel gimmicky, which is quite an accomplishment given their novelty.
Psychic powers are used for more than just boss battles, though. Psychonauts is also packed with side objectives such as cleaning through mental cobwebs, freeing emotional baggage, cracking mental vaults and collecting neon-colored figments. Like grabbing coins in the classic Mario Bros. games and gathering beads in Voodoo Vince, collecting these things don’t necessarily affect the outcome, but it adds to the longevity of the game and provides a tangible “to-do” list for people consumed with completing every aspect.
If the levels and plot of Psychonauts seem inspired by a Tim Burton film, it should come as no surprise that the graphics and audio have a similar feel. Not one graphical iota of Psychonauts has a basis in reality, other than the fact that it includes a (mostly) realistic summer camp environment. Kids wear foil on their heads. They have afros larger than their body. They have eyes that blink at different times and bodies that are anything but symmetrical. As the screens included with this review show, stylized graphics are the name of the game with Psychonauts, and their style is both creative and well-executed.
In fact, “creative” and “well-executed” are the perfect terms to describe Psychonauts as a whole. Psychonauts is simply one of the most inspired, fun and ingenious games to appear on Xbox, if not any of the current console systems. Action platformers are often geared toward children, but much like the classic Warner Bros. cartoons of yore, Psychonauts is benign enough for kids but perhaps most appreciated by adults who can read between the lines, appreciate the nuances of each demented level and understand just how creative Tim Schafer’s mind truly is. Psychonauts is, quite simply, one game that should not be missed.
- Gameplay: 9.5
- Outstanding platforming and creative powers that never delve into pointless novelty.
- Graphics: 9
- Bright and boisterous, this game absolutely oozes style.
- Sound: 9
- Good voice acting and lots of random chatter, and the music’s good too.
- Replay: 8.7
- Lots of collection-oriented tasks and old-fashioned fun should keep you playing for a while.
- Overall: 9.4
- An incredibly creative and inspired game. Why Microsoft canned this one will be an eternal mystery.
— Jonas Allen