Psychonauts Review – PlayStation Classics Corner
PlayStation Classics Corner is a new series on PSLS dedicated to modern reviews of PlayStation Classics released on PSN.
“Well, here I am. Up in the tower of an abandoned insane asylum. Wearing a straight jacket… talking to myself.”
About the game:
Psychonauts is a 2005 platformer game from Double Fine. It released on Xbox, PS2 and PC at the time but the PS2 port was handled by Budcat Creations. Psychonauts was released as a PS2 Classic on August 28th, 2012 for $10 and only works on the PS3 right now.
Psychonauts begins with the protagonist, Razputin Aquato (usually called Raz), a circus acrobat, sneaking into Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp and being caught by the counselors, Sasha, Milla and Coach Oleander. Young attendees of Whispering Rock are all in training to potentially become Psychonauts, essentially secret agents with psychic powers. Raz is allowed to attend, but only for a few brief days before his psychic-hating father returns to pick him up. Raz is determined to become a Psychonaut in only a few days, but his standard summer camp visit makes a turn for the strange when an eccentric villain starts stealing the other childrens’ brains to power psychic death-tanks.
Characters in Psychonauts are designed by the artist Scott Campbell, and they look very distinct and are full of personality; Double Fine put a wild art style over realism, and it paid off handsomely. Luckily, the creativity in Psychonauts isn’t limited to just character designs, as Psychonauts boasts spectacular writing, level design and gameplay as well. The writing in particular is some of the best I’ve ever experienced in any game, with Tim Schafer and Erik Wolpaw writing some of their funniest and most imaginative work ever. Voice acting in Psychonauts is a treat, with the voices fitting these imaginative character designs like a glove. Like the voice acting, the music, composed by Peter McConnell, fits the game perfectly, setting the tone and the mood well.
As a psychic cadet, Raz can perform psychic abilities like levitation (double-jump, glide and move quickly on a psychically-projected ball), pyrokinesis, telekinesis and marksmanship (firing blasts of mental energy, the main projectile attack in the game). However, he can only perform his psychic abilities when he collects the merit badge necessary, usually near the start of a level. Players can also improve their psychic abilities by increasing their Psi Rank, which improves upon the collection or use of certain items, like Psi Cards and figments. Arrowheads are used as currency in the game, but the game’s “market” isn’t exactly expansive; only one level requires the use of any notable number of arrowheads and the list of items one can purchase with them is pretty slim. The controls feel tight and fluid and the platforming is fantastic, since Raz has so much experience in the circus and can perform flips, swing from a trapeze and climb up poles like a champ. Unfortunately, the camera can be a bit unwieldy—especially in small spaces—and can cause quite a few platforming deaths by the end of the player’s journey, along with maybe half an hour or so of repeated platforming segments due to mistakes. It isn’t an issue often, but when it does become a problem it’s quite the annoyance.
There are two main hubs in the game: the summer camp, which is divided into sections like the Kids’ Cabins and the Main Campgrounds, and the abandoned insane asylum. Levels take place inside the minds of certain characters, and are stunningly creative. They include a PTSD-inflicted war hero’s mental battleground, a disturbed, bipolar former actress’ play-themed retelling of her tragic life while an excessively harsh and sadistic critic hurls criticisms and a mysterious phantom murders the annoying performers from the balcony, and a paranoid schizophrenic security guard’s twisted “average neighborhood” mind, with cloak-and-dagger secret agents posing as mundane employees, like telephone operators and sewer workers. There are nine mental worlds with quite a bit of content in-between, and the game clocks in at around 14 hours; I don’t wanna spoil any of the genius, inventive levels beyond simple descriptions, but I will say that they’re intelligently used to show the psyche of the characters involved, with many heart-felt, familiar and genuinely emotional (but never overly-dramatic, unless for comedy) moments within.
Unfortunately, all these wonderful strengths are weighed down by one terrible flaw: Psychonauts is a poor PS2 port (that has then been ported to PS3). Psychonauts was originally going to be published by Microsoft for their Xbox platform, but that deal was dropped and Double Fine gave the porting duties to Budcat Creations, who did a pretty poor job. Players can get stuck in the more complex pieces of environmental geometry occasionally, the framerate drops in the more active areas, there are a few visual glitches and some glitches that might prevent players from continuing (please alternate between two save files, like I did), and, worst of all, video compression is terrible. The audio seems off-track/delayed in most video sequences and the video itself seems a little choppy, decreasing the quality of these otherwise well-animated and well-directed cutscenes.
Psychonauts is smart, funny, beautiful and well-written, but quite a few bugs hold down the experience; without a doubt, the PS2 port could’ve been handled much better. Still, anyone who can look past its performance flaws and enjoy the underlying experience will be met with one of the most rewarding games of the 480p generation.