Retro Review: Psychonauts


For those of you who didn’t know, Double Fine is currently running a Kickstarter (or a Fig, if you wanna get technical about it) for development for a sequel to one of their most beloved games, Psychonauts. At time of writing, they are at 93% funding. Now, I’m just going to say this right off the bat: I love Psychonauts. I have played through it, in its entirety, three times, and am considering a fourth. I know how some people feel about giving Double Fine money after certain fiascos in the last couple of years, but perhaps if we review what it was about Psychonauts that we all loved so much, maybe folks can see past that to give the sequel a proper chance.

Aw man, I hate having abstract dreams. They always mess with my perception when I wake up.

Psychonauts came out back in 2005, developed by Double Fine and published by Majesco. At a secret government facility, disguised as a summer camp, young psychics are trained to utilize their mysterious powers for the purpose of becoming international secret agents, in other words, Psychonauts. During the opening ceremony, a young psychic lad by the name of Razputin Aquato, Raz to his friends, crashes the festivities in the hopes of being allowed to join the program and become Psychonaut himself. Though his abilities are incredible for someone his age, he did still break into a government facility, which is obviously not going to fly, so the counselors call his parents to come get him in a couple of days. With minimal time available to him, Raz vows to ace whatever training he can manage in the hopes of achieving his dream. In the process, however, he discovers that the counselors harbor dark secrets, and what starts as a child trying to fulfill his dream becomes an adventure to save the world from being ravaged by psychic death tanks powered by the campers’ brains. Talk about an escalation of conflict.

I see no reason to doubt this child with the tin-foil hat.

The game takes places in two settings: the real world, including Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp and any other subsequent locations, and the mental world, a collective unconscious formed from people’s minds that you enter as part of your Psychonaut training (or at least, that’s the reason you’re supposed to enter minds). Being a psychic, Raz has a variety of mysterious powers at his disposal, gaining more as the game progresses. For basic combat, he can manifest a giant psychic hand for punching attacks and ground pounds. As things get more interesting, he can shoot psychic blasts of aggression, levitate on a literal thought bubble, and use the psychic hand to pick up and throw objects and enemies. My personal favorite power is pyrokinesis, the ability to burn stuff with your mind. It doesn’t really have any practical applications, but I love to use it on the NPCs just to see how they react. You can also gain certain powers by increasing your PSI Cadet rank. This is ties into the various collectibles in each mental world, including figments of imagination, emotional baggage, and mental cobwebs. Collecting this stuff, as well as PSI Challenge Markers hidden around the camp, earns you more ranks, which not only grants you new powers, but also grants power upgrades, like higher ammo capacity and more damage dealt.

The greatest psychic power is imaginaaaaaaaation.

The game is reminiscent of N64-era platformers, or “collect-a-thons” as they’re affectionately known these days. The camp is a wide open area that you can explore at your leisure (and there’s plenty of characters to interact with and neat junk to be found), while the mental worlds a bit more linear and objective based, though they still have their share of exploring potential. The mental worlds are large enough that it is possible to get lost sometimes, but there’s a helpful little yellow creature that you can use to warp around to places you’ve been before, so getting lost never stays much of an issue for long.

I used to stomp on my boardgames as a kid, too.

I can’t speak for everyone who ever played the game, but personally, one of things that I love about Psychonauts is that it oozes personality from every orifice. The characters are bizarrely proportioned, creating a Tim Burton-esque world of lovable freaks, each one with their one personality and background. The writing is clever, occasionally hilarious, with Raz delivering some scathing one-liners on certain occasions, and other characters just being their unusual selves have made me burst out laughing. If there’s one thing that can always earn my respect, it’s a game that can make me laugh. The mental worlds are also delightfully abstract, with the astute observer being able to spot hints to its owner’s personal demons and manias if they look in the right places. Every aspect of the game’s design exists for a reason, and every one of those aspects is rendered beautifully. Is it super realistic? Dear god, no. But I guess that’s kind of the point; the strange images our minds can conjure are essentially the exact opposite of realistic, so in actuality, it’s right on the money.

This looks like one of those old public access kids’ shows.

Psychonauts didn’t actually do that well when it first released all those years ago, but since then it has gained a dedicated cult following and is, in my opinion, one of the major contributors to Double Fine’s (and Tim Schafer’s) success. So now you know what I mean when I say just how much a sequel needs to happen. If you still doubt me, and for some reason beyond my understanding you have still not played this game, go play it right now. It’s on Steam for ten bucks (far less during sales), or if you have an Xbox 360, you can get it through Games on Demand. Go on, I’ll wait.

…done? Good. Welcome to the Psychonauts.

A long-time nerd with far too much time on his hands. Enjoys playing video games and watching anime, among other media-related hobbies.