Psychonauts - Team Review
"You can contact me any time with this piece of bacon."
Sometimes a good game just doesn't jump right out at you and scream "Hey, I'm a good game." Other times, it's the other way around. Psychonauts maybe has a little bit of both going on.
The Fly and I decided to see what the hubub was all about.
Psychonauts, the brainchild of LucasArts alum Tim Schafer, is a third-person platform title with all the wit and polish you'd expect from the man behind Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle and a writer and contributor to the Monkey Island series, yet it somehow manages to outpace its genius a bit and fall into all the usual pitfalls of the platformer genre.
The game is set in a psychic summer camp, and features my new favorite game hero, Raz. A young kid who hopes one day to join the elite Psychonauts, and help save the planet by literally jumping into other people's minds to cure them of their ills.
And that's about as much sense as you need the story to make, believe it or not. What follows is a fantastical adventure through a generously-sized game full of some of the most inventive gameplay you'll see to date. As well as a few of the most stupefying development gaffes these reviewers have ever seen.
The Fly and I set out a couple of weeks ago to play this game and, in tandem - he with his keen reviewing skill, me with my rapier-sharp wit - provide you with the best review that we could fashion. What follows is not that.
The following is a transcript of our ICQ conversations as we attempted to make sense of this strange, wonderful and aggravating game, and forge our thoughts into some kind of publishable "… something.
In the end, we decided that the genius of creating this fine, new review format would outshine all of the not-so-shiny bits. We're convinced that the sheer brilliance of our ICQ conversations (some of which took place well after midnight) will win you over despite any formatting or grammatical flaws. We're calling this new format Nuvo Neo Games Journalism, and we hope you like it.
(19:51:30) Fletcher1138: Dude. We should talk at some point about how to work together on that article, but right now I have to go play more Psychonauts!
(01:15:35) The Fly: Gotcha. My goal is to be done w/the game by the end of the week at the very latest - hopefully much sooner. I'll let you know as soon as I'm done. If you have any thoughts on the subject in the meantime, let me know. You can contact me any time with this piece of bacon...
(23:49:57) Fletcher1138: Bacon. BACON!!!
(23:55:18) The Fly: Mmmm, what's that smell? Delicious...
(23:55:38) Fletcher1138: Dude, where are you in the game?
(23:56:09) The Fly: As it happens I was just getting ready to play a little...Last night I completed the Milkman Conspiracy.
(23:57:14) Fletcher1138: Oh wow. The asylum and everything or just the Milkman Resurrection?
(23:59:01) The Fly: I just completed the Resurrection and I'm looking for a way to the top of the tower. I was just getting ready to fire up the PS2 and hop into that Actress Chick's mind.
I should mention that my wife has been on the PC and I just wrested the keyboard from her grasp. She was somewhat disturbed to see the words Bacon. BACON!!! Appear on her screen, as she did not know I had installed ICQ.
(00:00:14) The Fly: Aaaugh! Now she is heading for the television, no doubt to play Wind Waker, which she is obsessed with and has almost completed"…
(00:00:42) Fletcher1138: My apologies to the wife. I scare women sometimes. It's a flaw. I'm not proud of it.
Dude, the Actress Chick thing is hard in a "have to think about it" way, which I'm not capable of dealing with right now. I'm stuck in that level right now. Good luck.
(00:00:51) Fletcher1138: Damn wives. Ditch her, I say.
(00:01:43) The Fly: Killer 7 arrived in the mail today, but honestly I'm not even thinking of checking it out until I'm done w/Psychonauts. I assume you spent some quality time with the game over the weekend?
(00:02:27) Fletcher1138: Yeah. I played a lot. I love it, but I have to admit that I used a walkthrough in places.
(00:03:51) The Fly: Yeah, me too. I couldn't figure out how to beat that lungfish boss to save my life. He must have killed me like 10x and never once did I guess what I was supposed to do.
(00:05:55) Fletcher1138: OMG! That's what I had to look up, too. The first time. That was completely nonsensical. That whole POV shift during the lungfish chase drove me crazy. Which is odd because the Lungfishopolis level after that was probably the coolest level in any game that I've played in a long time. This game is weird like that.
(00:08:11) The Fly: You know, there's plenty that could be complained about in this game, but it's completely outshined by the terrific writing/artistic design/voice acting/characters/etc. I'm really, really liking this game.
(00:09:54) Fletcher1138: Oh me too. For sure. I've never laughed so much at a game. I'm really enjoying it. The Actress Chick level is too much for me right now though. Probably because the puzzles make absolutely no sense from a theatrical technology point of view.
(00:11:09) The Fly: Hmmm, I'll have to let you know what I think. I have not yet heard the heroic tones of Wind Waker's intro, which leads me to believe that if I run into the living room quickly and position myself in front of the television set I might be able to get on the PS2. I'm checking out. Keep you posted...Later.
(00:12:38) Fletcher1138: Cheers.
(00:25:23) The Fly: Hey, I completed the Actress level last night. You were right about the thinking part. Ouch. Still, I thought it was pretty amazing. I'm just getting ready to tackle the troubled psyche of either the Napoleon guy or the Troubled Artist. I think I'm going with Napoleon first.
(09:19:25) Fletcher1138: I finished the Actress last night too. HATED it. It was by far the most annoying level yet. I cursed the stupid phantom, too. "I am ... The Phantom." Seemed like the music and everything else about that level got old a lot faster than the others. Anyway, I started on Napoleon. It's awesome.
(00:12:39) Fletcher1138: Finished Fred Bonaparte. Awesome. Excellent level. I'll do the Bullfighter/Troubled Artist tomorrow.
(05:04:00) The Fly: ugh...2am...have to get up in 4 hours to work... I'm down to the last level / boss fight but have to get to bed. Tomorrow! Btw, it gets better. So far the Bonaparte level has been my least favorite, even though it was pretty good.
(23:42:55) The Fly: Hey Fletcher. I saw today's posts and I'm thinking maybe it'd be easiest to just keep on talking about the game, rather than try to piece together a bonafide review. It's worth a shot, anyway.
(01:03:58) Fletcher1138: Yeah. Cool. That's what I think too. I managed to get the weekend off, so I can probably finish the game tomorrow. I'm at the brain vs. brain (inside the tank) level now.
(13:47:05) The Fly: The last level - Meat Circus - was pretty punishing. It took me about 3 hours to complete.
(13:50:02) The Fly: If you haven't finished yet, here's some advice - save between the different beginning sections of the level. Otherwise, if you run out of lives (like I did on an aggravating rail sliding/jumping sequence) you'll have to start the entire level over again.
(16:25:47) Fletcher1138: Alright. The Meat Circus is pissing me off. Jump puzzle + escort mission + bad camera angles = not fun. Why do they continue to torture us like this?
(19:37:49) The Fly: Good luck. I almost shut the game off a dozen times last night, but each time I tried a new area/jumping puzzle I got slightly better at it. It was long, slow, incremental progress. As for the end bosses, they weren't as hard as they were tedious. It seemed like all I did was use my psychic shield and wait until I could attack. By the way, without the ability to call upon Ford whats-his-name (bacon guy) for advice on the boss fight tactics, I don't know that I would have ever figured out how to beat them, with the exception of the last one, which was pretty easy.
(19:47:54) Fletcher1138: Yeah, I hate that my attitude towards this game is heading south. I do love its imagination and art and characters and story and voices and dialogue, but if I had a nickel for every game that started to suck in the last level ... at this point it would take an ending in which hookers come to my house to fellate me while money rained down from the sky to recapture my initial enthusiasm for the game.
(20:17:43) The Fly: The last few sections reminded me of playing Super Mario as a kid - each time making it a little bit father through the level before dying and starting all over again. By the time I reached the end of a stage, I'd learned all the timing and jumping tricks and working through the level was just dull and robotic - all nerves and reflexes. That kind of gameplay is the kiss of death for a title like Psychonauts, that really relies on exploration, story, and character development to hold your interest.
(23:24:23) Fletcher1138: OMFG. Dwight Schultz?
(23:27:35) Fletcher1138: OK. So there weren't any hookers, but the ending did make me want to play a sequel. Dammit. Why? Why? The last level sucked harder than any last level I can remember.
(23:39:10) The Fly: Ha! I had the same feeling. Tim Schafer should be ashamed of himself. I want to yell at him. I'm still totally sold on some of the game's characters, though.
(00:12:23) Fletcher1138: The way the music droned on and on in some levels, like the theater, drove me mad. That and the repetitive taunting by the bad guys were enough to make me shut it off a few thousand times. I mean, the Phantom and Raz's dad had some really funny things to say, but the gameplay in those moments was so frustrating that it was like listening to a comedian while having an arm amputated. You know? You're just not in any mood to listen to somebody being a smart ass at that point.
(00:20:28) The Fly: That's a good analogy. By the way, I thought the music was great. It reminded me a lot of Danny Elfman's work. Unfortunately, as you've noted, wacky gypsy violin circus music loses its charm once you've heard the same eight bars looped about twenty times non-stop.
(00:21:03) Fletcher1138: I agree with you on the characters. I think that the characters and the story were the game's strength. That's why it was so sad to see them get sabotaged by some bad designing. There's no way around it, bad decisions were made by the design team. This game had a brilliant premise, excellent game mechanics, a terrific story and fantastic acting. There's no way, until I got to the theater level, that I thought this game would turn sucky. It's just a shock.
(00:24:40) The Fly: You know, Schafer formed Double Fine in 2000, and he's spoken in interviews about how after completing Grim Fandango he played Super Mario 64 and Tomb Raider and how games like that made him rethink gameplay and its relationship to storytelling. He's even talked about how the Super Mario 64 experience was a defining moment in 20th Century entertainment. I think if you look at Psychonauts, you see a genuine attempt to merge the storytelling style he employed in his previous games with the gameplay of early 3D platformers.
(00:25:27) The Fly: The problem is, plenty of the gameplay feels like it's stuck in the past. There are lessons to be learned from the missteps of early 3d platformers and this game hasn't learned them.
(00:27:15) The Fly: Psychonauts was originally due out in Spring 2003. It's been in production about 5 years, and at times the gameplay seems pretty dated. The boss battles are a good example. They were entertaining at times, but really only because they took place in wacky situations with wacky characters. Otherwise it was just the same old watch boss, figure out pattern, wait for chance to attack, rinse, repeat. Very dull.
(00:28:00) Fletcher1138: Hmm. Interesting point. I see where that could be true, and I think it worked more often than not. One of my favorite game mechanics was the Sonic-style double jump. Brilliant, and I loved using it every time. It reminded me of how much fun a lot of those platform games were, and why. But that really just makes it all the more sad that he fell into the same, old pitfalls of game design. There are ways to make a level challenging besides ramping up the number of enemies, the speed at which they move and the number of distractions. I kept thinking - in the later levels - when are they going to learn that annoying the gamer does not equal challenging design?
(00:36:11) The Fly: What's your take? How does a potentially rock-solid game get so screwed up, especially in areas that at this point in game design should be no-brainers? Lack of adequate playtesting? Laziness? Or just plain and simple lack of talent?
(16:16:51) Fletcher1138: I think the answer to the "The hell...?" question is lack of talent. Psychonauts clearly involved a monumental design effort. While the art direction and acting efforts were flawless, the design team dropped the ball on level design, pure and simple. I would speculate that DoubleFine threw all of its resources into the creative side and either neglected level design or simply hadn't the manpower to give it the attention it deserved. Honestly, if the two levels I've mentioned had been tweaked - just a bit - to make them less of an exercise in jump n' pray gaming, I would have finished the game with zero complaints.
The game's persistent flaws - lousy and/or missing camera control and counter-intuitive puzzle solutions/boss weaknesses - were evident from the start, and I was willing to forgive them based on the strengths heretofore mentioned. In fact, a lot of the levels were brilliantly designed. The variety of level designs may have been what killed the team. Or perhaps there was just one bad designer in the bunch. It happens.
(16:40:17) Fletcher1138: Still, such a small, but critical failure makes this difficult to recommend, as I think I've already said. Imagine a chick who's smoking hot, but with only one, small, herpes sore right in the middle of her face. You still want to hit it ... but you kinda don't at the same time. Or look at it another way. It's like dinner at a five-star restaurant, but with your in-laws. Who hate you. It could be the best meal you've had all year, but the pain and frustration you have to endure in the process makes it a tough sell.
(19:32:04) The Fly: I don't think the level design was universally bad. It was just inconsistent. At its best it was pretty good. At its worst it was terrible. I liked how the campground acted as a sort of hub, but I hated all of the loading times between areas. My ability to enjoy any given game is inversely proportional to the amount of time I have to spend looking at its loading screens. I didn't notice the loading times so much within the psychic levels, as they were spaced between pretty lengthy gameplay segments, but within the camp, they were a real drag.
At this point we must allow for dilation of time. Perhaps our heroes were weary of discussing Psychonauts. Perhaps the strain of being kicked in the balls by such an amazingly inspired game was too much for them. Perhaps They felt the need withdraw and center themselves. Or perhaps they simply had other things to do.
Whatever the cause, a whole week went by with nary a peep along the ICQ line between The Fly and Fletcher1138. Perhaps that was for the best.
In an ordinary type review, this part would be called Conclusions.
(22:27:03) The Fly: I was wondering if you ever played any of Schafer's previous games, and how Psychonauts compares content-wise. Funnier? Cleverer? Better? Worse? I'd like to comment, but sadly, I pretty much missed out on whatever was going on with adventure gaming in the '90s.
(22:33:09) Fletcher1138: I played a demo level of Full Throttle and my first impression was that it was clever, but too mired in old-school adventure gaming style. Like Space Quest, etc. One level really isn't enough from which to judge a game, but that was my thought. At the time I was into games like Crusader and Quake, so cutesy, animated adventures, albeit funny ones, didn't do anything for me.
(22:34:13) The Fly: So no Monkey Island, no Day of the Tentacle, etc...Psychonauts was your first introduction to Schafer?
(22:34:26) Fletcher1138: Pretty much.
(22:39:46) The Fly: Ok, some tech stuff...I was playing on the PS2. I also played through the PC demo. You?
(22:39:56) Fletcher1138: Xbox.
(22:41:59) The Fly: Excellent. So what was your take on the graphics, technically speaking? The PS2 was clearly a port (one done by Budcat after Double Fine completed their Xbox/PC versions) and you could tell that some of the lighting & other effects had been stripped away to get it running on the PS2. the textures were also a little muddy. Framerate was marginal throughout, but consistent - there weren't any major slowdowns or hitches, but it generally ran slow.
(22:43:44) Fletcher1138: This was a very pretty game on Xbox. Technically cool and graphically interesting. As with most Xbox games, there was no noticeable drop in framerate. Load times were just shy of bothersome. I really have no beef at all with the game's looks or feel. It really was often fun just to have it up on the screen.
(22:46:33) The Fly: I also had some aggravating bugs - three times I had to completely reset the PS2 to get the game working again. Once was during a boss fight - the boss just stopped moving and stood there. He wouldn't take damage, so I was just stuck. Two other times, an audio loop got stuck and played over and over so I couldn't hear any dialogue or other sound effects.
(22:46:46) Fletcher1138: See, I've read this complaint elsewhere, and I think it must be limited to PS2. Load times in the camp were not annoying for me. Under 10 sec. And the pretty birds were fun to look at. The area divisions made sense, and the underground tram car made travel camp-side a breeze. Again, no complaints here. The game was very smooth.
(22:47:13) The Fly: Well, chalk up the PS2 issues to the crappy Budcat port.
(22:47:21) Fletcher1138: Or the crappy PS2 ...
(22:49:57) The Fly: Mebbe. Overall I really liked the look of the game, it just didn't quite measure up technically to some of the other stuff I've seen of late, even on the PS2. That said, I've got no complaints about the visuals from an artistic standpoint. The game is beautiful, at times just completely stunning. Any graphical glitches were at most minor distractions. The game is so visually rich it was almost overwhelming at times.
(22:52:00) Fletcher1138: Not rising to my console war flame bait, I see ... I'll have to be more clever.
Anyway, I recommend playing it again on PC or Xbox. It sounds like, technically, it's almost a completely different game.
(22:55:56) The Fly: One thing I really appreciated, in addition to the great voice acting, is how well the characters' facial expressions and gestures were synched to the dialogue. A lot of games still don't give that sort of thing the attention it deserves, and fewer still manage to create such emotive, believable, likeable characters. Raz completely won me over as a central character.
(22:59:30) Fletcher1138: Me too. I also like the Picasso-esque displacement of facial symmetry. I think a few of the characters were a little too strange-looking, like the bully kid who looked like Carrot Top, but on the whole, I enjoyed being in that world with those people.
Raz's "psychonaut" poses were awesome. The Merit Badge cutscenes were among my favorite parts of the game. In general, all of the cutscenes were great. I can't remember the last time I played a game and willingly set the controller down because I was engrossed in a cut scene. How they appeared, and the content of them was one thing that was very well done. Even the stupid, repetitive emotional baggage scenes were fun to watch.
(23:04:31) The Fly: Absolutely. Every time one of those emotional baggage scenes came on I thought, "I should just skip this," but watched it anyway, because it consistently made me laugh. I also really liked the "memory vaults," hidden within each of the psychic levels. I got all interested every time I found one. Not only was the B&W sketch artwork really cool (it was almost always completely melodramatic and emotionally overwrought, like you'd expect a traumatic youthful memory to be), I thought it added an extra level of meaning to each of the psychic levels.
(23:07:01) Fletcher1138: Exactly. I think that's the key here. Almost every bit of art, or detail added something. Very little was just tacked on ... except for some of the gameplay.
Alright. So the million dollar question: Would you play it again?
(23:10:20) The Fly: If you'd asked me a week ago, I'd have said "probably not." Now, especially as I'm sitting here typing this and remembering everything I loved about the game, I think I'd have to say...maybe. I'd like to anyway. Up until the meat circus level. There's no way I'm playing through that again.
(23:12:54) Fletcher1138: I'm like you. A week ago I would have said "definitely not." Now, I think I probably will. The annoying bits will be less hard now that I've played through them already, and maybe I'll get a chance to see some stuff I missed the first time. Besides, I only made it to Psychonaut Cadet Level 80 or so. That leaves 20 levels! That's a lot of psi cards, etc. to find.
(23:16:20) The Fly: On the Cadet Level subject: I think this is one of the few games I actually enjoyed collecting stuff, even if some of it made no sense (Psi cards? Psi cores? I never did figure out what these were, why I was collecting them, and how they increased my rank). I even spent a fair amount of time wandering around with the psitanium dowsing rod, digging up arrowheads to buy stuff at the camp store. And I went out of my way to get more than a few hard-to-reach figments, just because I liked that sound they made when I caught them and they dissolved. Plus, all the cool skill and combat upgrades they earned you were genuinely useful - poking around in each areas' many nooks and crannies was actually worth your while.
(23:18:38) Fletcher1138: Yeah. I never do that stuff. Read: Absolutely never. But I was into it with this game. I learned a few tricks with the levitation ball just to get a few hard-to-reach cards. I can see how maybe if I'd spent just a bit more time doing that, or if I was twelve, that I would have had the skill to breeze through some of the more frustrating levels without throwing my controller across the room, kicking the dog and/or shoving broken glass shards up my nose out of pure frustration.
(23:25:05) The Fly: I also have to give the game credit for not allowing itself to devolve into stupid, preachy, condescending psychology 101. This could have been a really annoying adventure into tired, cliché Freudianisms, or even worse, touchy-feely new age psychobabble. The whole mind-exploration concept was just a perfectly realized excuse for some genuinely innovative storytelling and game design. They took the whole astral mind entry thing and just went completely over the top with it, with often hilarious, amazing results.
I will forever love this game for the fact that it put me in the mind of a lungfish, and inside was a city under siege, populated by tiny militant Lungfishopolisians.
(23:27:22) Fletcher1138: Amen brother. That sounds like a closing thought if I've ever read one.