Friday, September 18, 2009

Review: Psychonauts

I've had this game for quite a while now, but after having replayed it recently, I thought I should post a review of it here. No, it's not about people getting high in order to explore their own psyche. The exploration of psyches is definitely at the core of the game, but there are no mind-altering substances involved. Psychonauts, like a number of games I enjoy, falls in the category of “best games you never played;” overlooked games that didn't do well commercially for reasons other than their quality.

You play as Razputin, a youngster who, rather than running away from home to join the circus, runs away from the circus to join a summer camp for psychically-gifted children. The camp also serves as training and recruitment facility for the Psychonauts, a government agency that employs individuals with psionic abilities to perform missions such as rescuing kidnapped dignitaries or spying on bad guys. While at the camp, Raz hones his powers into specific abilities, such as generating energy blasts and force shields, clouding others' minds, telekinesis, levitation, invisibility, clairvoyance and the ever-popular pyrokinesis. While at the camp, he becomes aware of a plot to... well, I wouldn't want to spoil that...

As you might expect from a game that equips you with an arsenal of psychic powers, gameplay is ridiculously fun. As soon as you get a new power, you'll be running around to see what (or who) you can try it out on. The fun is only enhanced by the thorough realization of the game world: almost every object and character with which you can interact responds in an expected (and sometimes hilariously unexpected) way when you use your powers on them. Most of these reactions do nothing to advance the plot, but really help to maintain your suspension of disbelief. Only occasionally do you get a curt “that doesn't work” notification from the game in the form of a raspberry sound effect.

Some of the ways in which characters react to your use of powers are side-achingly funny. For example, there is a child at the camp who believes that she is an extraterrestrial. If you use telekinesis to pick her up off the ground, she reacts with near-euphoria, momentarily believing that her “people” have come to take her home. Another kid has a crush on same girl as Raz; using clairvoyance on him allows you to see Raz the way that boy sees him: as a black-clad villain, carrying the tied-up girl and twirling a long, black mustache.

The real fun, though, is when you begin to explore the psyches of other people. At first, the minds you enter are those of the camp counselors as part of your training, but where it really gets interesting is when you later explore the brains of the inhabitants of a nearby asylum. There's Boyd Cooper, a paranoid delusional whose mind looks like a white-picket fenced neighborhood, except that it twists in all directions, heedless of gravity. It's also full of spy cameras popping out of trees and lawn ornaments, eyes peeking through blinds and mailboxes, and spy helicopters flying overhead. Its streets are populated with “G-men” who are pretending (badly) to be normal citizens.

There's Gloria von Gouton, a former starlet who suffers from bipolar disorder. She usually stands in a beam of moonlight in the courtyard, happily waving to the group of flower pots with faces painted on them that now constitute her audience. If she steps out of the light, her mood quickly turns angry. This mirrors her pining for the days when she stood in the limelight, and her mind is a haphazard stage, where plays about her tormented life are forever lambasted by a venomous critic in the balcony.

Fred Bonaparte is plagued by dissociative identity disorder. In his mind he is constantly playing a military board game against his ancestor, Napoleon Bonaparte, but his self-confidence is shattered and he has given up ever winning the game. Raz has to climb into the board game itself to help him defeat Napoleon and reclaim his own personality. My favorite part of this level is when Raz speaks to one of Napoleon's wooden soldiers. After the game piece mocks him for his assertion that Fred will win the game, Raz tells him, “I can burn wood with my mind.”

You can even visit the mind of a giant mutated lungfish. Yes, you read that right. It makes sense in context. Anyway, just before going in, you are informed that “it's probably more afraid of you than you are of it.” This turns out to be true; in its mind, you take on Godzilla-like proportions. Of course, you would expect to be able to wreak all sorts of mayhem at that size, and the game doesn't disappoint: you can rampage around in the lungfish's mental city, knock down buildings, pick up tanks and throw them, and even climb skyscrapers and knock planes out of the sky.

But the psyche that I found the most fun to explore was that of Edgar Teglee, a black velvet painter. He calls himself “a prisoner of art,” and whenever he tries to paint anything, he always ends up painting bullfights. His mind takes the form of a stylized Spanish town, painted in black velvet style. The colors seem to pop as if illuminated by a blacklight. In the central plaza, Edgar tries to build a tower out of giant playing cards, hoping to reach a Spanish beauty in the sky who cries rose petal tears, but his tower is always destroyed by the bull who charges through the town, known as El Odio (Spanish for “hatred”).

Raz comes to learn that the bull symbolizes the rage that overpowers Edgar's mind. In several alleys, Raz finds dogs painting pictures, each of which shares a little piece of Edgar's story. One tells him that Edgar was once a great painter. One day, Dingo Inflagrante, the famous bullfighter, asked Edgar to paint his picture, but then Dingo ran off with Edgar's wife, Lampita Pasionado, a beautiful flamenco dancer. Ever since, his hatred has consumed him and he has painted nothing but bullfights.

This turns out to be a romanticized version of the truth. Another dog gives Raz the real story: Edgar was captain of the high school wrestling team, and his girlfriend was Lana Panzoni, a cheerleader. All was well in his life, but then Lana broke up with Edgar to be with Dean LaGrant, the captain of the cheerleading squad. Edgar's heart was broken, and his distracted state cost his team the wrestling championship. He hid from his angry teammates in the art teacher's classroom at lunch. He has not moved on with his life since, stuck in his obsession with Lana and Dean. To help Edgar get over his past, Raz has to dodge the bull's constant charging through the streets of his mind and take on four lucha libre wrestlers (representing Edgar's teammates), then defeat El Odio and Dingo.

In each mind you enter, you find clues about their past. Their minds are usually full of objects or symbols about things that have happened to them, and you can find “memory vaults” which allow you to view events from their past. Some of these memories are happy, while others, stashed in vaults that have been carefully hidden away, are traumatic. One camp counselor's psyche takes the form of a brightly-lit dance party, but this turns out to be a façade she has created to help her cope with a secret pain. If he looks carefully, Raz can find a small, dark, bare room, containing a few abandoned toys strewn on the floor, a toy chest, and a memory vault. That vault reveals that she had once run an orphanage, only to come back from the store one day to find it engulfed in flames. She carefully hid the grief and guilt of that experience in that lonely room in her mind. In the toy chest, she locked away her nightmares, the voices of the children who perished in the fire.

Psychonauts was originally designed as a console title, and was subsequently ported to the PC. As tends to happen with ports, there were a couple of interface issues that could have been better handled. The worst was definitely the inventory screen. To select a psi power or an object in your inventory, you press a button to call up the inventory screen, which has up to three pages. Each page can contain a maximum of eight items, arranged in a circle. To select one, you have to move an indicator towards the item you want, then press a button. This makes perfect sense when you are using a gamepad, but on the keyboard it's not so great. For example, in order to select the item in the upper-left corner, you have to press both up and left. If you accidentally release one before the other, it changes which item you're pointing at. The PC port should have instead just given you a single screen with all the items displayed on it, and allowed you to simply click on the item you want with the mouse. This control issue also poses something of a problem during a mini-game, where you need to be able to quickly change which direction you're facing, and sometimes the eight cardinal and intermediate directions aren't quite adequate.

The other quibble is with the psi powers themselves. The game provides three “slots” in which you can equip your psi powers, and a corresponding button activates each one. So even though you can acquire up to eight psi powers, only three of them are available at any one time. If you wish to use one of the ones that you don't currently have equipped, you must “unequip” one to make room for the one you want to use. This makes sense for the console because the number of buttons available is limited, but there should be no need to switch powers in and out of slots when you have a full keyboard available.

The graphics are delightful. The character and world design has often been described as what might result if Tim Burton directed a Pixar movie. The voice acting is spot-on, and the music and sound effects compliment the gameplay perfectly. On top of all that, you can get the game for $10 on Steam. If you'd like to try a single-player game with an intriguing story, innovative gameplay and razor wit, you can't go wrong with Psychonauts.

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