Played on Xbox Series X
Originally released in 2005 for the original Xbox and developed by Double Fine Productions, Psychonauts – although critically well received – did not sell well and was considered a commercial failure. Over the years the game was ported to multiple platforms greatly increasing its user base and it began to be considered as something of a cult classic. Fast forward to 2021, the game has finally been made available to play on Game Pass.
Is it worth heading back into the confines of a Psychic training camp to solve nefarious goings on? Let’s gate crash the party to find out in this XboxEra Retro Review.
Controlling the character of Rasputin Aquato (Raz for short) from a third person perspective we arrive at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp rocking a cool pair of flared trousers, a satchel and red goggles after running away from our father’s Circus. Being an acrobat is not for Raz but training his psychic abilities in order to become a secret agent known as a Psychonaut is right up his alley. Following an original rejection from the Psychonaut staff an impassioned speech from Raz gets him the chance to take part in Coach Oleander’s basic training and after performing well he is accepted into the camp.
The camp has many different personality types in residence such as the tin foil hatted potential serial killer Dogen Boole, overconfident (maybe) love interest Lili Zanotto, ubiquitous big bully Bobby Zilch and his creepy sidekick Benny Fideleo.
After exploring the camp for a while and taking part in some psychic tests carried out by German Psychonaut Sasha Nein it becomes clear that something mysterious is afoot within the camp. Children start to show up minus their brains and with an overriding instinct to watch television. When the camp staff also go missing Raz is recruited by lead Psychonaut Ford Cruller to find the campers missing brains, rescue the staff and save the day.
After a period of camp exploration based on jumping and climbing you start to gain Psychic abilities such as Levitation allowing you to get to higher places, Pyrokinesis allowing you to clear obstacles by burning them and Invisibility allowing you to sneak past people. The full list of abilities to be earned in the form of Merit Badges by completing story tasks or increasing your PSI level also includes Psi-Blast, Shield, Telekinesis, Clairvoyance and Confusion. Three abilities can be mapped to your controller at any one time but the ones that you have earned are all available to swap out whenever you want to.
A Fine Line between Genius and Madness
What follows is certainly a wild ride as the game changes from a general exploration based platformer into more of a platforming adventure puzzler hybrid. Meeting various characters throughout the story you gain the ability to enter their minds with the aid of a small door called a Psycho-Portal and various other equipment. After a mind has been visited once it is possible to revisit it through what is known as the Collective Unconscious which is basically a hub of mind doorways. To escape from a mind in the middle of a mission you can use smelling salts which whisk you back to the real world. I could explain how you can summon a particular character for assistance with a slice of bacon but it is so bizarre that you need to check it out for yourself to appreciate it.
When inside the mind of someone it is necessary to explore the area just like any platform game but at the same time you come across different features that explain the mental state of that individual and need to be dealt with in order to return them to a sane state.
Emotional Baggage is found strewn around consisting of different types of crying bags such as Purses, Hat Boxes and Trunks. By reuniting these with Baggage labels also found within the same mind you are able to cheer the baggage up and clear it from the owner’s thoughts.
Punching Memory Vaults which run around people’s brains causes them to open up and give you a classic View-master reel which is basically a slide show detailing the characters past and what has caused their mental distress.
‘Figments’ of a person’s personality are liberally spaced across these levels and represent everything from a cat to an apple. Collecting these is a mainstay of the gameplay and helps to increase your PSI which in turn improves your abilities or the strength of the abilities that you have already earned.
Platforming and puzzles are thrown at you within each mind as well as the need to collect figments, sort emotional baggage and open memory vaults. Enemies known as Censors will also attack you regularly and need to be fought off either with a well-aimed Psi-Blast or a Psi-Punch which is Raz’s basic attack move. Basically, a lot is going on when you go inside someone’s head. These sections tend to end in a Boss Battle, sometimes with a series of minor boss battles beforehand.
Video Game Therapy
Once you have solved the issues of the person whose mind you are exploring you can then move on to the next person after solving various puzzles and platforming sections to get to them. The scope of these levels is literally mind boggling. The different minds available to visit are each so different in style that they are all virtually separate mini games of their own. Not only that but the designers really must have been out there when they designed them. One level takes place on a massive cube which does not obey the laws of physics as you run all over it doing battle. Another is set in a dayglo circular Spanish town at night while a pink bull does laps of the street every five seconds knocking you back to where you just came from and ends with four Mexican Wrestler mini bosses. I know this sounds weird but it all makes sense when you are playing the game.
Exploring the mind of a lunatic in an asylum gives you the opportunity to experience a level based around a theatre production and uncover the identity of the phantom who has been sabotaging all productions to try and ruin the career of a famous actress. This is a pretty unusual concept and turns out to be a tricky yet very entertaining level.
A personal favourite of mine was the city of Lungfishopolis in the mental world of Linda the Lungfish (don’t ask) where you become a King Kong like character called Goggalor and spend the whole level destroying everything in your path (as this will reward you with health, Psi-Blast ammo or arrow heads) and climbing skyscrapers to reach out of the way figments. I really want to play that whole level again as it was such fun. Crushing the tiny Lungfish population under my feet and throwing tanks at other tanks has nothing to do with it I assure you.
Whilst back in the real world collecting buried Arrow Heads is worthwhile as they can be used as currency in the camp shop to buy items such as Dream Fluffs which restore Raz’s mental health, a Cobweb Duster used to hoover up Cobwebs that can be turned into PSI Cards (which can also be found around the camp) and PSI Cores which when combined with nine PSI cards can increase your PSI rank by one. A good deal considering that It takes 100 Figments collected during gameplay to increase your PSI rank by the same amount and the maximum PSI rank is 100.
Presented in a cartoony style the game would have looked great when it was released. Playing the game on a Series X it now looks somewhat ropey at times. This may be partly down to the 4:3 aspect ratio that the game was designed in but at times the quality of the graphics really degrades. Strangely the game seemed to look better the further I got into the story and I cannot really understand why sections at the start of the game seemed to look so poor. Gameplay was more than acceptable most of the time but when switching to a cutscene it was severely jarring on several occasions. Do not let this put you off the game though as this does not kill its overall charm.
The music ranges from a cool Harm0nica riff at the camp to the 1812 Overture in the very French section in the mind of Fred Bonaparte and an ambitiously frenetic theme during the incredibly tricky section in the Meat Big Top. When the game was originally released it must have seemed amazing to have a score of this quality in a game of this type and it still stands up today.
I only discovered one major glitch whilst working through the campaign for fifteen hours when I fell between the two spans of the bridge in Lungfishopolis and was unable to extricate myself. This required me to go back to my last save and I came unstuck for the second time in as many minutes as with this being an old game it does not auto save. Beware of that if you decide to check the game out (as I hope you will) as I had to complete thirty minutes of gameplay for a second time. In terms of a silver lining at least it was within my favourite level of the game.
The last sections of Psychonauts are set within what is known as the ‘Meat Big Top’ and this part of the game I found particularly frustrating as it is not only made up of several boss battles but also has a section of precision platforming that you are required to complete with the added pressure of a countdown. I was no good at this and needless to say it got old fast as failure to climb to the top of the tent required starting again at the beginning of the section. You forget just how difficult games used to be back in the old days especially when you cannot even manually save the game after a successful part of the climb. The game does let you manually save at this stage but then breaks your heart by taking you back to the beginning when you reload it.
So, is Psychonauts worth playing these days? In my opinion it certainly is. Graphically it has visibly aged and the saving system is archaic but the game is so damn strange and well designed that it really does need to be experienced by anyone with an interest in platforming and puzzle games.
The story is amusing, things are certainly odd most of the way through but there is not really another game like this. Psychonauts 2 is on the way and could possibly be released at this years E3 so what better time to get acquainted with this universe than today? The games recent appearance on Game Pass is the perfect reason to check it out.