Retro Review: Psychonauts (Xbox) – NichePlays

Released in 2005 for the original Xbox, Psychonauts is a 3D platformer that follows a young psychic named Raz on an adventure to save his summer camp for psychics, as well the world, from an evil dentist named Dr Loboto that’s harvesting the brains of his fellow campers in order to power a bunch of tanks and do generally evil stuff.

Upon its release, Psychonauts received positive reviews and was commended for its solid gameplay, incredible art style, and the attention paid to its storytelling. Unfortunately though, the praise didn’t convert into sales and the game would end up flopping on the Xbox as well as on PC and the PlayStation 2 after it had been ported there. However despite its poor sales, Psychonauts would manage to find an audience over the years and has since become a bit of a cult classic. It even managed to get a sequel, which is appropriately named Psychonauts 2, and is coming out on modern platforms on August 25th.

Which is actually why I decided to play through this one to begin with, as I’ve meant to pick Psychonauts up for a long time now and just never got around to it. But since I’ve been clamoring for a good 3D platformer lately and, because my girlfriend recently told me how this was one of her favorite games of all time, I figured now was the time to give it a chance via it’s PC port.

And from as early as my first hour with the game, it’s hard not to see the appeal here. Psychonauts has a really distinct and macabre style to it that, and take a shot if you’ve heard this one before, reminds me of early Tim Burton. It’s art style also reminds me of some of Oingo Boingo’s early album art, namely Nothing to Fear, Good For Your Soul, and Dead Man’s Party, and also feels inspired by Jhonen Vasquez’s art and sense of humor. 

When people say they love Psychonauts, they usually really love the game, and it’s easy to see why due to how unique it is. The same could be said for people that don’t like the game though, as, to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson, it has an extremely slant art style and decidedly demented sense of humor that isn’t for everybody. 

But… does it hold up?

Because while the game has only grown in popularity over the years, and has a sequel coming out that’s quickly becoming one of my most anticipated games for 2021, it also has some quirks that root it decidedly in the mid-2000’s and make for a bit of a rougher gameplay experience than I was hoping for.

Story, Background, Themes

Psychonauts tells the story of a young carnival acrobat named Raz as he trains to become a psychic spy named a Psychonaut. His adventure brings him to a summer camp and eventually a mental institution that’s filled with kooky and tortured characters, who all carry and suffer from trauma and mental baggage. Through your adventure to become a secret agent man, you slowly unravel the nature of each of these characters’ issues by literally entering their minds, Inception-style, in order to ultimately help them recover from their various hang ups or diagnoses.

Psychonauts’ story has a minor emphasis on mental health and wellbeing that was extremely refreshing back in 2005, and manages to be every bit as unique now as it was then. Especially given the past year or two in world events, it often feels like we as a society are at least beginning to seriously consider the value of cognitive wellbeing, and Psychonauts serves as a great conversation starter on the subject.

Without getting too personal, 2020 and 2021 have been an extremely debilitating for myself and my mental wellness for a multitude of reasons both personal and world spanning, and allowed me to see first hand how quick doctors and people in general can dismiss serious symptoms and issues as being psychosomatic or something that you just need a prescription of pharmaceuticals for. And frankly, that simply isn’t true. Mental health issues are an extremely serious topic that deserve the utmost care and compassion, and playing through Psychonauts for this review really reinforced that to me. 

What’s really impressive about that is that it managed to do so without ever sounding overly intellectual, serious, or without breaking the pace of the game itself. One of Psychonauts greatest strengths is that it never lets up on it’s wildly creative humor, it’s instantly charming and memorable story, and it’s dedication to its message of self fulfillment and betterment through Raz’s good deeds, as well as his ceaseless pursuit of realizing his potential as a Psychonaut. In that regard, the game really struck a personal chord with me, as I’ve spent just over a year recovering from prolonged illness and as a result have had a lot of time to contemplate my potential as a human being, as well as the importance of doing something meaningful with my life without letting myself regress into taking things like my health and priorities for granted, as I had prior to getting sick. 

In short, I like Psychonauts. A lot. It’s one of the most creative games I’ve ever played in terms of how alive and fully realized it’s ideas are, and if I had to compare it to a film or character, it leaps off the screen and manages to capture the players imagination in a way that reminds me of how it must’ve felt to see Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character for the first time

But it’s not perfect. Without even getting into the actual gameplay itself, I have some issues with how Psychonauts paints mental illness, namely it portrays them as always being curable. I think Game Maker’s Toolkit said it best in his Psychonauts video from a few years ago when he said that the game makes the mistake of painting mental illness a bit too simply at points. While the game clearly means well in having solutions to its characters issues and is ultimately, ya know, a game, mental illness simply doesn’t work that way. In fact, the NIH’s page on the subject literally states that most mental illnesses can’t be cured at all and that the objective when facing them is to treat and minimize the symptoms so that people can function as well as possible on a day to day basis. Portraying mental illness as something that’s solvable, as opposed to something that one must learn to co-exist with and manage feels a bit dismissive in a way that doesn’t sit that well with me. And while, again, Psychonauts is just a game that happens to include mental illness as a part of its story, without making it the focus of the adventure, I felt as though I should at least comment on my issue with it doing what it does here.

And that’s not to say that I think Psychonauts even necessarily does a bad job handling it. In fact I actually think that, especially for something from the mid to early 2000’s, Psychonauts manages to handle its characters with a pedigree of care, thoughtfulness, and compassion that reminds me of cartoons like Hey Arnold and Courage the Cowardly Dog. 

It never overtly makes fun of the characters themselves and, more often than not, derives its humor from the circumstances Raz finds himself in and how he responds to the people around him. This allows the humor to be really character driven, as the momentum of Psychonauts jokes comes purely from character interaction as opposed to jokes that come at somebody’s expense.  It also certainly helps that Raz himself is an extremely charming and memorable character, who plays the perfect straight man to everyone around him’s behavior. The game’s character driven comedy also helps endear us to each of the characters found in each level as it gives us insight into who they are and allows us to contemplate over the circumstances that made them into the person that they ultimately became. Even better, Raz going out of his way to help each of the characters that essentially function within the game itself as obstacles he needs to pass also gives the game a really attractive sense of empathy. So yeah, I may have issues with that aspect of the game, but I ultimately really enjoyed the moment to moment character interaction and the general effect that it had on the game.

And if you had an issue with that, I don’t know what to tell you man. Opinions can be somewhat paradoxical sometimes.

Gameplay

Anyway, Psychonauts is more than just an exploration of mental health issues — it’s also a pretty good 3D platformer.  The game is split across a number of different worlds that are themed after the dozen or so characters whose brains you inhabit on your journey to stop Dr. Loboto. Because each of the characters you encounter in the game come from wildly different backgrounds, the gameplay is often split between different activities such as a levitation themed world that’s kinda like the racing minigame in Super Monkey Ball, a stealth level based around paranoia over a milkman in a town that looks reminds me of the one from Edward Scissorhands, and even a board game themed after Napoleon and the battle of Waterloo, which I especially liked. On top of that, you have your usual slew of platformer goodies such as jumping, attacking enemies and a wide variety of items and collectibles to pick up. And, as if that wasn’t enough, you even have a number of psychic abilities that you can unlock on your adventure to help vary the gameplay even more. Although, more on that in just a sec. 

Each of the levels are a joy to look at and explore, as they’ve all got impeccable theming and fairly clear cut layouts. Take for example the milkman stage I had mentioned a second ago; while it would’ve been easy to get lost on the level’s nearly identical streets and buildings, that’s actually never much of an issue, due to how straightforward the stages layout is. It’s also helped by the fact that there are a bunch of G-men scattered throughout the stage with different, erm, disguises to help differentiate the area a bit. It’s actually kinda impressive that the level is as easy to navigate as it is too, as one of the most iconic aspects of the 50’s suburban utopia trope that the game is tapping into is the fact that everything is supposed to look the same within it.

Unfortunately though, while navigating the many worlds of Psychonauts is usually a fun and straightforward experience, the actual act of progressing through the game isn’t always so cut and dry. At the beginning of the video, I had mentioned that parts of the game felt trapped in the era it was created in and when I said that, I was referring to how some of the game was structured. On a technical level, everything works precisely as it should. The controls are responsive, the UI is clean, and the various inventories and menus you can access all make enough sense. My main issue with the game though is in the way that its tutorials teach the player how the game works because it feels, at least a little, antiquated.

At the beginning of the game, you’re kinda bombarded with tutorials and instructions on how to use your basic abilities. While relatively standard fare, the game goes a little out of its way to show and demonstrate the different abilities at your disposal. However, that in itself isn’t really a problem. What is a problem though is how long the game spends teaching you how to play it, due to the nature of collecting new psychic abilities. What results from this is a high cognitive load on the player, who’s expected to remember each and every technique and skill he’s unlocked up to that point and how each of them work. What’s outdated about this is that, since 2005, game design has started to shy away from overloading you with dozens of abilities in favor of either giving you a few abilities that you’re then responsible for maximizing the utility of, or by gating when you can access those abilities to begin with. Two examples of what I’m getting at would be The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is built around creatively using a handful of different abilities at any given time, or Super Mario Odyssey, where you have a standard set of abilities and special skills that can be used in specific parts of each world.

But, because Psychonauts allows you to use any number of Psychic skills at any given moment, there are bound to be several times in the game where you’ll want to use one of your skills to complete a challenge, only to find out that you needed to use a different one entirely. For example, in the aforementioned Milkman stage, there’s a moment where you’re expected to use invisibility to sneak past a girl scout in order to trigger a cutscene. However, unless you knew that there was an invisibility ability in the game and had either collected it before entering the level (or know to leave the level, collect it, and make your way back to where you were), there’s a chance that you’ll just be aimlessly trying to run through the door like you’re in a Windex commercial.

For the record, that’s what happened with me, and while it was only a minor inconvenience, it hardly felt good from a gameplay experience, and it wasn’t the only time in playing the game where I felt like it didn’t do a clear enough job of telling me what skill was needed to pass a challenge.

But I also can’t really say that it’s the games fault for that either as while I was playing through the game my girlfriend, who did a great job of not backseat gaming me when I’d struggle to figure out what to do next by the way, pointed out that some of these issues weren’t really that bad to begin with but that they had been exasperated over the years due to how much better game tutorials and design has gotten. And she’s totally right, it’s not that Psychonauts is doing anything wrong by being less flexible than I’d like it to be, or by expecting it’s players to be more inquisitive, it’s that games don’t really work like this anymore. And coincidentally, that’s actually a huge part of why I like to ask whether or not a game holds up to begin with, because it’s totally possible for a game to have a lot going for it but to also have some outdated aspects that new players might wanna know about. So thanks, Sierra. You’re the best.

Going back to the positive though, Psychonauts is still a really fun game. While I found the platforming itself a bit more on the functional side than exhilarating, it does more than enough to entertain in between sections of narrative progression. Plus, with all of the different gameplay styles available in the game, it’s not like you’re really shackled to any particular type of gameplay for too long, so it’s not like you’ll have to worry about things getting too dull or repetitive for your liking. If it sounds like I wasn’t impressed by the gameplay though, that honestly has more to do with how taken away I was by the visuals and music than anything. Because seriously, if it weren’t for the graphics and sound, there’d still be a good game here; it’s just that things are elevated that much by these qualities. But without them, Psychonauts still manages to consistently deliver a satisfying and enjoyable experience. It’s just that, for me, Psychonauts’ real draw is in it’s storytelling and visuals, more than anything else.

Visuals and Music

On the subject of Psychonaut’s visuals, the game’s modern re-releases do a great job of upscaling the visuals in a way that really works for the game. I suppose it’s not that shocking though, as the game’s surreal and trippy visuals are totally compatible with being rendered at a high resolution. Just like in my Nights into Dreams review, something about low, or at least comparatively low polygon, artwork being rendered in HD just hits different. And even the lower quality assets that haven’t been upscaled quite as well here manage to still compliment the adventure. While I’d love to play through the game on an original Xbox that’s hooked up to a CRT some day, there’s nothing wrong with playing through the game on modern platforms. Whichever way you cut it, the game’s environments look great and genuinely brought a smile to my face with how fully realized they were. There were times when I was playing the game and I found myself just stopping to bask in the atmosphere and appreciate the thought that went into designing the world.

The game mixes a clean, kinda art deco design that makes the game feel oddly nostalgic for me with a style that somewhat recalls German Expressionism and the moody effects that it can have on a viewer. Ever see The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari? It’s a bit like that, in the best way, especially when you get the asylum with it’s twisted and bent architecture and the way it forces the camera into deutsch angles. It kinda reminds me of the work of filmmakers like David Lynch, who’s known for combining the idyllic iconography of the 1950’s with dark, often morbid imagery in a way that’s both visually stimulating and thought provoking. And that kinda lo-fi upscaled to HD look I was complimenting a second ago? That’s pure Lynch, bay-bee. 

And musically, Psychonauts is just awesome. It’s music feels deeply inspired by 1950’s and 1960’s spy music, the macabre and over the top, as well as classic sci-fi. It was written by Peter McConnel, who’s also worked on multiple Sly Cooper games, Escape from Monkey Island, and Grim Fandango, so if you liked the music for any of those games, you’ll feel right at home with his work here. While it wears its influences on its sleeve, the game’s soundtrack never comes across as too demanding of a player’s attention, and is a total treat to listen to.

Closing

So does Psychonauts hold up? 

Absolutely.

While I did have some issues with the game’s design that kinda root it in the mid 2000s’ for me, I do think that these issues are more than manageable to work past and that the games visuals and characters pull things together into a cohesive and satisfying experience.

The game really stood out to me as being a quirky, endearing adventure and, especially given how this game’s influences seemingly include just about everything I hold dear to me, I honestly can’t believe that it took me so long to play through it to begin with. So if you haven’t played Psychonauts yet and are curious about the sequel, or you just wanna run through it one more time because Psychonauts 2 is coming out, I couldn’t recommend this game more to you. It’s available on the Xbox One, the PS4 and Steam for a pretty low price and you’re bound to have a blast with it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s