Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Psychonauts (PC)

Platform:  PC
Developer:  Double Fine Productions
Released:  2005
Genre:  Platformer

The Story
All young Razputin Aquato ever wanted was to be a Psychonaut.  To use his impressive mental abilities to go on crazy adventures, saving lives and battling evil forces and maybe setting a few things on fire with his mind just for fun.  So when the chance came for him to sneak into the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp - a secret Psychonauts training ground for psionically gifted children - he took it.  And immediately got caught trespassing before the welcoming ceremony was even over.  But despite the fact that he isn't technically a real camp trooper and his parents have been called to take him home the very next day, the camp counselors don't bother to try and stop him from participating in training activities with the rest of the kids.  Or taking part in dangerous, experimental mind tumblings.

And it's during one of these experiments that Raz stumbles upon something sinister.  Not-all-is-as-it-seems is pretty standard operating procedure at Whispering Rock, but what he uncovers is something else entirely, and he is determined to get to the bottom of it . . . in between improving his psi abilities, dealing with weird kids left and right, fighting off telekinetic bears, and going on scavenger hunts.  And most importantly, he needs to get it all finished before tomorrow morning!  Yikes!

The Game
Psychonauts is the brainchild of Tim Schafer, who originally came up with the idea as simply one part of a different game, Full Throttle.  He took that idea about a crazy trip through a whacked out mental landscape and, with the help of his team, developed it into a full story in its own right. Sadly, it sold very poorly when it first came out despite huge critical success, but has since gained a cult following.

The Characters
Razputin "Raz" Aquato is the main character, a young boy with impressive mental potential who quickly begins to turn that potential into reality over the course of the game.  He was born to a family of acrobats - which shows in the extreme ease with which he uses tightropes, trampolines, and trapeze swings to achieve his objectives - but ran away from the circus to join the Psychonauts because he knew his father wouldn't let him go otherwise.  Raz's family had been cursed by evil psychics to eventually suffer horrible deaths in water, you see, and as a result his father hates psychics.  And since Raz himself is a psychic, needless to say, their relationship is kind of rocky to begin with.

Whispering Rock Summer Camp is run by four members of the Psychonauts.  The first of these we meet is Coach Morry Oleander, a squat ultra-military type who enjoys putting the kids through the mental paces in his brutal Basic Braining course, which resides entirely within his own mind.  Literally.  The kids telepathically enter his mind and have to complete the obstacle course within in order to continue on to the next level of training.  It's primarily his influence which allows Raz to start training alongside the other kids.  Once he's seen proof of the amazing power locked inside Raz's mind, he knows that harnessing it is an opportunity he can ill afford to pass up.

Where Oleander is the brawn (or at least the bluster), Sasha Nein is the brains of the adults around camp.  Also impressed with Raz's abilities, he recruits the young psychic for a series of tests using a brain tumbler, sending Raz into his own mind and thus kicking off an adventure to stop vile enemies bent on world domination.  While a bit of a mad scientist type, what with the conducting of quasi-legal experiments on impressionable young camp-goers, Sasha is a very calm, cool, and collected dude, which is represented by the fact that his mindscape is a structured, orderly cube.

Milla Vodelo, on the other hand, is bubbly, passionate, and perpetually cheerful, and her mind is a jumpin' dance party, woooooooo!  She teaches the children the art of levitation, one of the most useful abilities in the entire game.  She's the heart of the Whispering Rock Psychonauts and cares deeply for the kids under her charge.  If you find the secret area locked away in her perpetual mental fiesta, you might even get to see why.

Finally and most importantly is Ford Cruller, semi-retired Psychonaut agent and camp janitor.  He's a fun guy.

Aaaaaaaaaaand then there are all the kids, the villains, and a handful of insane asylum inhabitants, the last of which you spend a good amount of time getting acquainted with their demented mindscapes.  I could go on for hours and hours about each and every one of them, I honestly could, and not just because many of them are important to the story.  Every character is unique and wonderful and really ought to be experienced firsthand.  The characterization in this game is one of the big reasons to play it, because-

The Writing
-the writing is the main reason.  Psychonauts is filled to the brim with clever, witty, and truly engaging dialogue as well as an interesting plot and well-developed setting.  Even during those occasional dull moments when the gameplay started to wear down on me, the thing that kept me going was wanting to hear the next joke or see what the next weird little development in the story was going to be.

So many games (and movies and other things, for that matter) try to be quirky and weird and usually end up being vomited out as a mangled mess by companies that don't really know what they're doing.  Double Fine doesn't have that problem, and their ability to truly be quirky and weird shines brightly in the humor and pure entertainment value of this game.

I feel kind of bad for leaving this section so short in comparison to just how good the writing really is, but you can just imagine that I've written twenty or thirty glowing paragraphs of drooling praise, because that's pretty much all I'd be doing.  And really, while I typically don't worry much about minor spoilers in these reviews, I don't want to give any of them out let alone the big ones in any detail so folks can really get into the meaty part of the game for themselves.

The Gameplay
Now, what I'm about to say here is both true and misleading.  Compared to the writing, the gameplay is a little crap.

This is not to say that the actual game aspects aren't good!  They are.  Sort of.  I mean, they're adequate.  See, Psychonauts didn't do anything that so many platformers before it didn't do.  It's pretty much strictly boilerplate actiony adventury jumpy-aroundy and collect stuffy.  Nothing new or innovative.  You could probably pick up any random Ratchet & Clank and get a similar experience.  And that includes a few small, standard glitches here and there.

But y'know what?  It gets the job done.  It may not excel, but neither does it bog things down, and thus it serves as a perfectly good plate on which to deliver the delicious steak that is the writing.

Now, with that said . . . that's not all there really is to say.  I played the PC version, you see, and unfortunately, the PC port really is complete crap.  Not to the point of being a gamebreaker, thankfully, but still, one or two steps further down the crap line and it probably would have been.  For those of you thinking of playing this version, I would high suggest that if you do not already have a gamepad, you should really consider investing in one.  There were many interesting choices made regarding the controls, but the most blatantly mystifying of these is that the mouse does not control the camera.  Instead, you have to use the numberpad to angle Raz's view around while you use the basic WASD to move Raz himself.  Which is more than a little awkward.  And though this next part at least can be changed, it seems almost equally odd that they still mapped some of the controls onto the mouse buttons as the default.

The gamepad controls are, fortunately, just fine and work like they should.  Yet it's not entirely free from petty annoyances itself, as certain parts of the menu (that being those parts regarding sound, resolution, and other stuff added in by the folks doing the port) can't be directly changed with the pad, meaning you have to use the mouse for those parts.  So make sure you get all your settings right the first time!

The Challenge
For the most part, pretty easy.  There are a few moments here and there in almost every level where things get frustrating, but once you get past those, the rest isn't much of a problem . . . with two major exceptions.

The first and foremost of these exceptions is collecting everything for 100% completion.  The particularly applies to gathering the Figments, of which there are often a couple hundred in each mindscape, and they are all 2D, neon outlines that fade in and out, some of which are moving around and others are very small, and all of which makes it very very very hard to find all of them, especially in the more brightly lit levels.  But so what, right?  It's just the 100% thing, so who cares?  Well . . . probably not many people, admittedly.  Gathering all of this hidden stuff is actually part of the upgrade system, and the more stuff you find, the more powerful you become.  But even without doing any truly diligent searching, the average player will probably find more than enough of the collectables to manage just fine.

More problematic is the last level of the game.  The original version, which was on XBox, gained a great deal of noteriety for being stupid difficult to a punishing degree.  One of the things they did right in the PC port was add a couple things and take out a couple others in order to make it easier, and yet I still found it to be the most highly frustrating part of the game, far more so than any other section.  And one of the things that made it yet more frustrating was that the boss fight was almost insultingly straightforward.  Not that the others were overly complex games of cat and mouse, mind.  But it's still the difference between picking boulders up (with your mind) and throwing them at the bad guy that you've set on fire (also with your mind) after penetrating their defenses (again with the mind thing) versus just running up and punching a guy in the face every couple of minutes until he stops trying to follow you.  It's just a little disappointing, that's all.

The Sights
I have to admit, at first I wasn't exactly thrilled about the super-deformed look of the characters, but over the course of the game they all grew on me, and now I can't really imagine them any other way.  The insane architecture, however, felt completely fitting to me from the very start, and it was always fun to find out just what the next person's inner mind was going to look like.  The minds of the insane asylum residents were definitely the most interesting to me, particularly one that is nothing but an extremely long alleyway styled like a velvet painting lit by blacklight.  Absolutely gorgeous.

The Sounds
A very well put together soundtrack, with each song wonderfully complementing the mind or other landscape it's attached to.  So much so that it tended to fade into the background for me, and I'd only really notice it when A) it became obvious they had threaded a bit of classical music into it (such as bits of the 1812 Overture sneaking into Napoleon's game table) or B) I realized I had been humming along with it for the past few minutes without thinking about it.

Much more noticeable and even more laudable is the voice cast, each and every one of them being guilty of doing a double fine job.  As excellent as the writing is, I don't think it would have been even half as funny without the stellar work of the actors using it to its fullest potential.  Not that it should really come as a surprise that they did such excellent work, as there are some pretty hefty VA names in the bunch, such as Tara Strong, Steve Blum, Stephen Stanton, Nick Jameson, and Richard Horvitz.

The Bottom Line
For the longest time, this was one of those games I was both intrigued by and wary of.  Because of the cult following, I had heard pretty much nothing but good things about it, that it was more or less the best game ever made in the history of best games ever made.  So while part of me wanted to check it out and see what all the hub-bub was about, bub, another very large part of me was shooting up red flags and warning flares that spelled out "Too Good To Be True".

Well, I'm not going to say that it was the best game ever.  But I am going to say it was good.  Damn good.  Certainly worth playing, and once I get another game or two knocked back, definitely worth going back to for 100% completion.  Even with only slightly above average gameplay and PC port deformities, it's still far more entertaining than a lot of other platformers I've played, and even more so than many other games in general.  If you've got the wherewithal to pick up a copy - be it for XBox, PC, or PS2 - I'd say it's well worth your time and money.

In the meantime, the possibility of a sequel dangles above our heads, as Mr. Schafer himself has said he would love to make one and only a few reality-check issues (such as funding) stand in the way, and I would be absolutely tickled if they finally made it a reality.  But I think, even more than that, what I would like to see is a TV show based on the game's setting.  I'd watch the hell out of that, and I'd bet that a lot of other people would too.