Ugh. Let us be clear here; I want it noted on the record that I desperately tried to like Psychonauts. I’d seen the praise critics and gamers heap upon it, seen the funding campaign for the sequel that many passionately gave their money to, and came back again and again to the game trying to pick apart what makes it entertaining. Despite all this, however, I only ever came to the singular conclusion which may cause people to label me as mad as the characters in the game itself; it’s just really not very fun.
What makes this an especially bitter pill to swallow is the fact that, hidden deep down underneath its faults, there is the heart of something truly excellent slowly beating away, desperately trying to break free. For one, the Psychonauts universe is excellently realised; one where a great deal of love and effort has been put into it. Even with all the oddball ideas on show here, each of them is nicely fleshed out, everything linking in nicely with everything else with a remarkable consistency. Not only does this create a believable world, but this also allows the story to shine though; an oddball tale of a summer camp for children to be bred into psychic warriors under attack by mysterious forces.
It’s oddly compelling and excellently done, but the game’s real strength comes with the sense of humour that is so excellently fed into both the story and the world beyond. Both carefully crafted jokes and throwaway one-liners by passing characters honestly made me laugh on multiple occasions, and even the most stoic of people will struggle to not crack a smile at what’s on offer here.
It’s lucky these laughs are present, however; because it’s with them that I found any sense of joy I had with the game ended – there’s just too much here that isn’t that fun for the positive side of things to truly shine through. A lot of this boils down to the gameplay that’s on offer. Whatever it is you’re doing, being it platforming or something else entirely, there always seems to be a part of it that’s incredibly irritating or disappointing… Some sections outstay their welcome for far longer they were actually interesting, others are confusing or fiddly to complete, and then there’s some frustrating occasions where you’re thrown into situations where the idea is amazing – yet fall flat on their face when put into practice
To take an example of this last point in action -– one level sees you the size of Godzilla, tasked with stomping around a city and smashing everything in your path. Yet the actual smashing isn’t that satisfying, and your progress throughout is slow and cumbersome. Oh, and do you need to climb a building for something? Have fun crawling up at a snail’s pace, only for a single enemy shot to send you crashing down to earth the second you reach the top. There’s many a moment like that, and each is as disheartening as the last.
Additionally, and somewhat ironically for a game that’s based around the mind, it feels like the gameplay of Psychonauts is incredibly schizophrenic. It’s trying out as many ideas as it can possibly cram in, but -as with the case above – many of them really don’t feel that well implemented. For instance, there’s a level where you’re suddenly thrown in a weird race section with absolutely no prior warning; where if you make a single mistake you’re likely to get trapped behind an obstacle and have to start the whole thing all over again. Another level takes the form of a puzzle, tasking you with collecting the right items in order to proceed; which starts off well enough and has some of the funniest moments I found. But even that soon descends into endless wandering and confusion, as you’re provided with no hints, and the solution to getting some of the items or simply making progress feels unnecessarily convoluted. And so on it goes, Psychonauts trying to be a jack of all trades, but not coming even remotely close to being a master of any of them.
Another thing that doesn’t help the situation are the visuals themselves. Not with the graphics, because even I’m not stupid enough to start critiquing how good they are in a game that’s ten years old, but just in the way that everything’s just so bland looking. So many of the areas you’ll explore are a turgid mess of browns and blacks – or, if you’re lucky, some other combination of uninspiring colours. It’s something that starts in the very first level, a dreary and dull looking warzone where it’s often difficult to tell where the heck you’re meant to be going, and then just continues on from there. To add insult to injury, and at the risk of sounding incredibly contrarian, the single colourful level I played actually ended up being too much of an assault on the senses, again leading to a situation where it was hard to know where to do. It’s a shame really, because even with the possibility to create worlds limited only by the imagination, we’re left with something that’s remarkably dull and uninspired.
Throw in a few other small issues, like struggling with the controls and a few tiny porting issues, and Psychonauts became to me what I can only describe as an exercise in frustration – one where I’m honestly struggling to see how it’s loved and admired by so many. Play it yourself and you may find something that I’m missing, but in my personal opinion, the whole thing is just enough to drive you crazy.