Whispering Rock is a summer camp for children with psychic powers, but to young Razputin, it could be a life-changing opportunity. He has come to the camp after running away from the circus where his strict parents forced him into becoming an acrobat, hoping it would suppress his psychic powers. Raz believes that, if he can prove himself, then the camp counselors will recruit him for the Psychonauts, an international peacekeeping organization that exclusively employs psyhics.
In reality, the camp just teaches kids some basic skills and allows them to goof off with various activities. That is, until children mysterious start vanishing, only to turn back up with their brains missing. Soon, Raz is the only one left to solve the mystery and, surely, his parents won’t punish him for running away from home if he ends up saving the world, right?
Psychonauts is a 3D platform adventure from 2005, produced by Double Fine and headed by director and professional funny man Tim Schafer. Its unique selling point is that every level takes place in the mind of one of the game’s many characters, many of which are either eccentric or mentally ill. You fight their inner demons and solve their mental hang-ups, which brings you one step closer to your ultimate goal of stopping an evil conspiracy to use the brains of Raz’ friends for a plot to conquer the world.
You do this through a combination of simplistic combat, acrobatic platforming, and puzzle-solving, which blends together into a nice and varied mix of gameplay, even if each individual aspect is a bit lacking. Combat, for example, just comes down to a standard 3-hit combo and a ranged attack, neither of which does much to impress mid and late-game enemies who lack stagger frames. The platforming works well initially, but once you learn the levitation power, you’ll never again be sure if you are glitching your way through stages or following the intended path.
The levels and characters make up for a lot. You’ll find yourself helping a defeatist descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte win a strategy board game against his famous ancestor by doing little missions to get more pieces on the board, whereas another level might be a dance party where you use levitation to cross obstacle courses, but fly off to little side-rooms and you may find some quiet places where unpleasant memories are tucked away. Each character’s mind is full of figments to collect and memory vaults, which really help complete the picture of who these people are and how they came to be so troubled as to need Raz’ help.
Even outside of the main levels, you can explore a sizable and diverse HUB area with collectibles of its own to find, where you also interact with the other kids. There are a lot of encounters to uncover that give even the smallest side-characters a little extra detail. Schafer cooked up some spectacular dialogue for the game and that mixes wonderfully with the creative, surreal level-design. It’s an unforgettable game full of surprises and laughs.
Regrettably, at other times, laughing is far from my mind. My enjoyment of the game takes a massive downturn after the second tank battle, which is the point where the game’s otherwise leisurely difficulty curve rockets upward. Every playthrough is also made into a hassle by the cobweb duster, an expensive item from the store that becomes vital midway through the game. It costs 800 of the game’s currency and you find those per each, so have fun grinding for that every time you play through the game.
I also have to admit that I am not a fan of the game’s character design. The visuals and music held up wonderfully, but characters range from fairly normal-looking to freakish designs. I mean, I get why a villain like the mad doctor looks strange and unhinged, but why does the overworked play director Becky look so similar? Heck, why does the actually-deranged Boyd look the most normal of all the characters? Why does musician girl Phoebe look like an alien, while fellow camper Chloe insists she actually is one?
Don’t let the ugly characters deter you, however. This is absolutely a game worth playing for anybody who likes comedic games or 3D platformers. Now, with a sequel on the horizon, this is the perfect time to experience this classic if you have missed out on it all these years.