Game Review: Psychonauts

What if Uri Geller wasn’t a charlatan?

Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Double Fine Productions
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), MacOS, Linux, Xbox, Playstation 2, Playstation 4
Available on: Steam

It’s another one of those games where I have an ambivalent stance towards, which isn’t entirely unusual for me. Especially concerning critically acclaimed games. Psychonauts tends to be lauded like few other games, so you can understand that I feel somewhat underwhelmed with what I encountered now.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing to like here, quite the contrary. The setting, themes, art direction, story, writing and humor are fantastic here. It’s a unique idea that provides the player with tons of variety, starting with the great cast of characters and their unique quirks down to the different visual and gameplay themes of the various levels. And it certainly captures and amplifies the humor that Schafer and his crew already employed during their time at LucasArts and thus means that it’s one of those rare games that’s actually funny on purpose.

However, the inexperience of working in genres other than adventure games is quite apparent here. For one, the platforming isn’t all that satisfying, especially in cases where the game fails to detect that you’re within reach of a ledge but stubbornly refuses to let Raz engage with it. The same is true for the combat that feels fairly underdeveloped. What irked me personally the most was the lack of health pick-ups. I know that you can buy healing items at the store, but it’s just a pointless waste of time whenever you’re in a level and you have to exit it just to restock on supplies. They could’ve just axed the currency collecting entirely and given the player more health drops instead.

Speaking of collecting, here’s an aspect that didn’t work so well. This is especially apparent when I contrast it with Banjo-Kazooie, the last game I recently finished. Collecting cards and figments in order to increase your rank is for the most part a totally brainless activity, because there’s not a lot of challenge to these bits and as such the entire progression system feels perfunctory. It would’ve made much more sense to just introduce new abilities during the levels where they are a requirement, like most other games do. Because doing it this way means that a lot of the time your character’s abilities don’t see much use. Take for example clairvoyance: After you’re done with the Milkman level, you’ll never need it again. Sure, you can use it to look through the eyes of other characters and gain some insight into who they are, but that’s all window dressing that never materializes into something concrete.

The side-quests are similarly underutilized, where you’re forced to collect a variety of objects without being given a lot of justification for why it’s useful to the player. Which is why I also haven’t completed a single one of them.

Again, all in all the game is a mixed bag, where the phenomenal themes, characters and art are at odds with the lackluster gameplay experience. Here’s hoping that they’ll fix it in the sequel, which I’m interested in seeing. The way the game is structured around a summer camp certainly suits itself to a sequel that takes place in the rest of this world. Because I’d be interested in seeing what they do with the world design in general, given that these psychic phenomena seem to be rather common.

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