Clearing the backlog – Psychonauts

A Psychonauts screenshot

So, first up in my battle to clear my gaming backlog; Psychonauts. Originally released in 2005 by Double Fine Productions, Psychonauts is an action platformer with open world exploration elements, a highly unique mix at the time. It reviewed very well upon launch and has recently been sequelised in Psychonauts 2.

Double Fine is not a developer I have ever resonated with, and its head, Tim Schafer, is a seemingly divisive character. But there’s no denying that it’s a studio that has historically tried to innovate and introduce new ideas and concepts into a crowded video game market.

You can see that from very early on in Psychonauts, where the levels are set within the mind/subconscious of a particular character you are interacting with. In each, the enemies are personifications of the mental demons that haunt them, and the level geometry represents key periods of their lives. It’s fascinating and varied, and a great example of how stories can be communicated by showing rather than telling.

A Psychonauts screenshot
Inside the mind of Sasha Nein

Beyond this, Psychonauts made me laugh countless times in just 90 minutes. It’s very well written and voice acted, and hilariously over the top. Games often tread an awkward line when it comes to humour, but this one finds the mark more often than not.

It’s hard to go into a 15+ year old game completely blind and open-minded. I know, for example, that it has a cult following and have several friends who have enjoyed it a lot. From what I’ve been told, it’s central premise of mind exploration is what makes the game truly special to a lot of people and is worth seeing first-hand.

A Psychonauts screenshot
A preview of the different mental worlds to be explored

All of this sounds intriguing, and I’d love to want to explore further, but I just don’t connect with the core gameplay at all. The primary gameplay loop of jumping, shooting, and smacking stuff feels okay, but certain mechanics (locking, swinging) are temperamental and frustrating. I’ve already enjoyed other games (e.g. Ratchet and Clank) where this loop has been done better and feels more polished, so it’s hard to accept an inferior version here. Each level supposedly introduces new mechanics, but it’s a very bad sign that the core of the game isn’t interesting me so early on.

I’m also massively deterred by how many collectibles there are. Arrowheads lie in the ground, requiring you to pull them up. PSI cards are sometimes harder to get to, but often just require simple and unchallenging transversal to obtain. Inside the mental worlds there are numerous figments to run through and collect. It’s just too much, too often, and it’s not remotely satisfying. And knowing myself too well, I know I’d be wanting to collect each one, just to tidy up the (admittedly, visually spectacular) levels. This starts from the get-go – at the very start of the game I immediately walked off the intended path to find these things.

A Psychonauts screenshot
This hurts my eyes

I can fully understand why so many people could love this game, but it’s not for me. If I had more time to game, and fewer things vying for my attention, then I’d be happy to play a couple more hours to see if anything else sticks, but it’s not to be. Onto the next.

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