What is it?
We've had to wait seven years for Tim Schafer to create a new game, and this one went via Microsoft for a while, so no wondering about the delay then. (Can anybody see a release date for Longhorn yet?) But now, Majesco have released Double Fine Production's new opus.
Well, it's a biggy! It's been hyped by some, especially those who remember the early Monkey Island games, Grim Fandango (one of my personal favourites) and Tim Schafer's other games. It's new; it's flashy; it's weird; it's manic; it's Psychonauts! For the hard of hearing, please oblige me by imagining big flashy graphics around the name.
This game is a little off the beaten track for 'Boomers, I think. It's an adventure, in that there's a lot of plot, plenty of puzzles and loads of exploring. However, there's lots of action – running, jumping, punching, blasting and flying. Not to mention the RPG element of character development. This is what an action-adventure hybrid should be like, in my (not very, I guess) humble opinion.
Is there a plot?
Yes, in contrast to many action games I've come across, there most certainly is. Razputin has run away from his family, who're Circus acrobats, to the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp with one aim in mind; to become a Psychonaut. A full-blown psychic warrior and secret agent, just like his heroes, Sasha Nein and Milla Vodello, who just happen to be trainers at the Summer Camp.
Raz has to learn all the psychic skills on offer, venture into some of the strangest minds in the psycho-verse, do battle with everything from confusing rats, through catfish, lungfish and censors, all the way up to mad butchers and evil, fire-juggling, acrobats. All the while learning new skills to over come some of the strangest puzzles I've ever come across. For example, how on earth do you persuade painting dogs to overcome their fear of a raging bull to advertise the next fight of a completely self-centred matador? Look out for the wrestlers – they bite!
I liked the story in Psychonauts – somehow it manages to stay quite logical and 'together', despite the twists and turns of the game play, and the non-linear way in which you can visit the different places in the game. Some of the plot elements were predictable, but, like all good short stories (let's not pretend this is War and Peace, now shall we), there's a decent twist at the end.
How do you play?
Obviously, this is not a game that's suited to a point-n-click user interface. Okay, so we've alienated a large chunk of the 'Boomers audience, but wait, there's more. This game is has a mere 13 button controls, not to mention that the camera is controlled by the mouse – no wonder Majesco/Double Fine recommend a game-pad. The default controls have you using your left hand for movement and two selectable powers, plus jumping, 'psi-floating', and other controls for interacting with objects and people. Then your right hand is on the mouse controlling the camera (to which Raz's movement is relative – 'forward' is in the direction the camera is pointing, 'left' towards screen left, and so on) and punching and the third selectable power, on the right mouse-button.
The inventory and skills list are accessed via the '[' and ']' keys, but within those areas, individual items are selected using the direction keys, or a pair of direction keys in a compass-like fashion. Not the most immediately obvious inventory system, but it works.
With there being 8 different powers and only three buttons to activate them (by default, 'Q', 'E' and 'right click'), some of the puzzles require you to think carefully about which powers you want available to you on short notice.
There's lots of psi-powers, lots of items to find (including a scavenger hunt sub-plot), brains to recover (and people to re-brain), psi-cards and markers to achieve – some hidden in some remarkably obscure places, and in all the minds there are figments – translucent icons representing themes from the character of the mind you're in, mental baggage and safes. Finding figments and psi-cards is essential to the development of Raz's powers, whereas finding baggage and safes just fill in back-story on the various characters and add to the overall experience.
The worlds are weird, wild, wacky and very colourful. They're detailed and fun places to play in. When you're not dodging axe-wielding butchers, fiery spiked juggling clubs, beefy censors and Dr Loboto that is!
Added to this mix of graphical excellence is a sound track of enormous extent. This game comes on 5 CDs and installs to take 3.6GB – the sound effect archives take up amost 1GB of that. And I'm not including the cutscene files in that either, because they take another 1.5GB on their own! You might expect, with such a massive amount of data that there's been some mix up, and a lot of duplication, but no, as far as I can tell (in the several weeks it has taken me to play this game), there is very little duplication of resources. This game is huge! Not only that, but it has a remarkable level of replayability – well there's another point in it's favour over almost any other adventure game!
Any other novelties?
I think this entire game review should really be in this section! It is clear that Double Fine & Majesco have put a great deal of imagination and creative effort into this game, and it is replete with ideas and challenges. Even the platforming elements of the game don't seem like something from the 80s (when platform games started), but then, perhaps that's down to the perspective warps and gravity games that they've played. Ah, the benefits of playing a game in a world as warped as Tim Schafer's mind!
Another novelty for me is to find that, without exception, the voice acting is exceptional! And there are some little gems of performances by Armin Shimerman (Quark, from Star Trek Deep Space 9) and Dwight Shultz (Murdock, from the A-Team). See if you can spot who they're voicing.
There were a few occasions when the game crashed to the desktop, despite me having installed the second patch available from psychonauts.com, but because of the frequent auto-saves the game makes (every time a 'loading' screen appears), I lost very little progress.
The most confusing thing for me was realising when Raz was in the 'real' world, and when he was in the mental world of someone's mind. Sometimes the 'real' world is sufficiently odd as to be confused with the truly weird places in some of the character's minds. Just wait until you see the world of the Milkman Conspiracy!! That's got to be the most warped and wonderfully conceived game worlds I've ever seen.
The other oddity, for me, is the 'Teen' rating the game has been give. Perhaps the game ratings people think it's not appropriate for under 13's to consider the insides of their own minds? On the other hand, some of the story ideas are quite nightmare-ish. Including the giant bunny-chasing butcher with a pair of bloody cleavers. Okay, so maybe I was wrong... 'Teen' is the appropriate rating, though in reality some under 13's will be fine with this game, and neither of my girls has had any Psychonauts-induced nightmares despite watching me play much of the game, and playing the early parts of the game themselves.
I have to admit it, Psychonauts is a pretty amazing game. It has big worlds, fun game play, a story that beats many traditional adventure games, very good pacing, great graphics, sound, voice acting, and almost flawless performance. Best of all, it has kept me occupied for hours, not just battling with frustration over my inability to perform some combination of obtuse moves, but with enjoying the challenges, and wanting to find out what happens to Razputin and his friends.
If you've ever wanted to blast things, set things on fire, throw things, levitate, see through other people's eyes, be invisible, confuse your enemies, and deflect energy attacks, then this game is for you.
Well, Tim, it seems that adventure games ain't dead, you just helped them move to another level!
What do you need to play it?
- Windows 98 SE/2000/XP.
- 1.0 GHz Pentium(R) III and AMD Athlon(tm)
- 256 MB of RAM
- 64 MB GeForce (tm) 3 or higher or ATI(R) Radeon 8500 or higher (except GeForce 4 MX)
- DirectX9.0c or higher (included on game disc)
- DirectX(R) 9.0c or higher compatible sound card
- Hard Drive Space: 3.75 GB minimum hard drive space
- CD-ROM: 16X or better
- Controls: Windows-compatible keyboard and mouse
- Windows 2000/XP.
- 2.0 GHz Pentium(R) III and AMD Athlon(tm)
- 512 MB of RAM
- 128 MB GeForce FX 5600 or higher or ATI(R) Radeon 9600 or higher
- DirectX(R) 9.0c or higher and EAX(R) 2.0 or higher compatible sound card
- Controls: Game Pad (optional)
(I used Win XP, AMD XP 2400+, 512 MB RAM, and ATI Radeon 9000 Pro 128 AGP)