Game review: Psychonauts for Steam

I need to apologize for the long, long gap in between posts and explain myself before I get to the actual review. You see, I’ve bought three games, and in all three cases, I bounced off of them hard before I could get anywhere close enough to write a review. I’m just about done with a book for review, but lately it seems like I only read at work during breaks. Otherwise, I can’t seem to make myself sit to read.

Because of the gap between posts, it annoys me to be making this a negative review, but it can’t be helped. Let me start by saying that I bought Psychonauts around six years back and found the controller support to be pretty bad. I tried playing with mouse and keyboard, but I had major issues with the camera controls, leading to me rage quitting very early into the game. Recently, I saw someone comment that the controller support had been improved, so I loaded it back up and started over. I almost wish I hadn’t.

I don’t have any nostalgia for this game, or for Double Fine. I’m coming at this as someone who’s heard endless praise for this title as one of the greats, and went in mostly flying blind. What I found was a mess that gathers all the worst habits of early 3D platforming and covers them in an oh-so-wacky wrapper.

The story goes that Rasputin, or Raz, wants to be a Psychonaut, so he sneaks into a super secret camp for psychic cadets. Despite being told that he can’t participate without his parent’s permission, the instructors all let him do so anyway because…because. Over the course of one day, Raz uncovers a plot to steal brains and use them to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. Hi-larious hi-jinx ensue.

*Sigh*

I suppose I wouldn’t have been so annoyed by the story if the controls had been at least a little more refined. I could say it’s not so much the controls by themselves as it is the way the camera keeps taking control from me even while I’m using the right stick to try and find a viable path ahead. But even setting aside the misbehaving camera, there were times when I’d press a button and the game wouldn’t react. So I might be climbing a tower and need to make a precisely timed jump, only to step off the edge instead and plunge many floors, cutting off five minutes of painfully earned progress.

Another example is the target lock, which at times just decides it doesn’t want to work. It might just spin the camera away from the enemy I need to shoot, sending my blast out into empty space. Dealing with earlier enemies who do half a health point of damage, this is already annoying. But near the end of the game, there are floods of small enemies who burst into clouds of poison gas, inverting the controls, blurring the screen, and dealing 4 points of damage with every hit. So being unable to target them until they’re already close enough to cause AOE-type harm is infuriating.

So much of this game’s other sins could have been a lot more forgivable if I wasn’t constantly walking over ledges or randomly mounting and sliding down staircase handrails. It’s because of that constant friction of wrestling with the controls that I could never cut any other part of the game any slack.

The graphics, for instance, are pretty bad, with character’s faces sporting visible seams where the textures don’t quite meet. Environments have blurry textures, looking more like a PS2 era game than XBOX 360. The music is okay, except it loops in such short bursts that it quickly became grating. I can thank this game’s loop for making me hate the 1812 Overture, and I love that song. Or I did. And the voice acting…I lost track of how many times I found myself groaning “God, will you please shut up already?”

(Side note: I’m still prickling at a line tossed out as a “funny joke” that goes like: “And remember, I am a Frenchman. Nothing less than the most delicate of delicacies could harm my delicate French stomach.” Oh, hahaha. This shit wasn’t even funny when it was written, and now it’s aged like cottage cheese left in a refrigerator for all this time.)

I also can’t forget that like so many early platforming games desperate to pad out their length, Psychonauts has a checklist of useless shit to collect. To progress the story, Raz must rank up by collecting Psi Cards and Psi Orbs, or Fragments, or by collecting Emotional Baggage, (oof) and he must buy equipment using (heavy, heavy sigh) Psychic Arrowheads as currency.

I actually got up to a point in the game without buying a so-called Cob-Web Spinner, and that halted my progress. I realized that I could either back out of that level and go hunting for five hundred more arrowheads in the night time phase of the camp, (which includes more telekinetic bears and adds pyrokinetic mountain lions because why the fuck not) or I could restart the game and use an early training session to grind out enough currency to just buy everything in the store all at once. So I went with option B. Yes, losing progress was preferable to the prospect of a much slower grind.

(To be fair, though, I realized after restarting that I could have just gone back into the earlier training session using another plot device called a Brain Tumbler. So, that’s on me for not thinking through my problem before hitting the reset button.)

Somewhere around the mid-point of the game, Raz picks up a portal that allows him to access other people’s minds. Which, again, with better controls, might have been a good time. One of the first forays into a brain is a giant mutant fish, and their mental space is the set of a giant monster movie, with Raz acting as the kaiju Gogaroo. It could have worked and been a funny rampage through a fishy metropolis. Instead it was an aggravating slog to try and hit little enemies between excursions to hunt down every last stupid collectible item. The TV news program breaking in on the gameplay to track Raz’s progress started off mildly amusing, but when it kept breaking in for another cut scene, and then another, it just added more friction to what already felt like an unpleasant intimate experience with sandpaper.

Each of these mental romps ends in a boss fight, and they all have a gimmick. Until you grasp the gimmick, you can’t do any damage. One fight has me tossing spears at a boss bull, only to remove them and use “confusion grenades” in combination with the spears to protect the same bull from an evil matador. It sounds neat in theory, but in practice, with these shit controls, it’s another teeth grinding slog.

Then we get to the big finale, and it’s a shit show circus. I’d seen comments from the game’s fans who said the last level was bad, but I didn’t really appreciate how bad until I was struggling with the controls, the camera, and the environment all at the same time.

After all that work, the ending is about as satisfying as a wet fart right after I just put on clean panties. I find myself struggling to find anything nice to say, but I’m drawing a blank. This is exactly the sort of 3D platforming garbage that sent me off to PCs for a better alternative with first person shooters, full motion games, and point and click adventures. Since then 3D games have evolved and addressed issues with poor controls while pulling away from the “collect 900 MacGuffins” method of padding their slim offerings. But this is a relic of an older, sadder time, and I feel bad for having completed it.

I’m giving Psychonauts 2 stars. Yeah, it’s a beloved artifact for some, but to me, it’s just proof of how much better games are today without all the extra baggage attached, pun intended.


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