Year Released: 2005
Before I hear any complaints, I already know what you’re going to say. “Psychonauts for Throwback Thursday? Didn’t that game just come out?” Trust me, I am well aware that Psychonauts is only a little over three years old. However, I only recently picked this one up for the first time, for reasons I can’t even fathom. Part of the problem was that when this game came out, I was just out of college, only working part time at GameStop, and completely dirt poor. I could barely afford to eat at the time, let alone buy video games. So even though it’s a little blasphemous for me to be this late to the party on a Tim Schafer title, that’s just the way it worked out. That being said, I’ve spent a lot of time playing Psychonauts and felt that it was worth sharing with everyone. Also, as a definitively last-gen title, it does fit the Throwback bill—even if it is relatively new compared to many of the other games I review.
As I mentioned, Psychonauts was developed by the legendary Tim Schafer, whose name has become synonymous with unique video game experiences. A platforming action/adventure game, Psychonauts is set at a summer camp/government facility for young psychics trying to hone their abilities. The game’s protagonist, the young Raz, has run away from home and broken into the camp to become a Psychonaut, but must do so before his psychic-hating father arrives to take him home. While earning his merit badges, however, Raz realizes that some of his fellow campers have had their brains removed, and must figure out why it’s happening and how to get the missing brains back.
Most of the game consists of elements that are fairly recognizable in 3D platformers. In addition to running around and exploring different environments, there are a lot of different items to collect in order to get more psychic powers and merit badges, as well as to buy things from the camp store. The environments are fairly large and varied, which is really nice, especially from a last-gen game. The campground itself almost seems overwhelming at first, and as if that wasn’t enough to explore, every person’s mind offers an entirely different setting to play through.
Much of the game takes place exploring the minds of others, something that young psychics need to do in order to earn their merit badges and eventually become psychonauts. Exploring the minds of Raz’s professors, unlocking stored memories, dispelling emotional baggage (shown as crying pieces of luggage, adorably enough), and defeating inner demons (which manifest themselves as very scary physical demons) is a blast. This aspect of the game really helps to set it apart from your average action/platformer.
This is where I start to gush, because there is just so much to love about this game. The artistic animated style is lovely, and Psychonauts hasn’t aged nearly as poorly as some of its last-gen counterparts; even though it’s a PS2 title, it’s still aesthetically pleasing. The story is quirky and unique, as are the characters, and the voice-acting just puts it right over the top. I was thrilled to hear some familiar voices as well (Dr. Fred? Is that you?). Even though it doesn’t really do anything revolutionary in terms of actual gameplay, Psychonauts is still unlike any game I have ever played.
Unfortunately, Psychonauts is not without its problems, but luckily there are few of those. Most of the game’s issues stem from the camera, which can be extremely wonky. While the player can control the camera, it will often automatically focus in a place that’s either not helpful or actually detrimental to the player’s progress. For example, there will be times when you’re trying to jump from one very tiny ledge to another, and after jumping the camera will cause you to miss entirely. When you’ve just spent the last five minutes making your way up a series of trees, it’s very annoying to have to start over all the way back at the bottom.
Despite some issues that can hinder the gameplay experience, Psychonauts as a whole is a very distinctive game. Creative in both its design and storyline, this is the type of game that can withstand the test of time. If the platforming elements had only worked a little better, Psychonauts would have been damn near close to perfection. As it stands, it is a great PS2 title that has made me even more excited to see what Tim Schafer has in store next. The good news is that you can find it for about $15 on either the Xbox or the PS2, or even download it from Xbox Originals on your 360. If you haven’t done so yet, I highly recommend that you play this game.