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PSYCHONAUTS

01 October 2005

Over four years in the making, the long-awaited new game from the mind of Tim Schafer has finally arrived. The man who also created Day of the Tentacle and the beautiful Grim Fandango; wrote on Monkey Island; who, in short, left a legacy of extremely enjoyable narrative games, has unleashed his newest creation. Psychonauts, the first game of Tim's very own studio Double Fine, is here. I will repeat this: it is here.

Since its release in 1998, I have always regarded Grim to be one of the finest adventuregames -and actually, of all genres- I ever played. The sheer quirkiness of the premise, handled with such honest enthusiasm, captivated me. Needless to say, my anticipation for Psychonauts was high indeed. Coming from the spawning pools of the Adventuregamers.com forums and Idle Thumbs, I shared this feeling with many others. I'm sure Tim felt the same himself.

However, to prevent a possible disappointment (saying things like these is almost reason for a high noon lynching), I just relaxed throughout the years and set myself up to play an enjoyable game, nothing more, nothing less. I think I'd do this again in the future, but oh boy, how could I have doubted Tim's craftsmanship? Psychonauts radiates love in abundance. A tangible feeling of warmth inside when you're playing. The word enjoyable doesn't do it justice, the experience is far more profound than that.

Before I continue, it must be said that Tim has found the perfect creative outlet for the visual part of the game in lead artist Scott Campbell, who designed the characters and the style. If ever you need persuasion that design is so much more attractive than real-world graphics, you need only look here. It's all incredibly vibrant, and the translation of Scott's oddball drawings to three-dimensional models has been superbly done. His diversity shines here. Of Psychonauts' extensive cast of about thirty characters, not one looks the same. Their uniqueness makes them liven up the gameworld in a way that samey characters would not have done.

If you're expecting some diehard adventuring however, you've- well, obviously not been paying attention. Psychonauts isn't an oldschool adventure. It's Tim's first big foray into the action-adventure. Platformer. With roleplaying elements. Burn the labels however, because you need only play the game to instantly recognize the exact same adventure-heart from his earlier titles. Sure, you're not caught up in brain-boggling puzzles and you have to whack a vast array of ludicrous enemies, but the heart, damn it, the heart. It's about exploring, and living the adventure. And indeed, a sparse few moments left aside (and completely ignoring the frustrating final level where the PC-controls finally meet their match), the game is very playable by action-handicapped gamers. And even then, this is no punishing game; there are upgrades aplenty and an infinite amount of retries.

The shift from adventure to hybrid must have come as somewhat of a relief to writers Tim Schafer and Eric Wolpaw, as the characters around you don't have extensive dialogue trees this time. Grim Fandango reportedly had around 9000 lines of dialogue; Psychonauts won't make that amount. Yet, the game doesn't feel less 'whole' at all. It's an experience just as rich and rewarding because of the consistently imaginative design and writing. It once again shows how much a game can benefit from good prose. The quips are smart, the serious bits compelling and the love-story charming. This is in no small part aided by the exquisite voice-acting, a feature Tim blissfully took with him from his old company. Richard Horvitz performs the voice of lead hero Razputin in a nice departure from his other famous role as Invader Zim. And of course the feast is complete when Monkey Island's Captain LeChuck, Earl Boen, comes around for a small part as well. I'm a fan okay, I'm allowed to get giddy over these things.

The story itself is once again a true Schafer. It may just be a figment of my imagination, but I believe it's there. That signature. The way the characters are presented, their strange monologues, the writing that shifts from juvenile to innocent playfulness (and indeed, one of the things I specifically like is that Psychonauts is almost completely devoid of easy, generic sarcasm). The characters themselves have been induced with that weird sense of sadistic innocence, of self-aware ignorance, that I've seen before in his work.

I can almost see it before me: Tim sits in his office and he's flipping through an art catalogue for inspiration. He suddenly sees something and he thinks: 'that's great! I'm going to put that in my game.' He then repeats it a couple of times until he has a bunch of things, and then mashes them together. And he searches everywhere. If you look at Grim: this was the Mexican underworld combined with art deco combined with folklorish music, film noir, jazz and a whole slew of other things. Now that's just one style for a whole game; Psychonauts shows what happens when Tim has four years on his hands and goes: ,,Let's see how far I can push this.'

In short, Psychonauts is about a boy on an all-American psychic summer camp, where promising kids are raised by secret agent-like Psychonauts to become, well, Psychonauts themselves. Now these people can jump into other people's minds to straighten them out or conquer them -the morals for each to decide on their own. In the game, there are about eight or nine different brains you can plunge into. This may seem on the light side, but you will understand when you see it: it is here that Tim has exhausted four years worth of ideas. Instead of having just one game sticking with a solid mishmash of themes, every single level is a completely new thing in itself, yet always rooted in the basic mechanics of the action-adventure. But on that canvas, paint is smeared in all directions, and wildly so!

In one brain you're trampling through a city of fish King Kong-style, in the next you're on a single revolving, morphing cube. One of the more publicized levels is a city designed as a black velvet painting (I didn't know this art-style before, but it appears to be a black canvas (or velvet, quite possibly) upon which gaudy neon-colours are ruggedly painted). However, it also has a bullfight/matador-theme, and has within that frame American wrestling. It also incorporates the painting of the dogs playing poker, and I'm sure there's a legion of other things I missed that are worked into that one level. And then there's also the expansive outer world with all its adventures. I hope this illustrates somewhat the incredible diversity of the game. Not one element is copied from one level to the next.

Psychonauts won't take you particularly long (my first run took me a good 15 hours), but the experience is immeasurable. In that view, it has been four years well-invested. But wait, I'm not even done yet with this review slash article thingy!

Does the game have flaws? Of course it does. Now I'm very opposed to nitpicking something to death, because in this case that would be to completely miss the point of it all. These aren't really flaws at all, rather design choices that didn't come together as well as the rest. I think the first one is that there's somewhat of an overdose of things to collect. Let's count all the things that are scattered around and need picking up: arrowheads, deep arrowheads, psi-cards, scavenger items, brains, figments, mental cobwebs, vaults and emotional baggage (plus their tags). Then there's also an array of power-ups, upgrades and stuff to buy in the shops. I'm not directly complaining about these things because after a while it gets less daunting, but at the same time it kind of felt like an artificial way to make the world seem more interactive: 'let's just scatter ten-thousand different items everywhere so it'll seem really busy and rich'. I'm of two minds about this, because it did work, but at the same time I'm thinking it might have been too much? Alright, I'm letting you off the hook this time, Schafer.

Other minor thingies are that the introduction of Raz could have been a bit more clearly tied to things happening at the end (I'm carefully avoiding spoilers here), and that I'd have liked to see more interaction between Lily and Raz. No- not in that way, pervert you! I just mean dialogue-wise or even shared gameplay. That would've added credibility to their relationship. But then again, the game already is so jam-packed with events.

That said, even before I saw the ending I was saying to myself: ,,Boy, this sure would work great as an animated series.' Every episode would be a different mind and setup. The whole premise basically lends itself for serialization. This also poses a big question. Do I want a sequel? Have no doubt about it, every fiber in my body screams 'more!' and 'give us more, sea urchins at double fine!' And the ending did leave something open. See, I never clamoured for a sequel to Grim. That game had an ending that said 'Fin' in beautiful curly French letters. I'd rather had Tim invest his time in something new. And this time, I'm nudging towards that conclusion as well. Such a mind mustn't be constrained to recreating work already made. But, then, I also think the Psychonauts idea is too valuable to let go. Turning it into a spiffy animated series needn't take four years. I'll even help out. Gladly, even. Really, contact me.

But it's time to wrap this article up. I haven't been so infatuated with a game that I couldn't stop blurting about it in a long time. It was worth the wait. Psychonauts, in all its unstoppable creativity, is a testament to what gaming can be. Be gone with your dullard levels, your monotonous tapestry of repetitive gameplay! As Psychonauts has come to shine its light, all others suddenly pale in comparison. I think that, in the end, there is indeed but one word for this game.

Excellent.

Roderick.