PS2 Review: Psychonauts

Most of America is psychotic for not buying this most majestic of platformers.

Psychonauts, the latest adventure from the bizarre brain of Tim Schafer (Monkey Island series, Grim Fandango), is the story of a young boy with phenomenal psychic powers. Unlike many platformer games, the story is quite integral and very entertaining.

The young hero goes by the name of Razputin, Raz for short, and escapes his family of circus folk to attend Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. This camp, as the name suggests, is no ordinary camp; it’s a bizarre cross between a super-secret NSA operation and the Boy Scouts. All campers are required to have psychic powers, and all – whether they like it or not – are in training to become psychonauts, the 007es of the psychic world.

The camp is run by three psychonauts with a help from a crotchety ranger who just might be more than he appears. When Raz crashes the opening ceremony, the responsible agents immediately decide to contact Raz’s parents as he must have permission to attend the camp. Of course, Raz’s father wants Raz to have nothing to do with psychics or gypsies, believing them to have cursed the entire family to die in water. To Raz, his mission is clear: become a psychonaut before his father arrives. Unfortunately, his father will arrive the next day, so Raz has his work cut out for him.

The plot thickens though as it soon becomes apparent that something is happening to the campers. They become automatons bent only on doing one thing: watching TV. Clearly, someone is stealing their brains. But who? And why?

The story may not have any real twists and turns, but its presentation is top-notch. Graphics and characters are highly stylized in a Tim Burtonesqe manner that renders them both unique and memorable. Many of the campers have ongoing subplots, and their distinctiveness adds to the rich tapestry that is Whispering Rocks. The outside world is filled with nooks and crannies, hidden caves and secret tunnels just waiting to be explored. Designers took their time in creating and polishing this world, and it is full of rich humor to be examined by Raz. Ultimately, the level detail is shown by the sheer variety of throw-away one-liners that abound when Raz is exploring and/or doing something stupid.

Adding to characterization is the perfection that is voice acting. Psychonauts does not feature voice acting of the normal video game caliber nor even of Saturday morning cartoon caliber; the acting and the direction would easily be suited to a big budget animated film. The soundtrack and accompanying effects are also excellent and provide the ideal finishing touches to an already flamboyant atmosphere.

Of course, Psychonauts is a platformer, and as such, there’s a lot to do. Raz has the normal jumping and punching of a platform hero, but he also has a number of psychic powers intended to aid him in his quest. Powers vary from traditional telekinesis and clairvoyance to the rather unique Psi-Shield and Psi-Blast. His ten powers are earned either through gaining levels or completing certain areas.

Levels are gained through collecting. Collecting what? Collecting a lot: psi cards, psi cores, scavenger hunt items in the outside world; figments and cobwebs inside levels. And those are only the things that have a direct impact on Raz’s level; there are a few more types of items that can be collected and redeemed for various rewards. While completionists will have a good bit of backtracking and hunting to do, casual fans will never feel it necessary to simply spend time hunting stuff down. All of Raz’s important powers are gained early, and later levels simply grant a boost to existing powers.

To unravel the mystery of the disappearing brains, Raz must spend time sorting through the personal demons of various people around camp. To do this, Raz must enter the psychic consciousness; levels consist of individual brains… with all the accompanying quirks. Such a setup allows for incredible diversity and creativity, especially since a few of the minds are certifiably insane.

Raz will get to explore a mind that’s filled with old war imagery, a place with barbed wire and a drill sergeant constantly yelling at him. On the opposite end of the spectrum, he’ll visit a mind that is quite clearly stuck in the disco age, and it will take all his powers of levitation to keep the party hopping. But either of those pales in comparison to the incredulity that is The Milkman Conspiracy, a twisting, floating neighborhood full of mysterious detectives bent on finding a milkman. And don’t forget the Goggalor level in which Raz enters the mind of a lungfish and plays a Godzilla-like character who helps the resistance movement free the town from the clutches of an equally large evil overlord.

Clocking in at around ten hours, the game is short enough that it keeps the entertainment value throughout. Since players are unlikely to find everything in a single playthrough, the game also features good replayability. With spot-on controls and side-splitting humor, Psychonauts is an easy recommendation.

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