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Psychonauts (PC) artwork

Psychonauts (PC) review

"Remember back when Double Fine finished their games before selling them? Viva Psychonauts!"

The Meat Circus can go to hell. As a final stage, it showcases almost every little thing that Psychonauts does wrong, including all the miscellaneous fluff first-time developers Double Fine clearly felt they needed to make their game relevant to a mainstream audience. Well, they failed that spectacularly; the game is an infamous commercial failure and also has moments where it feels downright broken. Besieged with awkward and clumsy platforming sections, Meat Circus asks you to make a series of finicky leaps on an engine that has no idea how to promote such aspects as precession and accuracy. Then it asks you to do so with a camera that feels like itís trying to leg it out the back door if you donít auto-centre it every few seconds. Throw in some abject time limits that involve the environment and factor in soul-wearily cheap deaths and you have the Psychonauts finale - a level so crammed with false challenge they even make fun of it in the achievement header.

But itís also a showcase of the imaginative flair and creativity that still, to this day, makes me hate YOU, the reader, for not purchasing this game and dooming it to failure. One stage has you trying to telepathically halt a terrified bunny so a small boy can catch it before heís beaten to a pulp by rampaging mutants that spill out of nearby house-sized meat grinders. This is followed by a tunnel of love where you have to grind a metal rail through looping rib cages and sausage makers, leaping gaps and trying to ignore the juggling pork chops riding unicycles while armless swordsmen hurl blades at you with their feet.

So, these are things that happen, and are made everyday in the weird and wonderful saga of Raz; the boy who broke tradition by running away from the circus to spend the summer at a training camp for young psychics. The children who inhabit the camp are all animated with bizarre proportions that make it hard to pigeonhole Psychonautsí art style as anything more stable than surreal. It fits, because the entire game is built off a warped perspective of normality bent back so far on itself that the ridiculous is eventually accepted as the norm. Of course thereís a bear hanging out in the woods that swipes at you with the power of its mind. Of course Razís aquaphobia manifests itself as an aquatic hand that tries to pull him into any body of water he strays close to. Of course the first stage you take on is an army-style obstacle track constructed in the mind of the campís coach which you enter through a tiny doorway he slaps onto his forehead. Of course you can ask for advice via summoning your mentorís head from your ear by waving delicious bacon in front of it.

Most of Psychonauts takes place in the personified psyche of other people, turning their innermost thoughts and outward personalities into little worlds to explore and solve. The military boot camp is spawned by Coach Oleanderís Drill Sargent-esque persona, while entering the mind of Sasha Nien offers up a neat, sterile cube in keeping with his disciplined and emotionally detached character. Each new mind you visit works towards the acquisition of a new mental ability, physically displayed as a merit badge. The multi-layered dance party that takes place in the mind of Milla Vodello asks you to master the new gift of levitation to drift and leap to previously unreachable areas. Thereís wind shoots you need to float up and curved bowls you need to rocket around to gain valuable momentum while you claw your way towards a huge race against all the other cadets. On a track which might have looked at home in Sonic R if someone had force fed Team Sonic copious amounts of LSD.

Other skills involve invisibility, clairvoyance and the ability to set stuff on fire, which you will abuse by running around the campsite, setting squirrels and seagulls aflame. Because why wouldnít you if you suddenly discovered your mind was a weapon of mass destruction? Though the campsite mainly serves as a hub in which to hunt down brains to explore, itís alive and vibrant in its own right. The kids you share the camp with are involved in deep-rooted bully campaigns, under-sieged bromances and a band that would be much more popular if the drummer wasnít a recovering pyromaniac. You could spend time rooting out conversations between your camp-mates, unfurling secret social conspiracies, peeking into the inky darkness that lurks behind hyperactive cheerleaders or search for hidden currency and stat boosts that occasionally arenít placed in hideously unfair locations. Or you could ignore all that and just flit from minds, fighting fictional Napolťon on a hex-based mind-formed strategy board game or trying to make sense of the paranoid mess the milkmanís mind has become. Where trench coat-clad monotone-voiced secret agents try to pass themselves off as construction workers by holding stop signs and mumbling unconvincingly about the size of a non-existent passer-byís breasts.

For all its imaginative flair, people are going to be put off by Psychonautsí haphazard assembly; it has all the mechanical aspects of a product not quite completed, made by people not entirely sure what they were doing. At some point, the game decides youíve spent enough time learning how itís supposed to work and assumes you can effortlessly pull off a series of challenging jumps, or that youíve mastered its fumbling combat system. You havenít; of course you havenít, and what follows is a chorus of curses and rage-quitting or, in the case of the poor saps trying to play this on a keyboard, uncontrollable rage. But for those who can work past these flaws, Psychonauts has traits that seem largely forgotten in todayís conveyor belt of annual sequels and follow-the-fad gameplay. Itís genuinely funny, for one and has just the right amount of surrealist endearment and adolescent awkwardness to make it completely unique. Thereís nothing else out there quite like Psychonauts, where you can be fighting a lucha libre wrestling cat pretending to be an eagle in a neon pastel ring one moment, then be terrorising a city full of tiny lumpy fishmen as a Godzilla-sized monster the very next. Where you can be listening to a classmate tell you that his tin foil hat stops him accidentally exploding faces or another one trying to sneak time on the camp radio to return to her home planet, because she feels this world is doomed.

Issues exist, and thatís going to become painfully clear by the time youíve dragged yourself to the bloody Meat Circus and its effortless ability to tempt me into endless shots of tequila and manslaughter. Then Iíll nail a few jumps, or hit a few grinds and notice some little detail Iíd not seen before, or drag myself to any of the outstanding multi-faceted boss fights. Then Iíll fall right back in love all over again.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (December 12, 2014)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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If you enjoyed this Psychonauts review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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zippdementia posted December 13, 2014:

The Milkman stage is one of the singularly brilliant moments of video game history.
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EmP posted December 14, 2014:

It is all kinds of excellent.
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wolfqueen001 posted December 16, 2014:

The Milkman stage was my favorite stage in the whole game. I also really enjoyed the Goggelor stage, too, for its parody of monster movies. Truly a clever concoction of wit they managed to put together with this, and I still think fondly of it despite its obvious mechanical flaws.

Great review. May need a little proofreading, but otherwise the substance is engaging. You do well in describing the weirdness, which can be difficult with a game like this. I remember my clumsy attempt at reviewing this - I tried to review it from a psychology perspective (thanks, college), but it didn't work so well. Yours is better, and even though I haven't played it in several years, I find myself agreeing with you on every issue.

I will say, though, that I think the controls might be a little better on the PS2 version, but probably not much. I remember hating the Meat Circus, too, mostly for the cheapness of the whole thing than anything else. Also hated those damn confusion-causing rats in the asylum. Blech.
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EmP posted December 19, 2014:

I've gone through again and weeded out the typos I've missed. Hopefully I caught them all. A lot of them came from sentences I edited at zero hour and did a shoddy job of ensuring I'd not taken out then obsolete words.

I liked your Psychonauts review back in the day, even if you did try to find some kind of logic among the chaos. I think the controls were on par with the PS2 once I stopped trying to be a hero and battling through on the keyboard and dug out the gamepad. But they were still kind of rubbish.

Thanks for reading!
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WestSideWonder posted June 07, 2015:

If it weren't for the Meat Circus level, Psychonauts would almost be a perfect game.

I smiled like a maniac through most of my playthrough, and its hard to imagine others not doing the same.
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EmP posted June 09, 2015:

I actually have a save file parked at the Lungfish stage so I can stomp around at will. That stage just makes me smile.
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sashanan posted June 28, 2015:

Ooh, this resonates. I'm one of the poor keyboard players, and where else would I strand but at the Meat Circus, where I am pretty certain the sequence of moves the game wants from me requires more fingers than the average human has. By this time I'd long come to rely on YouTube videos showing exactly where to go and what to do - at this point even the LP'er repeatedly failed the move. Made me feel a little better about throwing in the towel, much as I hate to do that right at the final stage.
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EmP posted July 01, 2015:

I feel for you. When I replayed the game on the PC to write this review, I played more than half the game on the keyboard. I'd like to try and sound noble by claiming this was because I wanted an organic PC experience to base the review on, but the truth was that my gamepad was upstairs and, urgh, stairs.

Was the bit you quit at the circular cage with huge gaps in that's also on fire?
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sashanan posted July 01, 2015:

Sounds familiar. I think it might have been. I do remember I had to gently scroll the camera with a mouse motion while holding down three keys and then still using WASD to steer gently, but not too gently. Perhaps then to press space for a jump, not sure anymore. But it was just more than I could do at any one time, and I tried for a fair amount of time.

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