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Psychonauts (Xbox) artwork

Psychonauts (Xbox) review

"When Subversion Is Subtext Rather than the Point"

How can I ever truly express my love for Psychonauts? Timeless and classic are too abstract concepts to adequately invoke the emotional reaction it creates; charismatic and sincere are too simple to describe the level of thought put into this game. The only description that evokes the same response as the game is nothing can compare to Psychonauts. Itís a one-of-a-kind type of game that isnít genre-breaking or even revolutionary to play, yet the amount of creativity packaged into one game into its writing, its gameplay and its level-design makes it incomparable. Games may have come that have incorporated one or two ideas, especially Double Fine, yet none possess all the qualities that define this game across the decade I have experienced it.

Empathy Is Not About Caring; Itís Understanding Another Life

On first appearances, Pyschonauts can be easily described as a 3D collect-o-thon platformer that takes place in peopleís minds. These abilities are not limited to the out-of-body nature of the game as these psychic abilities can be used throughout the camp-grounds, which further establishes the game as a collect-o-thon with the scavenger hunt side-quest. Instead of arbitrary requirements to progress, levels are focused on completing main objectives and the extraneous items are improvements to Razís capabilities. This different in goals is not what makes the game special. What separates this adventure from collecting random Jiggies or Stars is that every collectable in the brain-space has its own story to tell along with the level itself, even if it may not be an insightful one.

When traveling into peopleís subconscious, Raz can acquire several types of mementos scattered all around. Figments, Emotional Baggage, etc. are all framed as having personal value not to the player but to the host, and these elements all further delve into his or her character. Sometimes these collectables will provide backstory to the character or they may reaffirm aspects of the character you already know. This aspect is accentuated by the level-design, which always feels individually tailored to reflect personality traits through the art-style, the level-themed gimmicks and the atmosphere they create. Even the tutorial worlds feel refreshingly different as there is no standard water/lava/grass world you will find in many traditional games. No two levels in Pyschonauts are ever the same because they reflect different characteristics and different perspectives.

At first, this idea is used superficially to lend more detail to the characters. Goals remain clear as you explore the instructorsí minds, which lend some authenticity to their skills. The further you play, however, the more this element is used to enter more deranged states of the mind. This experience begins when you examine the mind of a lake monster, though it reaches its peak with the many hospitalized patients and Raz himself. Instead of simply gaining more details, the late-game shifts the purpose behind these explorations of the mind to learn about these characters and their history to help them cope with their plights. Itís honestly impressive for a game this old to delve into psychological disorders ranging from nepotism of Gloria to split-personality disorder of Crowley, a former Pyschonaut who manages to stay an agent despite his hardship. This also allows the game, especially one aimed at younger audiences, to be more insightfully subversive while teaching players the value of empathy.

When Subversion Is Subtext Rather than the Point

Although the last section blended the mechanics and the themes, itís worth discussing how much the writing impacts Pyschonauts to its benefit. Years after notable releases of games with high quality writing, the writing of Pyschonauts manages to walk the trapeze between playing on expectations and subverting them.

At its core, Raz's story is one many kids can emulate of the desire to be a secret agent, someone important as well as acclaimed for their accomplishment. Raz comes from a circus where his talents are not only ignored but belittled by his father. Over the course of the game, Raz becomes inadvertently adept and recruited into the Pyschonauts in a time of crisis, and this eventually results in Raz resolving not only his external motivation of becoming an agent but also his internal struggle with his family. Itís a beautifully simple story that would be fine on its own, yet itís the subversive elements throughout the narrative that make it truly unique.

Many stories often fall prey to subversions for the sake of them, yet Pyschonauts manages to make them meaningful. These subversions not only serve its comedy but also enhance the lessons Raz learns on his adventure, which have both narrative and gameplay components. For starters, the secret-agent motif behind the narrative is played for laughs. However, as previously mentioned, character is Pyschonauts strongest aspect as not only are their personalities embellished in the level-design, but the writing is often charismatic to delve into what are essentially tropes with some self-awareness. In terms of its gameplay, there are numerous examples to show how often the itself challenges playersí expectations such as the reverse Godzilla level, the Milkman levelís conspiratorial puzzles, or how the finale is handled with several fake-outs. Alone, these elements may seem insignificant, yet together it creates the lasting impressions of Pyschonauts that will stay with players for a lifetime.

Thereís Always Space on My Shelf Reserved for Another Chapter

Originally, I wanted to wait until Pyschonauts 2 to release between its long absence before properly reviewing this game. When it was officially announced on Fig, I began to wonder if the sequel could ever hope to live up to its predecessor; Tim Schafer and Double-Fine have certainly changed over the years, yet their dream to bring back Pyschonauts has never faltered. In many ways, Pyschonauts 2 feels like a game I, Double-Fine and many others wish to exist, and we all want it to exceed the expectations of the original. If it doesnít live up to the original, I fear more for the sake of Shafer and Double-Fine that they cannot rekindle that same magic. Whether or not the sequel will be able to live up to the impossible expectations by fans, the original Pyschonauts will be a game immortalized in my game library, and itís another chapter I eagerly await to add to my collection.


Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (April 05, 2021)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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