Psychonauts (PlayStation 2) review
"On the surface, Psychonauts may not appear remarkable. Broken down, it’s just like any genre-fusing game. Like an RPG, it features a specially gifted character with a “Time to save the world!” complex. Like an action-adventure, you run around a series of levels collecting items for upgrades and power ups until your task for that area is complete. Like a brawler, you slay most enemies without much thought. Like a platformer, you dodge hazards while working your way through a maze of obstac..."
On the surface, Psychonauts may not appear remarkable. Broken down, it’s just like any genre-fusing game. Like an RPG, it features a specially gifted character with a “Time to save the world!” complex. Like an action-adventure, you run around a series of levels collecting items for upgrades and power ups until your task for that area is complete. Like a brawler, you slay most enemies without much thought. Like a platformer, you dodge hazards while working your way through a maze of obstacles.
Well, Psychonauts isn’t just like any genre-fusing game. Deep down, this title is unique. It’s very Freudian, with creative realms and thought-provoking scenarios. Its simplicity is charming and enjoyable without becoming wearing. And its combination of psychology with the paranormal leads to some interesting situations.
Razputin is just like any ten-year-old psychic runaway circus performer. Afraid of the persecution he faces at home, he seeks to enhance his abilities in the hopes of becoming the world’s youngest psychonaut – a psychic warrior that defends humanity from the diabolical plots of unstable unusually gifted people. To improve himself, he seeks the tutelage of the counselors at Whispering Rock, a psychic training camp for children like him. There a host of challenges await him. Exploring trainers’ minds to increase psychic aptitude is the least of his worries. When a look inside his own head leads to a horrifying discovery that eventually affects all the other kids in the camp, he takes it upon himself to save them. To do so, he enters the minds of the insane in order to help them overcome their issues so they can help him from the outside.
If Freud likened consciousness to an iceberg, then Psychonauts took that idea and ran with it. Every mind you enter reflects that person: their personality, mental state and general disposition. Trainer Sasha Nein is serious and controlled, and so is his mind, which takes the shape of a giant cube, simulating compact and organized thought. The bubbly and carefree Milla Vodello’s mind consists of a huge party with enough space and platforming elements to complement her knack for levitation.
However, many realms feature hidden secrets as well, some of which are completely unknown to the person consciously. This is especially true for the crazed. In the outside world, paranoid schizophrenic Boyd Cooper acts as security for the asylum, with delusions about a mysterious milkman. And while his inner self may still be just as delusional, there is nothing to indicate his position on the outside. After solving the mystery, Boyd’s conscious self has no recollection of the events that took place inside his mind, but his behavior afterwards makes it clear that they had an effect. It’s these consciously unacknowledged goings-on in people’s minds that clearly represent Freud’s theory of the subconscious.
One of Psychonauts’s greatest strengths is its imaginative constructions of psychological phenomena, many of which tie back to Freud. The enemies you fight in people’s minds aren’t just expressions of the mental realms themselves such as the plant monsters inside Raz’s head. In fact, most represent mental concepts such as repression and trauma. Censors conjure images of suits sitting behind desks stamping paperwork, and in the mental realm, that’s exactly what they do. Only instead of paper, they’re stamping out potentially harmful mental influences. These foes easily fit into Freud’s theory of repressed memory. Personal demons literally manifest themselves as annoying little creatures that blow up in your face. Even traumatic experiences turn up as nightmares, which, if uncontrolled by the host, need to be beaten.
Even some of Freud’s less-respected ideas make an appearance. His conclusion that all of humanity’s problems stem from sex or your parents is obviously ridiculous and so is his idea that personality only develops during childhood, but these also turn up throughout the course of the game. Many of the characters’ issues arise out of seriously traumatic events, and it’s this deep personal touch that makes the game endearing.
Gloria von Gouton is bipolar. Her mood swings alternate between lofty detachment and psychotic rage. Venturing into her subconscious, you see her perfectly sane – if busy – inner self directing a play about her past. There, Raz must convince the star performer to come back on stage after the incredibly mean critic blames her for drawing out mysterious, evil phantom, who only seems to strike whenever she performs. In trying to convince the star, and later trying to stop the phantom, Raz discovers the cause of Gloria’s problems. In what is probably the most tragic story in the entire game, we learn a tale of cruelty, abandonment and loss rivaling some of those seen in the news.
Gloria’s mind is probably my favorite level, but not for design. Actually playing the level is a bit tedious. You must constantly switch sets, change moods and replay scripts in order to reach the catwalks where the phantom resides, which can get a bit annoying considering the stage is just one big room. But it’s the story that each script tells that makes it captivating. Each script’s story changes with the mood, and altering sets can lead to some amusing outcomes when played wrong.
Many levels in the game are like this. They’re not very special on their own, but the writing – which can sometimes be downright goofy – and the underlying stories that personalize each character make the game extremely attractive.
Perhaps one of the goofiest levels consists of a rather large underwater city named Lungfishopolis for the denizens that dwell there (one of which whose mind you invaded). Instead of being normal-sized, however, the writers take a jab at Godzilla. As the monster Goggelor, so named for the ever-present goggles he wears, Raz’s unnatural size allows him to crush anything in his path, climb large buildings, and altogether terrorize the city. But this seemingly anti-intuitive behavior serves a purpose. In a jab at anime, you must destroy the monster Kochamara, who has hijacked the fish’s mind in order to make it do his bidding. At the end of the level, the two monsters face off. In typical DBZ fashion, your opponent strikes with the aptly named DEADLY TRIANGLE BEAM and a complicated series of punches and kicks no anime-style battle can do without. (This, too, has an amusing name: OVERLY INTRICATE COMBINATION!.)
Winning may be easy – all you have to do is raise your psi-shield whenever he attacks and then strike back when he finishes – but that hardly matters considering the fight’s amusing qualities.
Sometimes in order to appreciate a game, we need to ignore its fundamental aspects – how it plays, its level of challenge, the overall quality of design – and instead focus on its subtler, deeper qualities. In the case of Psychonauts, its greatest flaw is its greatest strength. In being simple, we see its true nature: the alluring side-stories, the creative realm design that appropriately fits each character, the balance between funny and serious writing that make you care about each character’s past, and the intriguing connections to Freudian psychology. Without these, the game would be nothing remarkable at all. With them, it’s definitely worth looking at.
Community review by wolfqueen001 (July 28, 2009)
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