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Psychonauts (PlayStation 2) artwork

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.

wolfqueen001's avatar
Community review by wolfqueen001 (July 28, 2009)

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If you don’t think, you die. If you’re not careful, you die. If you’re not afraid, you die. If you’re too afraid you die


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 July 28, 2009:

See? I knew you could write an awesome review.
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wolfqueen001 posted July 28, 2009:

Holy crap. That just got put up! Haha.

Thanks. (It's an awesome review?) Haha.
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zippdementia posted July 28, 2009:

Yes, this is very good. You took absolutely the right approach. Give it one more read through for some grammatical errors (there are quite a few... honestly, I was too engaged in reading the review to remember them all) but otherwise, this is an awesome piece.
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psychopenguin posted July 28, 2009:

Huh? This is beyond awful. I'm not even entirely sure I know what kind of game it is after reading that. I get it's a very nice piece of writing, but as a review on a video game I've never heard of, it fails. And it's supposed to be a review on a video game I've never heard of, right?
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zippdementia posted July 28, 2009:

Sadness. Another poor soul who has not played Psychonauts. I direct you here, good sir:

Watch and learn
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zippdementia posted July 28, 2009:

Sadness. Another poor soul who has not played Psychonauts. I direct you here, good sir:

Watch and learn
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psychopenguin posted July 29, 2009:

I'll check it out one day. I'm just saying the review did absolutely nothing to tell me about the game except you can use psychic abilities. Hey, you can do that in Psi Ops, too, but that game sucked.
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threetimes posted July 29, 2009:


Stomping around that town like Godzilla was crazy fun, collecting figments wasn't so much.

That paragraph all about Freud and your views on his theories seemed very much out of place, and I started to feel that I'd played a very different game. And no, I'm not going to write my own review of the game, as it's been a long time since I played it, but I had to go and read some other reviews to remember that it really was the same game I'd played.

Put simply, the inner self and outer self are almost two separate people, but changing the inner self affects the outer self in maintaining sanity and helping people come to peace with deeply personal issues.

That's the second time you said about putting something simply, and both times the following statements were far from simple, though you acknowledged that the first time!

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sashanan posted July 29, 2009:

As someone who has only seen Psychonauts in action briefly, I'd say your point about its personality is well made, but perhaps a little more attention to the basics (what kind of game is this in the first place?) would improve the piece. It's a general nagging feeling I get with a lot of HG reviews, though, where an otherwise strong piece does leave me wondering if it would be sufficient to inform a newcomer to the game what they're dealing with.

Of course, I tend to overcompensate in the other direction and get stuck on more technical detail than I should. It's a fine line, I suppose.
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JANUS2 posted July 29, 2009:

I like the underlying theme behind this review, that Psychonauts is special despite its simple gameplay. Having an idea or argument that runs throughout the writing is definitely a good thing, and will lead to sophisticated, interesting reviews. However, as others have said, the review does gloss over the gameplay a bit too much and the Freud thing was confusing and awkward. I think this may be partly due to the fact that you haven't written anything for a while. It's not easy to jump straight back into writing after a break and say exactly what you mean in the most eloquent way.

Unless your name is Dogma.
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wolfqueen001 posted July 29, 2009:

Ok. I've taken everyone's feedback into consideration and have edited the review appropriately as best I could. Mainly I tried making things smoother and less confusing, though I didn't cut out whole paragraphs or anything because the whole point for me writing the review was to argue something non-traditional. That being said, I did take out some sentences that were perhaps irrelevant or otherwise rearranged and rewrote things to make them more relevant, so hopefully it's better now. Either way, I'm satisfied enough with it; even with editing, I still end up arguing the things I wanted to argue. Despite what Zipp says, I still don't expect a whole lot from it, though I do hope the edited version gets at least a little better reception.

Thanks to everyone who commented. Though I will say that I don't particularly appreciate psychopenguin's insults. (What happened to you? You weren't this brash last time you were around.). But despite that, he did have a valid point, so I did try to add more fundamental stuff at the beginning. That being said, I still didn't alter focus to that or even discuss it in that much detail because fundamental game play isn't the focus of the review. However, I will admit that you really can't have a complicated argument without explaining at least some of the basics first, so that's what I tried to do.
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threetimes posted July 30, 2009:

Just read your revision and I now recognise the game I played. The introductory paragraphs really help.
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wolfqueen001 posted July 30, 2009:

Thanks. Glad that works out better now.

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