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Psychonauts

A review by MrManager, who maintains he wasn't paid off.

I know many of you will not take the time to read this review, and I honestly can't say I blame you. We've been covering Psychonauts for so long that you probably have already made up your mind about getting the game or not. In fact, I bet most of you will just glance up at the score (when we still had scores), snicker "I knew it" sarcastically, and go on with your lives. And I'm OK with that. Should you for some unknown reason still be on the fence, however, you might just want to give me one last chance to enlighten you about how great this game really is.

Psychonauts is, for those of you who have Googled their way in here for the first time, the latest game from Double Fine, Tim Schafer's post-Grim Fandango company. It's an action/adventure that combines elements from classic graphic adventures with platform games, while also throwing a bunch of other genres in to the mix for good measure.

You play the role of Raz, a circus runaway who has broken into a summercamp for psychic children where he hopes to learn the skills of a Psychonaut, kind of a psychic soldier. The twist - and you know there was one - is that somebody seems to be stealing the kids' brains, and it's up to you to figure out what's going on.

The majority of the game takes place in two locations. First you have the summercamp, where you interact with other campers, participate in scavenger hunts, and search for PSI markers (collect enough to gain new abilities) and arrowheads (the camp's monetary system). The other part is the inside of people's minds. Here you control a psychic projection of yourself, and your main objective is to get rid of the various characters' personal demons. This is, if you will, the "levels" in the game.

Those of you who have played the demo might expect the majority of the levels to be pure platforming. Now granted, there's certainly a lot of that, but you will be surprised at how much variety there is to be found in the game. For example, you will go through pure shooters, board games, and even a couple of levels that are heavily slanted toward adventure game puzzling. Double Fine has done a great job at keeping the gameplay diverse, and it's equally impressive how they've given each location a very distinctive look.

Yes, the graphics really do deserve a special mention. One of the problems with a lot of 3d games is that they end up looking very same-y, largely because of the re-use of textures and models. This is not the case with Psychonauts, where the graphics vary from black velvet laced Spanish cities to pastel colored 1950s suburbia. You have to give credit to art director Scott Campbell and his team for managing to keep a consistency within the variety, while avoiding a disjointed feel that easily could have occured.

Of course, variety wouldn't mean much if the game looked like crap. Thankfully this isn't a problem and Psychonauts literally drips of atmosphere, with little details in each level that give hints about each character's background. This can range from "figments" which you collect to enhance your abilities to "emotional baggage" that needs to be cleaned up to access bonus material. There is also "memory vaults" which contain stories from the person's past. While finding and resolving all of these is not an absolute necessity, it really does add a lot to the game, and will likely make anybody that enjoys strong character-based storylines very happy.

The camp itself is also an interesting aspect of the game. While it works as a map between stages on its most basic level, it is also where the more detailed and fun part of the storyline occurs. Filled with all kinds of crazy campgoers and staffers, there are soap operas playing out all over the place and the hormones are flying. Interacting with the characters will, not surprisingly, give you a deeper understanding of the characters' personalities, but if you want to get to the real meat, you will need to check out the bulletin boards spread around the camp to read all kinds of crazy messages and rumors. Listening in on conversations is also fully possible, and very amusing. The depth this brings to the game is something rarely seen anywhere these days, and just running around camp learning more about the characters and the camp itself can add hours to the game play.

The soundtrack also gives a lot to the atmosphere, very much in the same way as it did in Grim Fandango. Most of the music is a bit wackier this time around ("Happy Flowers" being a prime example), and that goes well with the equally crazy settings. Just as impressive is the voice acting, which is quite possibly some of the best I've heard in any video game, and which takes each character's personality to a new level.

So the story, dialogue, characters, look, sound and creativity all works superbly well, but what about the actual platforming part? The good news is that both the controls and camera work great, and the game play is both superbly fun and easy to pick up. Psychonauts as a standalone platformer is for the most part a joy to play. Sure, there are some quirks, and certain parts of any platformer will always be frustrating, but it never reaches a level that will have you throw the gamepad down in anger.

Really, what it all comes down to in the end is that I totally dig Psychonauts. The way all the elements of the game comes together to create something that's fun, funny and highly atmospheric is something you rarely see in games these days, and you really should jump at the chance to play this game. The story itself should leave most fans of classic LucasArts adventures satisfied, and the actual game play just adds to the experience. In short, Psychonauts is probably the most fun game I've played in years.

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Pros: Great story and dialogue. Stunning visuals and audio. A lot of fun.
Cons: Some minor quirks and frustrating parts.

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