Psychonauts in Review

So I played through Psychonauts over the course of a month or so, and just recently completed. I was really impressed with the game initially: it has a distinctive, fun art style, the story parts were reasonably entertaining with a diverse cast of distinctive and amusing characters, and the gameplay put me in mind of Banjo-Kazooie or Super Mario 64, in terms of being a cartoonish 3D platformer with an emphasis on collecting things rather than on raw platforming challenges.

Then I got stuck for the first time. The game never explains you even have an inventory, let alone how to access it, and there's an early sequence where you need to put a button in a specific location to advance the game. This isn't any kind of actual puzzle: it's at most comparable to Doom keycards, and honestly I'm not actually sure why it's a thing the game forces the player to do at all, above and beyond the problem created by not explaining the inventory.

"Okay," I thought. "This is a pretty awful oversight, especially less than an hour into the game, but overall it's been a strong game."

This is where we come back to me specifying getting stuck for my first time. Because it kept happening, and for completely inane reasons. At one point you need to get Levitation to advance deeper into the game, and what the game expects you to do -without explanation, hint, anything- is to punch a piece of meat so it will produce bubbles for you to rise up with. I'd tried literally everything else I could do on this meat to no effect, and had given up on it as obviously something I was supposed to come back to later with a new power: nope, punch the meat so it makes bubbles.

At one point I was thinking I'd keep a list of these incidents. I had this idea I'd talk about the game in overall positive terms, and just note the handful of times the creators messed up so badly that advancement is completely incomprehensible. The deeper I got into the game, the more normal the problems became, and the less normal enjoying myself became. The plot swerved to the side substantially, and stopped being entertaining. It became increasingly obvious Psychonauts had no clue what it actually wanted to be as a game: most levels are really more like a Lucasarts adventure game that happens to be operating in an engine that's trying to be a 3D platformer-slash-beat-em-up, in that you complete the level by figuring out whatever arcane non-logic the game expects you to magically intuit and then implement it and move on to the next crazy 'puzzle'.

Often, extremely basic stuff goes unexplained, and yet is completely necessary to complete a level. There's a Napoleon-themed level where you can switch between three different sizes, sort of like Super Mario 64's Tiny-Huge Island, but while shrinking down is easy to stumble into getting back to the larger sizes requires you to realize that the conspicuous corks that fountain water when punched will push you to the middle size if you jump into them with aerial Levitation active, and returning to the largest size involves finding-slash-identifying a non-obvious ladder. You have to repeatedly switch between all three sizes to beat the level, and I spent a good 20 minutes stuck in the smallest size, unable to advance and with no clue what the issue was.

Then there's the issue of money. You need to buy an expensive item from the shop -the Mental Cobweb Duster- to be able to complete the game at all, but acquiring money is exceedingly tedious and slow, even if you ignore literally all the other purchasables. More realistically you'll save up enough to buy the item that lets you get more money faster, but even that is tedious and slow and boring, just less tedious and slow. I had to stop playing the game for a good hour so I could grind money before I could get back to real gameplay because of this nonsense, and I'd been going out of my way to collect money throughout the game. And this isn't the only mandatory money eater!

And there's fifty billion collectibles, many of which are impossible to collect the first time you do a level. I 101%-ed Donkey Kong 64, a game rightfully infamous for its nature as an obnoxious collectathon, and I can't find it in me to bother with Psychonauts' collectathon because it's not actually interesting. Donkey Kong 64 places the majority of its collectibles behind minor-to-major challenges that are at least mildly interesting in their own right. Psychonauts just litters its levels with them, lying all over the place, and then makes you have to jump through hoops to actually get any benefit from several of them. Oh, and the majority of the collectibles are just how you grind for levels, which are themselves largely worthless: the only level-up I got that I actually appreciated any was my mind bullets being upgraded to bounce, making the mobs of enemies the game occasionally threw at me less tedious and ammo-intensive to take out.

Donkey Kong 64 also makes for another useful comparison point/segue: boss fights. I like most of the boss fights in Donkey Kong 64. They're fun on their own merits, by and large. The boss fights in Psychonauts are... not. They're all extremely simple, not at all challenging, and yet very often obnoxiously obtuse. There's a fight against a lungfish where I spent ten minutes completely unable to figure out how to hurt the boss, because it was arbitrarily based on breaking a specific kind of destructible object while it was drawing in air. Break it any other time? Nothing happens. Break anything else? Nothing happens. Use any of your cool, powerful psychic powers? They're all worthless. You've got this one answer, with zero hints, which arbitrarily works because whoever coded the boss decreed it so, and everything else is worthless because the coder decreed it so. This is typical of Psychonauts' bosses too, and it's a good example of how the leveling system is worthless: because in many situations, the bonuses don't do anything because your powers don't do anything!

The psychic powers that are being presented as the core gameplay. Note that. The core mechanics are often completely irrelevant. There's an entire level where Levitation just straight-up doesn't work for thematic reasons, screw you, a core mechanic you only recently unlocked is worthless now.

The endgame was what really killed it for me, though. I'd sort of basically accepted that I'd misunderstood the game and it was less Banjo-Kazooie and more Secret Of Monkey Island wearing an ill-fitting Banjo-Kazooie costume, and then I got to the endgame and whoops it's time for extremely tight platforming challenges, no puzzles here. Two of these sequences are functionally timed, and they'd be obnoxiously challenging even if they weren't. One of them is a vertical sequence that's an escort mission where the individual you're escorting stops time so they can run ahead and get in trouble shortly after you catch up to them. In, again, a vertical sequence, so that if you mess up in your attempts to catch up you're probably falling very far behind, and they're probably going to die. The only mercy is that if they die you don't lose a life or any health: your only punishment is being forced to restart the entire escort sequence... which is honestly pretty miserable itself.

Not to mention the endgame involves multiple of its terrible, boring, simple bosses, but now they do insane amounts of damage. And if you lose a life in the middle of a boss fight, you have to start the boss fight over from the beginning.

So after having spent the majority of the game basically playing a point-and-click adventure game minus the point-and-click part, we suddenly and with no warning shift gears to 'physical' challenges that would be exceptionally challenging if the game had actually been building up to this, and since it hasn't the player really has no reason to have gotten particularly competent at the relevant skills. This isn't even getting into how you end up having to listen to the same handful of soundclips from the same handful of characters over and over and over and over as a result of the design. And the endplot is boring wish fulfillment fantasy nonsense in which everyone recognizes the main character's greatness for no real reason all of a sudden, so the narrative payoff for victory is just bleh.

The whole experience has been terribly disappointing. I heard good things about Psychonauts, and had been wanting to play it for years and, for various reasons, hadn't been able to get a hold of it until recently. I'd been excited to play this game, looking forward to it, and at first these good feels had seemed justified... but I really can't recommend the game in good faith to others.

It's not a fun game.

I'm now lot more hesitant to give BrĂ¼tal Legend a try. It's sitting in my Steam library, having been given away for free at one point, but I'm worrying I'll end up dumping another ten or so hours into a Psychonauts-esque disappointment.

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