I Have Mixed Feelings for Psychonauts

Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot about Psychonauts 2, the highly anticipated sequel to, well, the first Psychonauts game, which released all the way back in 2005.  Intrigued, I was not quite ready to jump straight into the sequel when I had yet to play the original, so I downloaded Psychonauts on my PS4 and gave it a try.  Having now completed the game, does it make me want to try the sequel?  Well, this review will soon answer that question, so read on, dear readers!

Okay, I’ll be honest here.  I have…mixed feelings about Psychonauts.  It does a lot right, from the unique concept and creative levels that take place in people’s minds to the quirky characters and sense of humor.  I just…didn’t enjoy it all that much.  And yet, I can’t deny the fact that the game has really stuck with me in a way that few games can take credit for.  Let’s start with the positives, shall we?

First off is the story and characters.  You play as a boy with psychic abilities named Raz (short for Razputin), who ran away from home (his home just happens to be a circus) to train to be a Psychonaut (a psychic spy) at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp.  While a lot of protagonists can be kind of dull, Raz has a very likable personality, plus I love the fact that he has the same voice actor as Invader Zim.  In fact, I feel like anyone who enjoys the silly humor from the Invader Zim TV show would appreciate the humor in this game.

In fact, pretty much all the characters are quite fun and are paired with some really unique character designs, which works very well with the game’s humorous tone.  Honestly, this is the funniest game I’ve played in a long time, and I would often talk to characters just for fun or use various psychic abilities on them just to see how they’d react.  Surprisingly enough, one character in particular who stuck out to me was Crispin, the guy guarding the elevator in the asylum.  Despite not getting much screentime, he quickly became one of my personal favorites when he told me, in a deceptively polite voice, to “kindly back away from my elevator and die”.  I should be insulted…but I only laughed instead.

The levels in this game are also super creative, as well.  They take place in people’s minds, and while I didn’t think the first few levels were very interesting, the game becomes much better during the second half when you reach the abandoned insane asylum and explore the minds of several people dealing with different mental illnesses.  These levels were easily the most unique, and I was also impressed with the game’s ability to portray mental illness in a sympathetic light that never once made fun of the person’s issues.  Frankly, with the game’s rather dark sense of humor, I was quite surprised they were able to achieve a tone that was both respectful and funny at the same time.  Kudos to you, Double Fine.

That’s why it’s quite a shame that I felt like the game aspect of Psychonauts was the weakest part.  As I already mentioned, the story is interesting, the characters are funny, and the levels are creative and inspired.  It’s just not usually very fun.  Sure, Raz does get some interesting psychic abilities, like invisibility and levitation and clairvoyance.  And you can upgrade some of your abilities, too, when you achieve higher ranks (accomplished many different ways, such as collecting enough figments or finding enough PSI cards).

But so much of the game was just not very fun, most notably due to some really frustrating platforming.  I have no problem with a game being difficult.  But the challenge needs to be fair.  I recently completed both Ori games 100%, and they are great examples of difficult platformers that are well-designed.  But in the case of Psychonauts, I feel like the most irritating challenges came from the game being poorly made rather than my own inadequacy.

To illustrate, I once couldn’t get Raz to climb a ladder.  There was just one ladder in the whole game that gave me trouble.  I tried to climb it multiple times, but every time he reached the top, he’d jerk to the right and fall back to the ground.  I had to find an alternative way to reach this higher platform.

There were also a few parts in the final level where Raz had to spin on these swords stuck into a spinning wheel.  If the timing isn’t right, he won’t jump off.  So have fun trying to get his spinning and the wheel’s rotation just right so that you can actually reach the higher ledge!

And I swear I was pressing X when I jumped off those nets I was climbing!  But he wouldn’t double jump unless I mashed the button several times!  I know how to press a button!  It wasn’t my fault!  It wasn’t!

Huff huff, to top it off, the game was a bit glitchy, too.  Make sure you turn on subtitles because the audio will sometimes cut out.  Also, around the time I finished the game, I started hearing these loud…tapping noises?  It’s hard to describe, but many other people reported audio issues, as well.  The game also crashed once, which spurred me to try to move along at a faster pace because I was afraid it would happen again.  Which is fine because I think this game would be a nightmare to complete 100%, so I happily took any excuse to give up on my initial goal and just focus on finishing the main game.

I really want to recommend Psychonauts.  I really do.  Everything else about it was so good.  Why did the gameplay have to be so aggravating?  Despite all the issues, the game is probably still worth playing once.  After all, it’s only $10 on the PS4, and I got it on sale for $4, so money is definitely not an issue.  There really is a lot to appreciate in this game.  It just depends on if the aggravation is worth it.

As for the sequel, I’d really like to know if Psychonauts 2 fixes the issues the original game had.  Because I’m way less willing to take a chance on a $60 game I may not enjoy.  Dear readers, is Psychonauts 2 worth checking out?  And did you find the first game to be as frustrating as I did?  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below!

This post was originally published on Virtual Bastion on October 18, 2021.

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