On April 19, 2005, Double Fine Productions released its first videogame — Psychonauts, a 3D platformer for the original Xbox. It was a cult classic loved by critics and fans alike for its quirky humor, imaginative level design, and memorable characters. Over the years, the fanbase grew and they hoped one day their favorite game would receive a sequel. Luckily for them, in 2015, Double Fine Productions announced a crowdfunding campaign for Psychonauts 2 with a target goal of three million dollars — which the fans thoroughly smashed.
Six years later, Psychonauts 2 is set to be released sometime in 2021. Personally, I never played the original Psychonauts back in the day when it first came out. But now it's been added to Xbox Game Pass as a backward-compatible title; I figured now is the perfect time to see what I missed out on.
The adventures of Razputin Aquato
Our story follows the adventures Razputin Aquato, a young acrobat that happily performed in his family's circus for many years until one day he developed psychic powers. His father disapproves of psychics in general, and their relationship became strained as a result. Feeling rejected by his father, Raz decides to run away from the circus and sneak into the Whispering Rock summer camp. This wasn't just any summer camp, it was a secret government training facility designed to help kids develop their psychic powers and potentially become recruits for the Psychonauts — psychic secret agents who safeguard the world from criminals and terrorists.
Raz is looking to join the Psychonauts in hope of being with psychics like himself to assuage his loneliness. Raz gets caught by the teachers, but they so were impressed by his psychic powers that they decided to let Raz take part in the classes until his parents come by to pick him up. As Raz gets to know his classmates and learn more about his powers, he discovers some villains who plan to steal the brains of the campers as part of a plot to take over the world. Raz must now track down the villains' hideout and use his psychic powers to literally delve into the minds of crazy and eccentric characters to rescue his classmates.
What first caught my attention about Psychonauts was how fleshed out the plot and characters were for a platformer of its time. For example, I assumed the kid's interactions with Raz were going to be simplistic, taking the role as mere quest givers with limited exposition, but they weren't. They were just going about their daily lives playing music, talking with each other, and getting into petty schoolyard squabbles like real kids. Every time I finished a level or got a new upgrade, the campers would always have something new to say.
Like the schoolyard bully Bobby Zilch who likes to act all tough and be a jerk to everyone, but he secretly has a soft side that his girlfriend, Chloe Barge, is trying to help him bring out more. Or Phoebe Love debating with her best friend Quentin Hedgemouse on what their rock band's name should be, while learning to keep her pyrokinesis powers under control during a drum solo. Once the villains showed up and started kidnapping them, I found myself more motivated to save them. I became endeared to the little tykes through their daily antics, and more connected to the game's world as a result.
Raz himself is a likable protagonist. He's smart, adorably awkward, and he cares for his fellow classmates and teachers. His curiosity often gets him into trouble because he's still a kid, but he's willing to quickly fix any trouble he has caused.
However, most of the adults are not as open to talking to you as kids. You will need to use your psychic powers to peer into their minds to learn their stories and progress in the game.
A uniquely satisfying action platformer
The gameplay of Psychonauts is split between the hub-world area of Whispering Rocks and jumping into the minds of its inhabitants. In the hub world, you will be exploring the campgrounds for collectibles that can be used to upgrade your abilities, while talking with the NPCs to advance the story.
The meat of Psychonauts' gameplay comes from projecting yourself into the different character's minds, which act as the game's levels. Each level is a twisted and distorted world formed from the character's traumatic past and filled with personifications of their personal demons. You will need to platform your way through each level's various deathtraps, fight off personal demons and censors (which are the mind's natural defenses against intruders), and sometimes fight a boss at the end. For example, one of the first bosses you will face is a giant, mutated censor, created by a mind comprised of multiple Censors fused together. While other bosses later on, without going into too much detail, are manifestations of a character's greatest fears — some of which may relate to your own personal fears.
The level design is extremely well-done and perfectly captures the warped mental states of whoever's noggin you're poking around in. On one level, you may delve into the mind of a paranoid conspiracy theorist filled with security cameras and secret service agents, and on another level, you will be dodging bullets and explosions on a WW1-themed battlefield within the mind of a veteran soldier. The art direction is so on point that it still looks good today, proving that your game doesn't necessarily need to pump out as many polygons as possible to look good. Each level has its own gimmicks like racing, stealth, or puzzle segments but they stay within the realms of platformer mechanics to maintain's the game's focus.
These levels also contain tons of collectibles that reward you with currency, behind-the-scenes artwork, and slideshows that contain snippets of a character's backstory. Though some of these collectibles may not be reachable at first until you acquire a new ability, incentivizing you to replay levels.
To complete these levels and save your friends, you will need to use your psychic powers to explore these mindscapes. Thankfully, you have all sorts of abilities to use like telekinesis, pyrokinesis, marksmanship (a.k.a. mind bullets), clairvoyance, levitation, and many more. Your telekinetic powers can help you jump across huge chasms and move large objects to solve puzzles. And powers like pyrokinesis and marksmanship are used to blast censors and the manifestations of past traumas into oblivion.
In short — I love the gameplay of Psychonauts. Every level is so unique, and the powers you use to traverse them are so much fun to play with. Not to mention, the controls are simple to use and very responsive even after 16 years. Although, there are a couple of minor nitpicks I have, which are steeped mostly dated mechanics modern games have long abandoned.
Firstly, this game has an extra life system. If you lose all your lives while exploring a mind, you will be kicked out and be forced to start the whole level all over again. Fortunately, this game isn't that difficult, so you won't have to worry about losing your progress too much.
My biggest complaint comes from the final level, which features an escort mission. It's pretty frustrating because your escort dies pretty quickly and has no survival instincts whatsoever. I had bullrush my way through the level and forsake all the collectibles to keep him alive. Thankfully, this escort mission is pretty short and is only at the beginning. Also, whenever the escort dies, you don't lose any extra lives, so you don't have to worry about being forced to restart the whole area all again.
One of the best backward compatible Xbox games
In conclusion, I'm now kicking myself that I didn't play this game back when it first came out on the original Xbox. It is fun, imaginative, well-thought-out, and it still holds up today. Psychonauts is now one of my favorite 3D platformers alongside Spyro the Dragon, and I can't wait to play the sequel. If you like platformers, I would definitely give Psychonauts a try. Especially if you have Xbox Game Pass because I feel this is one of the best backwards compatible Xbox games currently available for the service.
Mind over matter
Take a trip into the minds of misfits and madmen.
Follow the adventures of Razputin, a young psychic who is on a quest to join the world's finest psychic secret agents — the Psychonauts. Learn to hone your psychic powers to defy the laws of physics, uncover hidden memories, and battle monstrous personifications of personal traumas.
Alexander Cope is a writer for Windows Central and iMore that has been gaming since the 16-bit era.
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