Psychonauts is an awesome game. Or, to be more specific, it is an awesome game in the middle of two decent games. It's always good, but when it peaks towards the middle, it is great.
I managed to pick up this game for the princely sum of $2 during a special sale on Steam. It's TOTALLY worth that, and much more. Still, if it hadn't been for the sale, I likely wouldn't have picked it up. The game has a great reputation, but it belongs to the platformer genre, which I'm not particularly fond of. I expected that I would need to endure a decent amount of platforming in order to experience the good stuff. This turned out to be pretty accurate.
First, the universally positive: The art direction throughout the whole game is wonderful. It's semi-realistic cartoony, very colorful and detailed, with a cheerful disregard for actual proportions or body types. The character designs are endearing, and grow even more so as you get to know the characters better. The voice acting is also quite good.
The early part of the game has a fairly interesting concept, but the story itself is just OK. There's no real sense of urgency during the obligatory training sections of the game that teach you your platforming moves. When the plot proper kicks off, it feels like a fairly conventional story that happens to be tied to a more interesting background.
Ah, but in the middle portion of the game - wow! All attempts at realism are shrugged off, rationality goes out the window, and you're left with a sublimely creative experience. For many levels you get to experience varied gameplay, radically different visual design, and some of the funniest gaming that I've ever encountered. It's bliss. It's darn near perfection.
And then... I won't say that they ruin it, but they shift gears pretty abruptly towards the end. The game gets insanely hard, in the worst kind of platforming way: not "This is a challenging puzzle", but "If you fail to make these twenty jumps in exactly the right way, you will fail and need to start the whole level over again." Fortunately, the plot continues to be awesome, but even with that I was sorely tempted to quit even when I was on the cusp of victory.
It's a bit of an oversimplification, but I tend to enjoy art that deals with the mind more than normal. Anything that deals with dreams, fantasy, madness, muses, or the creative process automatically gets some more leeway from me, and often ends up on my favorites list. So, it shouldn't be too surprising that a game about psychic special agents, with a climax in an insane asylum, would attract me so much.
The whole kid angle was a bit of a bummer at first. The game is largely set in a summer camp, and the majority of the characters seem to be between four and ten years old. The early part of the game feels overly cutesy, and for a while I was wondering whether I was really the target audience or not. There are some bright spots, particularly Dogan, an adorably clumsy little guy who can make peoples' heads explode. For the most part, though, the camp feels like something to endure.
The game gets really good when you reach the insane asylum. Well, actually just before that: my attitude towards Psychonauts really shifted once I entered Lungfishopolis. This awesome level depicts you as a Godzilla-type monster rampaging your way through an innocent city of terrorized little lungfish (after you have just completed an intense boss battle against a much larger lungfish). The level is great, with an exuberant sensibility, high humor both in its references and its overall composition, a nicely balanced difficulty, and... well, it just feels great.
Probably the high point of the entire game for me was The Milkman Conspiracy. Again, this may partly be because of my own personal prejudices - anything about conspiracies automatically attracts me. But still, everything about this level just clicked. The wonderful Rube Goldberg construction of the neighborhood. The puzzle-focused gameplay (there was little combat or gimmicky platforming in this level). And, above all, the astonishingly perfect secret agents. I cracked up over and over again as I played through the level and its various disguises.
The levels inside the asylum are great as well; I appreciate their variety as well as their content. I did the artist level first, and loved its gorgeous art design; again, the humor was strong, particularly in the luchador fights. The Napoleon level was another great one. Here, it was the gameplay itself that I liked the most, specifically the puzzles. I'm a sucker for board games, and don't get to play them much any more, so I had a lot of positive associations with the meta-game that is taking place here. The theater one wasn't QUITE as much fun, but it was still good... the variety of plays within the game was fun, plus I got a kick out of the extended confrontation with the critic at the end. It's hard to hear something like that without thinking about the game's own reception; when the critic is spewing his criticisms, you mentally think about a reviewer from IGN or 1UP applying them to Psychonauts, and smile.
And then, all too soon, comes the Meat Circus. Ugh. You have the combination of a highly annoying voice, plus a timed level (which hasn't been a factor in almost any other section of the game), plus a pure platforming grind with no puzzle-solving elements at all. I spent about an hour in the big top trying to save a stupid bunny, then got fed up and quit. I returned several days later, and managed to clear the big top on my first try, but thanks to luck more than anything else. After you clear the big top, you have some more platforming and boss fights to get through. The boss fights are pretty good, as they are through the rest of the game... it's never a case of just whomping on the bad guy, each battle requires careful observation and developing a unique strategy that will defeat them.
The actual end of the game is nice... maybe just a tad more abrupt than I would have preferred, but it still provides a decent resolution to everything. It mostly manages to wash out the bad taste in my mouth left over from the Meat Circus.
Oh, yeah, and back to the kids: turns out that this isn't a children's game after all. I kind of suspect that this might be part of the reason why the game wasn't more successful than it was. The first half-hour or more of the game doesn't really give any indication of the psychological (ha!) territory that it will be traveling through. I suspect that a lot of adults who start playing the game will get bored and stop before they get to the good stuff. And any children who get to the end... well, depending on their age, nightmares aren't out of the question. The late part of the game is surprisingly bloody and disturbing. Which I love, of course... it's tough for a piece of art to pull off that transition from bright into dark territory successfully, and Psychonauts manages to drag it out for a long while.
The best parts of Psychonauts are among the best gaming experiences I've had in years. The worst parts are dull or frustrating. The heights of the good more than make up for the bad, though. Turn to Psychonauts if you're looking for a demented modern adventure platforming game.