14 - Starting Psychonauts

Well, now we are back into the blog and I am excited. The last few weeks have been pretty hectic with trips to China for family things, work, and seeing friends so I haven’t been able to write as much. I hope all of you listened to the Watch Out for Fireballs episode about Planescape: Torment. Kole and Gary had a good discussion that will only get better with this week’s episode where they can get into more overarching meanings and story beats (I heard it clocks in around 4 hours). I am looking forward to that to see if any of their interpretations or take-aways line up with my own. I really liked how I was able to dig a little deeper into the game and take much more out of it than I initially thought while keeping a (possibly too) critical eye using the blog.

Anyway, that’s for another time. Let’s move onward in the Backlog Killer with Psychonauts!

[I didn't realize you could run all over this brain on the title screen.]


First impressions.

I was pretty on the nose with what I thought Psychonauts would look like based on the box art. The game features an exaggerated art style that is pretty indicative of many cartoons and media from that era. It reminds me of old shows I used to watch on Nickelodeon such as Ren & Stimpy or Rocko’s Modern life. I assume that most of the characters are ‘human’, or the analogue in that world, but they all have vastly different proportions and varying sizes of… everything.

[Love these designs.]

The writing is very good and comes through as mature and professional which is consistent with Tim Schafer’s other works. It moves at a good clip and is economical as a good movie script should be. This very rarely happens when I am playing games, but I actually laughed out loud a lot at the jokes. Callbacks, comic timing, and other things you never see done well in games really come through here. Check it out:

[Bobby Zilch is such a jerk.]

The game play itself is exactly what I was expecting. Very similar to Mario 64 or Crash Bandicoot, the camera rotates around your character (named Raz) while you jump and punch. I was immediately at home. It also comes with all the downfalls of this type of platforming play in a 3d environment, most notably the problems of perspective and distances. I really hope this doesn’t come back to bite me.

The game also includes detailed OCD elements like finding cards to rank up, arrowheads to use as currency, and other secrets that look like they will reveal themselves. I usually don’t go in for this stuff, but it’s really getting to me now. I ran around the initial hub gathering everything for 30 minutes and still missed one. This still upsets me when I think about it…

[Picking up arrowheads.]

Now that I know what the game is going to be like, let’s get into the story!

What the heck’s going on here?

The introduction video above does a good job setting the scene. Raz is a boy with psychic powers ostracized and feared by his family who works in the circus. He runs away from his former life to the Psychonauts summer camp to use his abilities to become a psychonaut. Based on the dialogue of the camp leaders, it appears that Raz has impressive abilities and control for his age setting him up as a classic hero ready to take down some shady enemy in the future. After going to sleep, making a save game file, and waking up from sleep, we step outside and are told to attend an introductory training course with one of the camp leaders.

At this point you are set free and allowed to explore and run around the initial area which is operates as a tutorial/obstacle course. There is no time limit on when you need to get to the training, but I was very nervous after getting boned in the latest Deus Ex game for goofing around the office and causing the death of some hostages by arriving later... loved that part. Anyway, you run around getting a feel for the jumping physics, learning to climb objects, and experiencing how exploring can really help you.

[Map of the first hub.]

Buried around the camp are purple arrowheads that operate as camp currency and cause sparks to fly out of the ground at their locations. I think these respawn as I am pretty sure I picked up several from the exact same locations. The camp also has cards scattered around it that you can collect to form into challenge markers to level up your abilities. I will try to get as many of these as I can, but in the interest of the blog and my sanity I don’t think I will be doing a 100% completionist run. I know those grey Steam achievements will mock me, but I’ll just have to get over it.

[I tried to find all of these but couldn't do it.]

I also talked to a cool little guy named Dogen Boole who is a cute kid in footie pajamas and a tin foil hat to control his insane power. He can blow up things (see squirrels) on command and seems in minimal control, but is really sweet. Definitely my favorite character so far.

[Absolutely love Dogen.]

After finding semi-hidden areas, listening to funny conversations with other campers, and finding what seems to be a shoe in a block of ice, I ran up the ramp for the basic training course with Morceau Oleander who looks like an old Prussian military officer. He has set up an obstacle course in his mind based on his old military experiences for all the kids to run through and practice their abilities. Thus we enter the more advanced basic training of the game.


Oleander’s obstacle course seems to be the first real “level” of Psychonauts. It introduces more advanced concepts of the game such as double jumping, shimmying, and collecting what are known as “figments”. Figments are remnants of memories in the mind of the person you are in and are represented by two dimensional sketches appropriate for the area. The obstacle course is a war zone filled with cannons, airplanes, rockets, and cargo netting so the figments are commonly drawings of soldiers, blimps, and things like that. I did collect a lot in this area and went up one rank, but I started to get a little frustrated with collecting them. The two dimensional nature of the figments makes it VERY difficult to judge where they are, especially when they are moving around over platforms. I can imagine this will get worse in the future.

[The first level. Military themed.]

[Those 2D figments explained.]

So I ran through the course until the first checkpoint. This path included double jumping over larger pits, moving platforms on vents, climbing along walls, and even a hidden underground path with more reward figments. Near the end I encountered a minefield with Dogen hanging out front because he keeps blowing up and getting sent back to the beginning. I like the kid, so I helped guide him through the area and felt pretty good about it. After being transported to part two, I decided to take a break for a while.

The next point is more of Oleander’s course with added obstacles. I hope that after finishing the rest of the camp opens up. I am looking forward to leveling up, but something tells me I won’t make it to 100.

[After the first check point. Don't know what happens when I hit this button...]

What’s next?

So far I’m enjoying the game. The visuals are whimsical and good looking while the dialogue and story is interesting and funny. I hope to uncover more of it soon in the next entry for the blog. I also like the fact that it moves a bit quickly. This is a big deal to me because as much as I enjoyed the last game, it took a lot of time and a large amount of blogging to cover. This one seems like it may work as sort of a break for me, which is great.

I don’t mind if games are long or short as long as the playing respects the player. I would have no problem playing a well constructed three hour game if it is offered at a competitive price. The whole deal about having a “standard” game time or needing at least 20 hours of play is absurd and scary to me. This kind of arbitrary requirement can lead to padding, rushed parts, and game play that is simply not fun. Increase in indie output filling this niche makes me very happy. I may write more about this in a separate entry.

For now, it’s good to be back and let me know if you’ve played Psychonauts and have any suggestions or tips on things I shouldn’t miss!

--Backlog Killer