As we continue through Psychonauts, the ante just keeps getting raised. This update we will fight against bio-mechanical military hardware, the Japanese monster movie mind of a lungfish, and the twisted (literally) mind of a paranoid schizophrenic. If I have to complement anything on the game, it's definitely the ideas for the levels. The game play, on the other hand, is starting to fall apart. Let's dive back into the mysteries of the mind.
Weapons Platforms and Water
When we last left Raz, we were heading back into his own mind to rescue Dogan from the mad doctor trying to take his brain! Using our recently earned powers of levitation, I jumped over the conveniently place obstacle and continued to the top of the tower where I was just too late to save Dogan from losing his mind. The impact of this scene was a little neutered because I had already seen that he had lost his brain before, but I'll choose to ignore that. The doctor removed his brain, tossed it into a disposal bin, and moved on to his next victim: potential girlfriend Lili Zanotto! Unfortunately, Raz is not able to reach her before an indestructible barrier comes down before him to block the rescue. All we can do is jump down the trash chute and hope that we can get Dogan's brain before it's used for potentially nefarious purposes...
[Bad guys always leave this kind of stuff laying around.]
Oops, too late. Dogan's brain is collected by a tank and used as a CPU for a full fledged military weapon! This must be what Coach Oleander is up to: taking brains to power his new style of insane machinations! Well, of course, we need to put a stop to this. In gaming terms, this means a boss battle.
I actually enjoyed this battle a little bit more than the last, but still thought it was pretty dumb. I never really understood the purpose of these boss battles after the age of eight and playing games like Mega Man for Nintendo. It seems wacky and sort of archaic with advances in storytelling and game mechanics allowing for a much wider breadth of progression than "Learn these mechanics and then beat this challenge". If it is well done, then that's OK. Dark Souls is a good example (Again, sorry!) because it requires not only the skills you have learned, but also creative thinking, outside the box equipment selection, and general pattern recognition. The bosses in Psychonauts end up being meat bags with some silly trick you have to figure out to defeat them. This trope has become pretty played out and I wish we could get back to either clever bosses that require other gaming feats, or just eliminate it if it can't be done well in the context of the game. Anyway...
The tank rolls around in a blue print world filled with convenient pillars to hide behind while blasting at Raz with shells, trying to run him over with a charge attack, and tossing confusion grenades that reverse all controls for the player. The first two were no problem, but the confusion grenades were nightmare. It is entirely possible to become sort of 'stun-locked' by getting hit by one grenade. Your brain takes a moment to re-calibrate and reverse the controls before which you've already been hit by ANOTHER grenade. This threw me for a loop, but I was still able to beat the tank in one try.
[Reminds me of my dog, giant tumor on the belly. Too soon?]
"How do we beat the tank?" you ask. Well, let me tell you. Every once in a while, the tank will inexplicably rear up like a horse for no reason other than to show you a pulsating green spot begging you to "shoot me here". Doing this flips the tank over like a turtle allowing you to get close enough to beat it senseless. This part was pretty easy, but after taking it down to about 25% health or so, the disembodied brain separated and started flying around like something out of a nightmare. It took the time to land once in a while to pulse concentric energy rings you have to jump over (Think Mario Galaxy) until you can get close enough to beat it senseless, too. This ended up being a war of attrition because either I really suck at these games, or there is just no way to avoid getting hit, but I just kept dying until I beat the thing. I hate this kind of feeling because I don't feel any accomplishment, just like I beat my head against the wall until it broke, which is what happened. The brain went down and I was two or three layers (i.e. lives) shorter. Luckily there is some payoff to explain this boss battle.
[Disembodied brains are kind of just 'blah' now.]
I hate sea food! No, really. I just kind of like shrimp and some sushi. I can't stand to eat stuff like crab, oysters, or squid. It grosses me out. I'm more of a fresh water guy and like to eat fish fillets and that's about it.
After sorting out the tank situation and returning to meet Lili, who thankfully is OK and trying to make out with me (YESSSS!), she is abducted by a giant lungfish and taken into the lake! This is trouble since Raz is cursed to die in water. Plot conveniently, the bathysphere is ready for use and Agent Cruller tells me to use it before briefing me on the next stage of the game: gathering the stolen brains of the children around the camp. This is pretty cool, but I can't promise each parent that their kid will return just as they were when they dropped them off since I'm too lazy to 100% OCD this game. Mission in mind, I set out in the bathysphere to find Lili and figure out what to do next!
The submarine trip does not really go as planned when the vehicle encounters a giant air bubble at the bottom of the lake revealing some kind of ruined village. One cool thing that happens while walking around are that crabs, clams, and fish fall through the membrane of the bubble and flop around while in the lake outside are two monstrous sets of hands waiting to pull Raz in. They will kill you if you leave the bubble, too.
Doing a bit of sleuthing, I picked up some deep arrowheads using the divining rod (forgot about that?) and found a giant sunken ship with an ominous bell attached to it. Obviously, I'm going to ring it. My childish nature gets the best of me, though, and the bell wakes up the lungfish beginning an epic and quite enjoyable boss fight!
Unfortunately, I was pretty engaged in the fight and didn't get any pictures of it while it was going on. What it amounts to is the lungfish staying just out of reach and sucking air in to shrink the size of the bubble, and then expelling it to blow debris that can hurt you. Luckily, there are giant boxes of nails that you can break open to hurt him while he is inhaling. After a bit of this, the fish gets tired and comes into the bubble to whip you with his angler's lure. The goal here is to trap the lure in a clam and then punch him while he's trapped. I did this handily and triggered an insane chase where the fish swims around the bubble and uses his breathing to move the bubble along the lake floor, forcing you to traverse the sunken terrain without falling behind. It's a pretty cool new take on the forced movement stages of side scrollers and is very similar to what would be seen in the Mario Galaxy Games in the dark worlds where the lights reveal terrain that does not exist otherwise. (I keep comparing it to that game)
After reaching the second arena, I just repeated the process of nails in the face and then trap in the clam + ground and pound. The fish went down pretty easily and I felt good about the one round battle because, boy, that fight was long and I didn't want to do it again in one sitting.
[From Mohalo games on YouTube.]
After the fight, you can see in the movie that the poor lungfish is modified to perform the bidding of the master. The next step is to use our stolen psycho-portal to enter the fish’s mind leading to one of the most hilarious things in the entire game.
This literally made me laugh for five minutes while I was playing.
Entering the mind of the lungfish, we find ourselves in a pastiche of a Japanese monster movie. But instead of us fighting the giant invader, we ARE the giant invader! The scene begins as a peaceful day in Lungfishopolis, citizens with identical character models talk to each other until they flee in fear from the sight of mega-Raz! All of the old tropes you would expect are here. You can bash small buildings, climb towers to get items, and pick up tanks and throw them. We are in for a fun time now!
[Amazing stuff in this level.]
The goal of the level is to reach the control transmitter implanted in the fish represented by a giant antenna on the other side of the city. The path is circuitous and does not have much deviation. A few rebels want to help Raz for some reason and tell him about new threats and where to go. The game also intersperses mock news reports about military weapons that are being rolled out to fight Raz, culminating in a hilarious King Kong-style scene fighting biplanes while standing on a tower. I also got to grind a monorail which was pretty rad.
[Help me my tiny identical minions!]
After a long trek through the city and using oil tankers as step stones, I finally reach the end of the line at the transmitter tower controlling the giant lungfish. I should just be able to smash it, right? Wrong. What follows is the most hilarious boss fight I have seen in years.
KOCHAMARA! The Japanese super hero version of Coach Oleander!
[It doesn't get any better than this, baby.]
This boss fight was really easy, but had lots of yuks. One of the most bizarre things that I don’t understand about these types of Japanese super heroes (costumes aside) are the insane names for special abilities they have. The Power Rangers had quite a few bad ones, but seeing some of the newer ones over here in Asia is even more strange. While having Dim Sum with my mother-in-law, I often watch the TVs in the restaurant showing various bug-themed heroes shouting commands such as “Hummingbird Mega Blade Cycle!” or some such nonsense. All in English, too! This boss is all about this kind of camp with the guy shouting commands like “Triangle Beam!” or “Overly Intricate Combination!” to telegraph the next move.
A shield I had picked up reflected literally everything and taking the boss down was really easy, but it was also really fun. I just beat up Olea… er… Kochamara easily, but was able to take this time of mindless fighting to really appreciate the masterful art direction going on during the game. This was also a real sea-change in my perception of the game as a whole. There were hints of strange story folding and imaginative environs, but they had not really come together until now. I have found yet another flawed game that really seems to want to go one direction but is held back by another. In this case, Schafer seemed to want to make a really incredible place to explore that has no limits to craziness, but it had to be crammed into a platforming mold. I, myself, would love to experience these areas just as an exploration or puzzle game, but that may not sell very well. What do I know? I’m no marketing expert or game designer. The point is, I have found at least one thing to really appreciate and love about this game which makes the whole thing worth it to me.
[The villain's dying speech.]
After coming back out of the lungfish, we are thanked and he/she takes me to the next area where we will try to find Lili and the brain thief. I’m actually a little lost in the narrative now. Next stop: the abandoned asylum!
I wish the milkman would deliver my milk… in the morning.
We are really getting deep in the weeds now. After arriving at the asylum, the fish (named Linda) bids us farewell and tells Raz it can take us back to the camp at any time. I decide to press on and find Lili. Her bracelet was left outside at the base of a cliff, so I knew I’m on the right track. Unfortunately, our path is blocked by a shut gate and a mumbling guard scrawling nonsense on the side of the wall. What should we do next? Obviously, use the psycho-portal to head into the mind of a literal madman.
[Whatever you say, man...]
Again, this level of the game was incredible in its imagination, but I did not have as much fun in this case. The scene presents itself as a mid-50s style home that is inhabited by the guard still scrawling insanity everywhere, only this time he says he knows the conspiracy about the milkman. He tells me to go find him, but I am really not sure what is going on which makes sense since he’s nutz-o.
Leaving the house opens the world to a paranoid schizophrenic’s nightmare/dream world. Surveillance is everywhere: garbage cans pop open and take pictures, helicopters fly around seeking info, trench coat clad men are on the lookout, and surveillance equipment is omnipresent. In addition to this, the path itself is as twisted as the guy imagining it. Aside from this, the mechanics are pretty boring.
[It looks much better than it plays.]
The level is very uniform and gets boring quickly despite its bright color palette and interesting look. All of the houses can be entered, but just contain a few items and are identical in construction. Maybe this is meant to be a comment on suburban living, but it just seemed lazy in the context of the game. The area also has a lock and key system based on the G-men standing around. Given recent access to a psi-power that lets you see how others see you, they judge Raz based on what prop he is holding. For example, if he is not holding anything, they will not know who he is and arrest him if he enters a restricted area. When switching to other items, they will recognize your occupation and let you into the matching area. A plunger for sewer workers, stop sign for construction workers, duster for housewife, etc. I spent about an hour trying to gather these items just so I could enter a cemetery to retrieve a book for the guard who felt it fit into his conspiracy well. I was then rewarded with a sniper rifle granting me access to the book depository.
[How they see me as a road worker.]
Before moving on, though, I was impressed with one puzzle. There is one real lock at in the level that is on the post office at the far end of the level. There is no way to get this combination, other than using your new power to see through somebody else’s eyes. After setting off the alarm a few times, I finally figured it out when I saw the guard come out, look around, and go back in using the code. After he comes out, you need to look in from his perspective to see what numbers are being punched in on the keypad. (It’s randomized each game!) After entering, I picked up another item for a restricted area, and was treated to a mini boss fight against a ‘nightmare’ after leaving. This was pretty interesting, but another gimmick fight and I’m not sure why it occurred. Anyway, that’s the puzzle and now we move on with necessary things.
[Fighting this nightmare was a nightmare, LOL! I love tagging my own jokes with 'lol'.]
Arriving at the book depository, I took control of a low flying surveillance helicopter to find out where the milkman is hiding. Returning to the hidden house, I entered and found a conspiracy going deeper than anybody could have imagined. A group of girl scouts are waiting for the milk man to arise and come back for whatever reason! I really didn’t understand this part. I got into a fight with the troupe leader who was easy to beat. She turned off the lights to throw me for a loop, but by looking through her night vision eyes, I was able to see where she was and easily beat her. That ‘possession’ power is really coming in handy.
After doing this, the milkman arises and turns out to be the same guy who is guarding the asylum. From his mental vault viewmaster reel (Sorry, lost most of the pictures), we see he was fired from his security job and used Molotov cocktails fashioned from milk bottles to bomb the building and probably killing innocent people. A pretty dark turn, but it does explain his mental breakdown. I liked the level over-all, but it just dragged on too long and was not enough fun. The imagination was top notch, though.
[Oleander broke this guy, too.]
After leaving the mind of the guard, he opened the gate for me, wandered off, and now I am free to enter one of the scariest buildings that can be built: a mental hospital.
[I don't know.]
Not sure what is next, I’ll have to play more and see. Let me say that mental hospitals in real life, in movies, and in games scare the crap out of me. I’m sort of into the idea that physical locations, buildings, or objects can kind of absorb energies that existed around them and resonate them much later. I’m not talking about ghosts, but just feelings of dread and bad vibes you get when entering certain places or holding objects. Movies like Jacob’s Ladder and games like Thief 3 (Shalebridge Cradle!) do not do much to allay this fear, either.
Let me build up my courage, and we will venture into the funny farm in Psychonauts.