Well, it’s finally done. I’ve finished Psychonauts and lived through all of the terrible parts that are universally feared and derided throughout the Internet. I stand here on the other side of a harrowing ordeal to tell you, dear readers, that these things are true. I will get into it more in the final write up of the game in the next post, but the last two levels I have played have been not only mechanically frustrating, but a bottomless divide from what could have been. I still maintain that the ideas and philosophy behind the design of the levels is awesome, they are just not fun to play. We’ll get through the mechanical story and progress stuff first, and then hit on the pontification in the next few days.
Also, a short announcement: I have made a Twitter account for my BacklogKiller blog persona (@backlogkiller) so you can follow that as I may tweet my thoughts while playing the game or other ideas I have about games in general. You are encouraged to follow if you use a device for sending/receiving tweets.
When we last left Raz, we were one element short of a full Dr. Loboto costume needed to progress further into the ruined asylum. Having attained the straightjacket from Bonaparte and the claw from Von Gouton, I searched the area for the last remaining piece that would be found in the mind of our new buddy Edgar Teglee.
[Please let me help you so I can move on.]
Edgar is a tough guy with lots of tats and deep seated demons, but what else would you expect after what we have encountered so far? With no hesitation, I tossed the Psychic portal onto his forehead and lept into ‘The Black Velvetopia’. Luckily I was greeted with an OK, if not unremarkable, level compared to the previous encounters.
The Velvetopia is in the style of a Mexican city or village inked with the aesthetic of a 1960’s black light acid poster. This visual style is oddly compelling and is a good understated window into the owner of the imagination. As an artist, I would expect that Edgar thinks of things in different ways and any constructions in his mind would not exactly correlate to reality as they would in other characters. It was also pretty cool because the visual style brought back twinges of misty nostalgia for one of Schafer’s previous games, Grim Fandango, that takes place in the Mexican land of the dead.
[Muy colorido. (Forgot all my Spanish)]
Upon entering the level, we see Edgar using giant playing cards to build a platform to reach a beautiful woman in the sky. Very nice, building a house of cards that is invariably destroyed by a rampaging bull in the psyche keeping you from reaching your goal. Well done. Unfortunately, since we are in his mind, this bull is very real and takes out Raz with the cards depositing him at the end of an alleyway that is constantly being barreled down by the belligerent bovine. The goal of the stage is very simple: progress down the alley, use alcoves to avoid the bull, and attain the four queens from the card deck to allow Edgar to reach his goal.
My progress was actually very formulaic and I don’t really have anything to add in description. There was little frustration other than the bull pushing me back to the beginning of the alleyway each time I mistimed a dodge. When this would happen, I would have to use previously opened portals to the hub area opened after attaining any queen cards. The problem with this is that each time I would emerge from the portal, a long cutscene would cue showing how high Edgar’s house of cards was making it VERY annoying when trying to use this as a method of quick travel. The choices became either dodge the bull again all the way up the street past previously cleared areas or see the same cutscene over and over. Not a big deal, though, and I wouldn’t put it up with ruining anything. It’s just unfortunate.
[Lots of time spent like this... waiting...]
The only thing that takes place during the platforming I will take time to note is that throughout the level are dogs from the Poker Playing Dogs painting selling their own works of art that you can hang up in picture frames for various effects. For example, after buying a picture of a guitar and putting it on a wall, it becomes a large ladder allowing you to climb up the strings and to get to out of reach places. These paintings can only be used in very limited number of situations, however, and end up being a very small mechanic in the level.
[Anthropomorphized dogs will never not be cute.]
After successfully dodging the bull and progressing down the road, pictures of the Queens of Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades are seen on the wall as portals allowing you to enter much like in Mario 64. Each of these leads to a mini-boss fight against an animal themed Luchadore. This did not make sense to me beyond the Mexican connection until getting the viewmaster reel of Edgar’s memories and seeing that he was a wrestler in high school. Beating these giant wrestlers is very easy and required nothing but using some of my previously acquired powers such as levitation or shield to dodge their telegraphed attacks and beat them up until they went down. Each mini-boss that is defeated results in Edgar building his card platform higher and higher toward the unattainable woman.
[Looks like Vader.]
The last wrestler, a snake themed fellow, was a little bit different. Before this bout, I was instructed to talk to “The Matador” who is on vacation for some reason and letting that bull run around out of control. He was kind of a jerk, but was nice enough to bestow upon me the last psychic power of the game: confusion grenades! Yes, that’s right. Over five hours of gameplay time after they are introduced, I am finally able to use these little buggers and just before the game ends, too! Game design knocks aside, these confusion grenades made it easy to beat the wrestler and get through to the end where we find the final boss of the level.
Throughout the level, the story of Edgar is revealed in the viewmaster reels as follows: Edgar was a talented wrestler in high school dating the head cheerleader. Unfortunately, his wrestling practice and prowess did not leave enough time to give this demanding young lady enough attention so she very quickly moved on to the captain of the football team. Just very basic high school stuff. This felt tacked on and was not built into the level well, but it is what it is.
[Story as old as time.]
Smash cut back to the final boss area: a giant bullfighting arena. We find Edgar’s former girlfriend, who he is trying to reach, telling us to fight against the bull plaguing the level. The Matador is there, of course, but will not help us. It is an easy boss fight that took a high road by not making the player bait the bull into smashing its head into the wall causing it to be stunned. The fight took a more literal stance by asking the player to toss spears into the bull’s back to weaken it as is done in Spanish-style bullfighting. After it is down for the count, Edgar appears and confronts the ex but immediately becomes enraged and transforms into (GASP!) the bull! Bet you didn’t see that coming, either. Surprise surprise, Edgar is responsible for toppling his own house of cards built on hopes and wishes and egged on by the Matador who turns out to be the guy who stole the girl.
[That was the word I was trying to think of.]
The next stage of the fight is a switch-em-up of trying to protect Edgar as a bull and fighting the matador using the same technique of using telekinesis to throw the spears again. Short story shorter: Raz takes him out, the manipulative girlfriend tries to pretend like she is in love with Edgar again, Edgar rejects her and gets over his mental hang-ups. We are kicked out of his cleared mind and rewarded with a special painting of Dr. Loboto.
[All that work for this beauty.]
After re-reading my experience during this level, I just realized how beaten down I’m getting by this point in the game. It’s the same over and over again, great idea and poor execution. In this case the level was inoffensive in its mechanics, but so what? It just was not interesting in the slightest beyond a cerebral experience so I’ll just leave it at that.
After dressing as Loboto and putting the painting left to me on like a mask, I was able to trick the orderly into letting me ascend into the upper levels of the missed opportunity (asylum). This area is not scary and pretty much an empty buffer to slow the player from reaching the final area of the game too quickly. Bland platforming leads to Dr. Loboto’s lab located on top of the asylum. Inside we find the brains of Agents Nein and Milla locked behind a force field that must be circumvented. It turns out that the mad doctor has employed a former patient of the hospital known as Sheegor, a play on the classic Frankenstein henchman Igor, to do his dirty work. She is being blackmailed by the doctor who is threatening to cook her pet turtle, forcing her to help him steal children’s brains. After rescuing the turtle from the lab, we find out that it is sentient and formulates a plan in which its brain is brought to Dr. Loboto to be put into a tank similar to the one fought earlier. The plan goes off without a hitch starting one of the most dramatic boss fights of the game.
[Looks as bland as it plays.]
Just kidding, nothing of the sort happens. The inexplicably large turtle brain takes control of the tank and blasts Loboto into the lake transporting us past the point of no return for a brilliant anti-climax. The game seems to be over: Lilli is rescued, Nein and Milla are re-brained, and Loboto is gone, but now we are forced into a real boss fight. A tank controlled by Oleander’s huge brain comes over the ridge and knocks everybody out but Raz. We have no choice but to load up our powers and begin battle.
This boss fight was consistent with the latter parts of the game by also being very uninteresting. The tank uses its powers of telekinesis to surround itself with concrete and wooden barriers that Raz must destroy using his own telekinesis and pyrokinesis. After removing these obstructions, chunks of concrete can be thrown to break the glass container of the brain. Here’s the lead up to the fight and the boss fight itself if you want to see what I mean:
That’s right, the tank was filled with sneezing powder that is so potent Raz seezes out his own brain. Fortunately, our psychic skills allow us to move our own brain around using telekinesis and put it into the tank with Oleander’s brain leading us to the terminal nadir of the game….
The Meat Circus
I’m not sure how our mental real estate merged, but this area explains the weird occurrences of meat and rabbits in Raz’s mind. Tiny little Coach Oleander was but a young child when he rescued a young bunny that was subsequently slaughtered and sold as food by his father who is a butcher. Combine the past of living in a meat vendor’s store and a life in the circus and you have what it is.
This entire level is nothing but problematic video game tropes: escort mission (check), trial and error platforming (check), introduction of last minute concepts and maneuvers that were not introduced before (check), and contrived puzzle based boss fight (check). The Meat Circus is divided into three parts that must be completed before facing the final boss. This first area is entitled Tent City and focuses on a terrible escort concept. Little Oleander is chasing around his obese rabbit while weird mutant monstrosities chase him around and pummel him. If his health bar runs out, you fail. To allow him to get the bunny, you must use telekinesis to hold it in place so that he can grab it. After capturing the bunny, his helicopter beanie flies him to a more inconvenient location. This happens three or four times.
This little game wasn’t the worst part of the level, but it was no holiday either. Each journey to the next rescue location becomes more and more difficult with tasks such as swinging puzzles, bottomless pits, and sword throwers that you must trick into pinning a sword to a rotating wall so that you can use it to elevate yourself. Nothing else happens and it is not fun.
Next up is the “Tunnel of Love” which is not a tunnel at all but a suspended rail that Raz must grind to the end. This was actually the easiest part, but is still completely trial and error because of poor camera control and unexpected breaks in the track that must be jumped over. Not much to say about this one as I completed it pretty quickly.
After reaching the end, Raz is forced to face a giant butcher representing Oleander’s father. He chases you around with two giant cleavers and has a set of patterns that he will repeat until you figure out what to do. I didn’t mind this battle that much because it is very obvious that when he misses a swing his blade will become stuck in the ground. This allows Raz to run up his arm and clobber his head. Do this three or four times and you are allowed to move on to the nightmare that is The Big Top.
[Pretty frightening design to be honest.]
This is unequivocally the worst part of the game. A doppelganger of Raz’s dad pops in and begins to taunt him by saying he is not good enough and will never be worth anything. After this introduction, the tent rapidly begins filling with water and it is up to the player to climb, jump, swing, float, and curse his or her way to the top before drowning. I had little trouble until reaching a point where you are forced to climb a spiral fence with gaps requiring lateral jumps. This was never in the game before, is made nearly impossible by bad jumping mechanics and camera control, and took me about 30 minutes to complete. This should be a twenty second portion of the level. Think about that.
[Just seeing this picture is raising my blood pressure.]
Butchers and Acrobats
After finally reaching the top of the tent, we find that Raz’s father has teamed up with the Butcher for stage two of the boss battle. The big difference here is that the Butcher’s meat cleavers are on fire and Raz is not able to run up his arms. Fortunately, doppelganger dad throws flaming clubs that we can throw telekinetically at the butcher’s knees to force his head down to fist level allowing it to be punched. Once again, three of four times and we’re done.
After defeating the dangerous duo, Raz’s real dad projects himself into the mental world and has a heart to heart with his son that is genuinely touching. Raz had run away from the circus because he thought his dad hated psychics and did not want him to be a psychonaut when the actual truth is that his father just wanted him to be safe. His father even has psychic powers himself! It made me think about all the scenes that showed Raz’s father tearing up pamphlets and yelling at him and wonder if they were simply overblown projections of the mind similar to those we all tend to conjure. Unfortunately, this reunion is cut short when the remnants of the two bosses who fell into a meat grinder reconstitute themselves as a mash-em-up for one final boss fight. Daddy lends us all his psychic power allowing Raz to grow huge so that he may face the boss and destroy it forever. This just involves running and punching the boss until Raz runs out of psychic energy and becomes small again. He must avoid the boss until the power recharges allowing him to fight the boss at eye level.
Here is the boss fight in its entirety and the ending movie:
So that’s it. Raz reunites with his dad, Oleander’s troubles are sorted out, we become Psychonauts, and everything is back to normal. As we all know, the promised sequel never occurs, but this game ends on a nice self contained note. Hope you enjoyed it!
Well, Psychonauts is finally finished! I will detail my general thoughts about the game next post and reveal what is coming on the agenda. I liked playing through the game, but, I have to be honest, I felt great about finishing it and not having to play anymore. See you next time.