Sunday, November 06, 2005

Oh No! Goggalor Is Headed For The Orphanage!


After spending most of my gaming time this year slogging through dense, complex RPGs like Final Fantasy X, Arcanum and Anachronox, it was nice to play a goofy action game for a change.

Psychonauts is a fairly typical platformer at its heart, the gameplay is based around shooting baddies, collecting powerups and fighting bosses. What sets it apart is its creative premise. You play Raz, a young boy studying to become a Psychonaut, which is a kind of psychic superhero capable of entering other peoples minds. Naturally before you get too far into the game all the adults at your training facility have found themselves in trouble and it's up to you to save them. As you go through the game you level up and gain different kinds of psychic abilities, levitation, pyrokinesis (all the kids in the facility show a perverse eagerness to set things on fire...) and invisibility. None of these features are that original, but the developers (Double Fine, featuring Tim Schafer (formerly of Lucas Arts) and one of the dudes who used to run Old Man Murray) execute the gameplay perfectly, and it's a total joy to play from beginning to end. As a whole the game has a reasonable amount of replay value, and the difficulty is well balanced. It took me about two weeks to finish it, playing for about an hour a day.

While I was initially put off by the 'kiddie' style of the graphics and story, the game quickly won me over. The level design is truly brilliant. In one sense the game takes place entirely in the training facility (which is is in appearance identical to an American kids summer camp out in the wilderness), but throughout the game you physically enter the minds of the other characters and explore their subconscious'. The first few levels are the tightly controlled psyches of your instructors, but later on you visit some more interesting places. At one point you enter the brain of a sea monster, which appears as a tiny city inhabited by small versions of the monster. This level is pretty much just a big Godzilla spoof, and I found it to be one of the funniest things I've ever seen in a game.

Thinking they'd never top that I was delightfully surprised that it just got better in the next area, a mental asylum filled with crazies whose brains need sorting out before they'll help you. These levels include the mind of a conspiracy theorist, whose pysche appears as a peaceful neighbourhood inhabited solely by little girl scouts protecting a messianic/eschatological figure called The Milkman and government agents inadequately disguised as various normal neighbourhood figures (“I am working in the roadcrew. That passing woman has large breasts”). Later on there's the mind of a Spanish artist, which appears as a maze of little streets in a mediterranean looking town, for some reason all done in black velvet (vaguely reminiscent of Grim Fandango). The streets are menaced by a giant demonic bull, the story behind which is actually quite good.

There are a few nitpicks I could make about the game. The cutscenes go for too long, and don't really live up to the humour of the actual game. The music isn't very good either, being quite generic movie soundtrack stuff. But overall I can't say enough good things about this game. It's short and lightweight, but makes a great diversion from my 'serious gaming'.

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