In the world of videogames there is but one Holy Grail that all developers search and strive for tirelessly; balance. Good games are all about the fine tuning of balance: challenge versus fun, unit strength versus weakness, kick, punch, or block, simulation versus arcade, speed versus excitement and so. We hang some games over the coals because one character is "unbalanced" and everyone uses him in a fighting game or we complain that we can't take certain turns in a racing game at 180 mph with the handbrake engaged. And yet, oddly enough, we rarely speak of platform games in terms of balance. We talk about fun, gameplay mechanics, cameras positioning and control, but what about balance?
For me, the last truly great platformer I played wasn't about a plumber with a girlfriend way out of his league but simply about some lazy bear with a bird in his backpack. During the summer of 1998, Banjo-Kazooie was the game that consumed me, and for the most part, ruined every other platformer since. Even it's sequel a few years later left me cold. I've since "cleaned up" with the plumber in Super Mario Sunshine, cursed up a storm with Conker and gone on countless missions with Ratchet & Clank and Jak & Daxter, but I've always felt some intangible missing. While these may have been completely competent titles, they felt uninspired to me. And then I met Raz.
Psychonauts feels a lot like meeting an old friend for the first time. Your mind may tell you that everything in it is comfortable and has been done before, but a little voice keeps pointing out that nothing has ever felt or looked quite like this. From its main menu (which is the greatest main menu I've ever seen) to its quirky characters, brilliantly funny dialog and artistically off-beat visuals, Psychonauts is pure unadulterated genius.
The story revolves around the events taking place at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp where PSI Cadets train their brains and psychic powers in the hopes of becoming part of the world's celebrated and elite Psychonauts. Our hero, Raz (short for Razputin) crashes into camp (literally) and must stay on until his parents are contacted and can come to pick him up. Shortly thereafter however, Raz becomes involved in some strange happenings and will need to use all his wannabe Psychonaut abilities to save the day, all while earning all his merit badges at the same time.
While Psychonauts follows a very rigid story telling arc, you are always free to explore the various locations within Whispering Rock and within the various "mental" locations you've previously visited. Indeed, much of Psychonauts' enjoyment comes from visiting the various mental planes within various characters' minds. Here you will be confronted with what truly makes a personality tick, from the fields of war in a retired general, to a swinging party girl, and even a completely ordered mind that has a place for everything and everything. Regardless of how many times you will enter the various mental worlds, you will always look forward to the next. They are not only quirky and hilarious on so many levels, but in all cases, the offbeat Beetlejuice/Nightmare Before Christmas-esque visuals are so well conceived that just taking a moment to look around is needed. And while Psychonauts may not feature the most taxing graphics' engine the Xbox has ever seen, its characters and levels are so well designed that it truly doesn't matter. Yes, this game will never be confused for Halo 2 or Doom 3, but you will also never confuse it for any other game on the market. Fans of Grim Fandango will also recognize some character quirks and visuals that will remind them how much creative juice Tim Schafer wields.
But all the visual stylings in the world would mean nothing if Psychonauts didn't excel in the gameplay department as well. And it does. It takes almost every previous platformer convention known to man and not only uses it, but flips it on its head with the added psychic powers. By the end of the game you will have developed more psychic powers then you will know what to do with. And you will still have melee type attacks, platforming skills like swinging from poles and grappling ledges and clever items like "bacon" and the handy-dandy "cobweb duster" to use. In all areas, the controls are hyper-responsive and well mapped out. The game also does a commendable job of overwhelming you with possibilities but giving you enough information and time to learn all its ins and outs before throwing you to the wolves. In fact, while the game may last upwards of 20 hours to complete (more if you're a collector) you will find that you are still in "tutorial mode" at the 4 hour mark. This game has that many gameplay options. You will also notice things in each level that won't be accessible until a later power has been earned which always leaves you wanting to explore further.
Collectors beware, Psychonauts has the most exhaustive list of items to find imaginable. If you start now, you may gather up all that the game has to offer by the end of the year - 2008 that is! While certain collectibles are needed and useful, many are just there for gamers that take pride in finding everything. Luckily the game takes great pains in keeping track of all collectibles (in general and in specific areas), but you will still need to gain all your merit badges and collect all your PSI power upgrades, PSI cards, PSI challenge markers, scavenger hunt items, arrowheads, brains, mental world items, emotional baggage, mental cobwebs, and memories, as well as purchase various items at the Lodge. But fear not, you only need to collect what you really want; the game can be finished (story) with the bare minimum (even though some boss fights are much easier to manage with certain items/levels attained).
Regardless of how much time you spend in Whispering Rock or how many items you wish to collect, you will want to spend some time talking to everyone and listening to everything they have to say. The voice acting is really good, but the dialog itself is what elevates Psychonauts into "brilliant" territory. As the recurring theme goes, these characters are quirky (to say the least) and the things they have to say are hilarious. Remember that you are at a summer camp for children with psychic powers. These characters have "issues" and they have many things to say. Just walking by you will be privy to conversations that border on insanity and you will also take part in dialog that is both clever and mature. The material uses the SNL mechanic of going to far with a joke... much too far. And usually when you think you're ready to walk away, Psychonauts slides a line in that makes you crack up and stay another 2 minutes; the band in the lodge is the perfect example of this.
Great characters, amazing visuals, solid gameplay, a clever setting, brilliant level design and hilarious dialog... so where's the catch? Well, in the case of Psychonauts, it's actually very hard to come up with a fault. The game is so much fun that you will think about playing it when your busy doing other things. The various mental levels will keep you coming back time and again. And if anything will detract from the experience, it's the boss fights. The game has a tendency to throw insanely hard boss fights at you when you least expect it. The game is not hard, but the boss fights usually involve finding a particular weakness and exploiting it. While foreknowledge of these weaknesses would keep the game fun, some are so cryptic that they bring the proceedings to a screeching halt. Still, there are not many boss fights to deal with and they are easily beaten once you know the trick. And then there's the Meat Circus level. This is the only level in an otherwise perfectly balanced game that made me curse to no end. It is beatable, but it isn't particularly fun and deals with a lot of trial and error, perhaps something that could have been left out altogether.
And so, how does Psychonauts stack up against the current champ? For me, it's no contest; Psychonauts reigns as the best platformer I've ever played and I hope to be able to play through it again just to hear all the witty dialog over and over (I wish they'd release the script). Banjo-Kazooie has served me well and it's with great happiness that I finally retire it from the top platformer spot. Psychonauts sets the bar incredibly high and it may take Tim Schafer himself to finally make a sequel to one of his games and beat it. Until then, you have a wonderful journey ahead of you with almost pitch-perfect balance: Fun versus intelligence versus innovation. The Holy Grail has never been so accessible.