Sunday, August 24, 2008

Video Game Review: _Psychonauts_

I've never understood many of the games that are currently popular for the different console units. The most popular games fail to ignite any spark of interest in me. Take for instance, the Halo series (or most any other 1st person shooter games). As a stand alone game, the plots are usually simplistic and copied ad nauseum from every other game (and usually involve Nazis. Why does every video game have to involve Nazis?). As for multi-player, it's basically a shooting free-for-all. My hand-eye co-ordination is terrible, and so I'd rather watch my brother, who can find a moving pixel way off in the corner of the screen and shoot at it, hit it, and find out it was an enemy. The same goes for MMORPGs, like Ultima Online or WOW, which is basically hack and slash computer games (but I've ranted about that prior to this.)

The games I like best are those that have characters that are believable and those that I can get emotionally attached to (like one would a character in a book or a TV show.) The latest game that I've fallen in love with is Psychonauts. The overall idea of this game is that sometime in the far past, a meteor of a certain element (psitanitum, I think) crashed into the mountains. Indians used this metal to make arrowheads, but the main side-effect of the element was to enhance psi-powers in human beings. To some, it made them insane, but in others, it helped enhance natural born abilities. On top of this camp, the Psychonauts, or special agents trained to use those abilities to stop crime, made their base, and also a summer camp to help train kids to use their powers and one day become psychonauts themselves. The game involves going into people's brains and figuring out what makes them tick, their fears, their "mental baggage" as it were. By doing this, the insane can be made better, and the evil can be rid of the causes that made them that way. Into all this, Raz, the main character, runs away from the circus where he grew up and crashed into camp.

The game is animated in a unique way. It reminds me of the ending credits of Series of Unfortunate Events or even the illustrations in the books. The music, orchestrated with clarinets and harmonicas, is at once relaxing and unnerving, especially inside the brains of the insane, where a person who thinks he's Napoleon would have a soundtrack of the French National Anthem playing...over and over again. In some cases, I could not finish the level without turning the volume off, it got so bad (but that's the exact effect they were going for.) It's almost worth keeping the game installed after you beat it, just to hear the music and to play around in the campground area, to talk with all the campers and hear them discuss their crushes, their neuroses..etc...

I found (except for one major exception) each area to be perfectly made, difficulty wise, annoying only for short periods, and ultimately gratifying. The one exception being right before the last boss, where there is an area of fenced nothings with fire in it, that you must climb while water is rising fast, and someone is throwing missles at you. Oh, and you can't swim (the fact that he can't go into the water is very easily explained, an exception to most games, where the water is off limits for some unknown reason). In fact, this one place was so hard, I couldn't get past it. Fortunately, with only the main boss ahead, I skipped ahead to the last movie, post beating the bad guy, to finish the game (which is why I say I 'finished' the game, not that I 'beat' it.) The storyline is the most important, not that the impossible is achieved (the same thing I did in American Mcgee's Alice, a wonderful game, and much like Psychonauts actually.

What amazes me is how well thought out the game actually was. Each character was fully developed, each plot line fully realized. The intricate detail in etching the past lives of the neurotic, the way that each person's mind was developed into an explorable and amazing world, everything was created as an artist would create a masterpiece. I was utterly involved with the whole plot, with the characters, and found each level and situation to be unique and enthralling. From the dance club scene, to Lungfishopolis, to the Artist's paint world where the dogs that played poker sell paintings off the street. There's not been a game made before or since that offered such variety of universes.

I only hope that they make a sequel, for it was a magnificent game, worthy of a follow up. Oh, and as an addendum, you must read Trent's The Mysterious Benedict Society, and Richard M. Koff's Christopher as related books to this game. They both reminded me so much of the game, and vice versa.

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