It has been a long time since I played a true adventure game. The last one I played was probably 'Grim Fandango'. The genre has long since fallen from popularity but a few games are still published from time to time. It was with some nostalgia I decided to purchase Psychonauts from Steam and give it a try. I had heard good things about it in passing but never had the time or inclination to pay much attention. I am happy to say that I was not disappointed.
Psychonauts is the most recent game from Tim Schafer who was the principle author of 'Day of the Tentacle', and 'The Secret of Monkey Island' among others. Psychonauts retains all the wit, personality, and quirky humor of his past games and creates a new experience incorporating elements of both platform games and RPG's. The plot of the game has the player assuming the role of a gifted boy who runs away from home to become trained as a 'psychonaut', a sort of telepathic super agent, at a children's summer camp for the psychically gifted.
Soon after arriving at the camp things begin to look a bit fishy and the player is drawn into figuring out what is really going on behind the scenes. Colorful characters and amusing humor abound throughout the game which is as carefully planned and executed as a renaissance painting.
The player is faced with the usual assortment of puzzles and challenges typical of an adventure game but in addition they will have to navigate complex environments searching for items and clues while using their psychic powers to fend off a variety of assailants. As the game progresses the player will earn points towards learning new psychic abilities and enhancing those already learned. These abilities will be useful for exploration and puzzle solving, as well as defeating the enemies that get in the way.
The game is neatly divided up into stages which the player can enter from the campground. Each stage exists inside the mind of one of the characters encountered in the game and each contains a unique environment and puzzles. There is a certain degree of linearity to the way one level progresses to the next but from time to time the game opens up a bit and lets the player choose which mindscape to work on. Players can also return to the campground or replay earlier stages if they wish. Each stage has one or more 'bosses' that need to be defeated in order to complete it. The majority of the boss fights are challenging and fun without turning into an unbeatable roadblock. The difficulty of the game ramps up as you play at a comfortable rate… Until the final level.
As fun as the game is up to this point the last level is a disaster. In terms of difficulty things go from a gently ascending curve to a perfectly vertical wall. The last stage is so absurdly difficult I gave up and tossed it aside. I made it through 95% of the game, I had a pleasant time doing it, and I saw no need to destroy the experience by spending hours bashing my head up against this ill conceived barrier. The last level of the game is so bad, so poorly done, that I cannot for the life of me figure out how it even made it into the game. It's as if a brilliant artist masterfully crafted a masterpiece with meticulous care up to that point then handed it over to a petulant monkey to complete the final stage and never looked back.
The game's saving grace is that this stage is so near the end that nearly all the loose ends are wrapped up and the puzzles solved. The story has run its course and the outcome is obvious. The only thing left to do would be to pin down the villain once and for all before the final curtain closes. Up till that point the game is extremely well done and I think despite this one glaring wart on an otherwise fantastic game Psychonauts is still worth playing. Just tell yourself the game ended before that last disastrous level and your experience will be both positive and complete.