Thursday, April 14, 2005

Psychonauts (Demo)

I would normally never give impressions on a demo, but Psychonauts is the exception. For one, the demo is unusually long—I played it for over three hours and didn’t even finish the level. It’s also the new game by Tim Schafer, whose last bit of brilliance was possible the finest adventure game of all time: Grim Fandango.

Psychonauts has a twisted history—five years in development and a publisher change. None of that matter when we play the game, but I think it does demonstrate Schafer’s unwavering commitment to his vision.

Like I said, I spent over three hours on the demo, and it’s certainly one of the most substantial demos I’ve seen in a long time. It’s full of over-the-top, genuinely funny moments, and the writing and voice-acting are top notch.

If you’re wondering what the game is about, let Schafer tell you. This is an excerpt from an excellent interview at Computer Games Magazine Online

Psychonauts is about a powerful young psychic named Razputin. Raz runs away from home to train to be a Psychonaut—a group of international secret agents with paranormal powers. But when he sneaks into their training compound he finds it to be a Psychic Summer camp for kids. A Psychic summer camp with mutant animals, an abandoned insane asylum across the lake, and legends of a giant monster that comes out of the lake at night and eats children’s brains. Soon Raz finds himself the only kid (or adult) left at camp and it’s up to him to hunt down the missing brains, and stop the dark plot of the madman who stole them.

The first sentence of his description sounds dark and serious, but trust me, this is a silly, cartoony game, and I mean that in a good way. It’s a very vaudevillian approach—gag on top of gag, and even if you don’t laugh at everything, the sheer lunacy of it all grows on you.

Those are the positives, and they’re strong.

The graphics are not one of the positives. They’re very stylish, and that style is perfectly suited to the game, but they’re also very dated. Actually, not dated so much as limited, since it’s a console port. I think it matters more with this type of game because presentation is such an integral part of the experience. The graphics don’t actually detract from the experience, but they could have significantly enhanced it, and they don’t. Like I said, though, the style is absolutely top-notch.

There’s one more, potentially serious, issue: gameplay. Here’s another quote from Schafer:
Psychonauts seems really different to me than anything that’s out there. Mostly because there is an adventure game in there, hiding (at first). In the beginning there is a strong platformer feeling and that sets up the world and all the gameplay mechanics, but then that shell is filled in with characters and stories that you would normally not see in that genre.

It’s certainly hiding in the demo. The demo is absolutely a straight platformer, complete with jumping puzzles and cheap deaths. Yes, you’re “reset” into the world, but not always at the same point. It’s an incredibly annoying convention of the platform genre. It’s also why I didn’t finish the demo—I reached a point where I was jumping blind onto a platform, kept dying, and finally gave up. Some platformers have levels of difficulty for certain components, including jumping puzzles, and that option is needed in Psychonauts. Desperately.

Platform games are essentially a genre created by the limited powers of consoles in the Nintendo/Genesis/Super Nintendo era. Its creation was due to hardware limitations. So while platformers have gone 3-D, the limited gameplay mechanics that were a product of now-obsolete hardware have survived, and it usually results in a very mixed experience. 2-D adventure games, Schafer’s specialty, were also created in response to hardware limitations, and, like platformers, have struggled to make the transition to 3-D. So Schafer, in essence, is combining two genres that are struggling with obsolescence.

It’s an odd choice, particularly when you consider the respective audiences for the two genres. The audiences for platform games and adventure games could not be further apart—they are absolutely on opposite ends of the spectrum. The core audience for this game is people who played the classic LucasArts adventure games. I’m guessing that a high percentage of those people don’t play platform games, or if they do, they haven’t played them in a long time. And in Shafer’s own words, the adventure game is “hidden” at first. Adventure gamers might not be willing to fight through the jumping puzzles and the occasional cheap death area to reach the adventure. I really, really liked the demo, and even I reached the point where I wasn’t willing to put in any more time to continue.

Platformers will be very happy, at first, and they’ll definitely reach the adventure section of the game, but what happens then? I think that both platform gamers and adventure gamers are relatively genre-exclusive, and I’m not sure either one is going to like their chocolate bar falling into someone else’s peanut butter, even if it makes for a great taste together.

Having said all that, I highly respect someone with the stones to try this. It’s both high concept and slapstick, and even the demo was more interesting that most of the full games I’ve played in the last six months. Tim Schafer’s track record must absolutely be respected, and it’s clear that his creativity has not diminished in any way.

Psychonauts ships on April 19th for PC and Xbox.

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