‘Psychonauts’: Cult videogame delivers creative fun and ingenuity

An acrobatic psychic. A ploy to remove people’s brains. Secret agents. Evil squirrels. You’ll find all of these at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, the fictional setting for “Psychonauts,” (or more simply, psychic secret agents) in-training.

“Psychonauts” is a 2005 3D platforming game that follows the young psychic Razputin as he runs away from his home at the circus to be trained as a Psychonaut at the aforementioned summer camp. At the camp, he (and the player) learn several powers over the course of multiple levels, which take place in various character’s minds. These abilities help tremendously as darker and more sinister plots are revealed to be taking place at the camp.

“Psychonauts” makes use of its unique setting by having fun and different level designs. No two levels are alike and with the introduction of new abilities or upgrades in each one, the game never becomes slow or boring. From exploring the mind of the lake lungfish as a large monster in a stage that parodies the kaiju genre to a strategy game level that takes place in the mind of a man who believes that he is Napoleon Bonaparte, the unique visuals and mechanics of each stage is refreshing every time.

Raz, the game's protagonist.
Raz, the game’s protagonist.

The levels never seem to go on too long and often challenges the player with its difficulty, adding in complex platforming, multi-step puzzles and swarming enemies. The controls and physics of the game, however, are good enough that no frustration comes unintentionally.

The humor of “Psychonauts” is often praised as the game’s most outstanding feature. Typically relying on the game’s own atypical characters and setting, the comedy doesn’t feel out-of-place or forced to fit within the game’s demographics.

The game does fall prey to the test of time in its original console’s limits, however, as often it feels as if the jokes within cutscenes are timed only by how fast or slow the character dialogue scrolls, offsetting the comedic timing. When a joke does work, however, it works extremely well, with no weak voice acting or writing to be seen.

One aspect of the game that detracts from the experience is its looks. Overall, “Psychonauts” would never be considered a pretty game. Purposefully done or not, most campers look ugly or scary, several levels have the color scheme of a dirty pond and there are so many dead eyes. Despite any stylistic intention, it often takes you out of the experience with just how bad it looks.

With the average playtime being approximately 16 hours, “Psychonauts” is not a long-term commitment, but still, has plenty to do. Besides the main storyline, collectibles and power-ups make for a compelling reason to re-do certain stages, and returning to some earlier stages in the last quarter of the game results in some humorous dialogue changes to fit the context.

Despite having setbacks, usually those spurred on by the limits of the game’s original era, “Psychonauts” is an extremely enjoyable game. It’s inventive, funny, and its recent cult following is there for a reason. The upcoming sequel, “Psychonauts 2,” is definitely anticipated.

Copies of “Psychonauts” for the original Xbox are now playable with an update pixel count on Xbox One via Microsoft’s backwards compatibility program.