The Escapist Game Circle: Psychonauts

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aahh escort missions.... the bane of gamers all over the globe.

Finally got a chance to load up the game on my PC yesterday. The wireless 360 controller works pretty damn well, and I really enjoyed the first hour or so I was able to plug into the game. Definitely looking forward to get in some more time tonight.

I've played this game through to the end twice, once on the PC and once on the Xbox. The first time through, I didn't bother collecting everything and had a great time. The second time, I collected everything and while it wasn't necessary, it gave me that extra bit of challenge to actually finish the game again.

In terms of some of the complaints that I've read so far, I think they're valid. But really, not one of those things was so frustrating to me that I put the game down. In fact, if I had to point out one thing that kept my hands glued to the controller and also puts this title in my top 10 favorite games, it would be VARIETY. I never got bored at seeing the same objects or textures ad nauseum. I'm playing Doom 3 right now and for me that is boredom incarnate in terms of maintaining my enthusiasm for what I'm looking at. The scares are great, but man am I sick of looking at metal walls and grates. But I digress.

I truly appreciated the variety in this game. Every level was unique. In terms of gameplay, it added or removed different pieces of the control scheme for effect. The first time I got to smash buildings as Goggolor was sublime and I smashed away with the glee of a five year old with a sand castle. In the dance party level, rolling the ball along the race course and playing a little 3D version of pinball was a good change of pace. It was these small tweaks to the gameplay which forced me to continually change my style of play to suit the environment that made this game sustainable.

The other elements of the game also helped to cement its status in my mind. The visual themes and styles were always changing giving my eyes some new candy every hour or so. The voice acting was first rate, also. There was rarely, if ever, a missed line or a character that wasn't memorable. When I missed rescuing Dogan the first time through, I actually felt bad. That kid is cute. The music was just right, too. It acheived a good balance between memorable melodies without crossing the line into annoying territory.

There really aren't many games I'll play more than once. But every single one on my top 10 list gets dusted off now and again for another go and Psychonauts is definitely in that category for me.

I just met the guard who has implied that I need to find the Milkman. Unfortunately I've never gotten anywhere near the 800 arrowheads needed to purchase the cobweb duster. Time to start dowsing, I guess. Bleh.

Ajar:
I just met the guard who has implied that I need to find the Milkman. Unfortunately I've never gotten anywhere near the 800 arrowheads needed to purchase the cobweb duster. Time to start dowsing, I guess. Bleh.

Anyone else run into this wall? I don't remember if I ever did or not, but by the third time I played it through, I was enjoying the dowsing so much i always had plenty of arrowheads.

I'm one of those people who has to hunt down every last collectible in a game, so I didn't have a problem. But he's right--you have to have 800 arrowheads and be level 20 in order to continue the game at that point. Bit of a roadblock, that.

I'm currently just past the Milkman Conspiracy, it's weird, I bought the game over a year ago as a starter to video gaming. He stopped in the paintings, got frustrated when he couldn't figure it out. I have to say both times through I've thoroughly enjoyed the humor.

I'm playing the PS2 version, and the only thing that really bugs me is the camera. Otherwise, the imagination is just top notch. The Milkman conspiracy threw me a few times, in that I kept falling off the world. But the men in black were awesome.

And that is the reason for the goggles.

430 arrowheads and counting...

I played this game on the PC up until the part where you have to fight your dad, and scale a bunch of rotating metal screens that are ON FIRE, while he juggles threateningly an arm's length away, and if I get knocked off, I fall into the water and die.

I did that about 20 times before I quit and uninstalled. Great game, great story, great puzzles, bad pacing.

@JtheYellow: Both times I've played this game, first time a while back, second time just now for this Game Circle, I've gotten to those metal screens and died over and over and over again. The first time, I recall, I went to a guide to figure out what I was doing wrong. This time, I started doing it wrong again, died a few times, and experimented to figure it out again. To my mind, the way they set it up is highly contradictory to the way they want you to approach it. Very counter-intuitive, and it bit me both times.

@Game Circle: For the game as a whole, I was reminded of how awesome and cohesive each of the individual brains are. The themes used to tie each together, but make them wholly different experiences from the rest, are wonderful. The human pinball machine, the Escher-like schizos brain, each serves the purpose well.

On the art side, it amazes me that the characters themselves are so hideous, and I still find all of them so endearing. Most likely due to the quality of the writing and ever present humor.

Probably too much to ask for given the financial success of Psychonauts, but I get to the end of the game and I really wish that I could fly off on a mission and keep going! The one game is not enough! I want there to be more.

Then again, feeling this way about an IP is better than the way I feel about Star Wars after Lucas finished the prequels. Maybe we're all better off just letting it ride off into the sunset, never fading from glory. Now I just have to keep telling myself that..

I really have to chime in with disapproval of the final level. It was infuriating (and I was playing on a PC).
It is, indeed, because it's the most platform-ey level in the game. In fact, the thing I liked the LEAST about the otherwise-brilliant Psychonauts is the actual platforming involved. I don't like these games very much, and I find them repeatedly senseless. I thank the gods of gaming the Psychonauts doesn't "play more like a traditional platformer".

Lara Crigger:

Certainly the gameplay was no more difficult than you might find in the latter stages of Jak & Daxter or Prince of Persia: SoT.

Err...no. PoP let you rewind time if you erred, somewhat removing the pain of the checkpoint save system. I don't know if that's all, but I don't recall the same amount of cursing going on when I completed SoT.

I found the end very frustrating, but I did get past it eventually. I picked it up off of Steam a month or two ago. It's possibly one of my favorite games ever, because it's so complete in terms of defining a real world. The Goggalor level is the one that cemented it for me - it's like someone took 5 different smaller games and stuffed them into this one, just for the variety.

Collecting a lot of arrowheads and buying the cobweb cleaner and the device that attracts mental energy to you from the camp store made the experience a lot better. There are so many figments through the whole game that collecting only the ones you encounter directly will get you as far as you need - level 30 is probably the highest you need to go in terms of 'required' achievement. Playing the game a second time through and making an effort to get as many figments and cards as I could did make the overall game easier in terms of added abilities, though.

Something interesting - there's a lot of times they put in dialogue that isn't needed in the normal course of the game, but still funny. For instance, you can take Mr. Pokeylope all around the camp at the end of the game, and each character will have different things to say. As you 'solve' different minds in the game, it's worth wandering around and talking to everyone you can find, as the conversations and situations change as people move around the camp. There's a number of videos on Youtube that show some of the conversations, including the extra little movie you get at the ending if you reach level 100 (which I have not been able to do).

Oh, and another thing, for anyone who hasn't seen it: Double Fine, the people who made Psychonauts, have regular comics on their website drawn by staff:

http://www.doublefine.com/comics/main_comic.html

Scott Campbell, one of the cartoonists, was definitely involved in Psychonauts just looking at the style. He and others have shown up in various small press comics efforts - I noticed Campbell in the recent Flight 4 anthology:

http://www.flightcomics.com/

I was really looking forward to this game. I'm a massive Tim Schaefer fan, and was excited from when they first announced it. But I think I made an error buying the PS2 version. I've never finished it. I simply can't outrun the rising water when you fight your Dad. It was driving me completely nuts. Every time I log into Steam I'm half tempted to buy it again, but I don't know that I can be bothered to play it all from scratch.

The Milkman Conspiracy is a great level. And Lungfishopolis, as no-one's mentioned that yet. Though I was stuck for a good while on the boss fight at the end. Also, the first time you face the brain tank. Drove me round the bend. Maybe that's PS2 controls as well. Nightmare.

So I've finally beaten Psychonauts, and it was good. The final level, it was not so good. The escort was slightly frustrating, I missed one of the grinder areas because I thought I was supposed to jump below and it was above. Man were those bunnies annoying. I found the most frustrating thing to be, dun dun dun, the metal screens. I tried it for almost all of my 11 or 12 lives once and had to leave to go to a party. I told myself if I took another two hours on it, I would give up and watch some spoiler video. I turned off the sound, turned on some music, and took quite a few deep breaths. Heh, eventually I managed to relax enough to think of trying different moves on the screens and I found that if I pressed cancel it would force me to release and wow, hey, I could actually double jump instead of fall again. Unfortunately it still took me half an hour after I figured that out.

The unfortunate closing to this escapade? My sound messed up on my PS2 right after Raz leaves the mindscape. I'm still shell-shocked about it all, the game was fantastic, imaginative, and good storytelling. On the otherhand, it had pockets of frustration unimaginable.

One level that I don't think gets enough credit is the card level.

And I kind of wish you could see a creator's commentary on a game. I'm not quite sure I see all the subtleties in the level design, especially after rereading the article on Psychonauts.

The key to the Meat Circus is to use Telekinesis on the bunny to hold it in place so Olly can get to it.

The card level, or Black Velvetopia, was actually the first level completed for the game, used as a demo to get the Microsoft deal (which eventually fell through anyway, and within a year of its release, Majesco's CEO stepped down after disappointing sales from Psychonauts and Advent Rising.)

I just read Lara Crigger's article The Milkman Cometh, which gives a very solid recap as to how the Milkman Conspiricy is a great example of deep art in games.

But I pose a question. In this case, to what degree is the player involved in the artistic quality of the game? Does the fact that Psychonauts is a game, as opposed to a book, movie, or painting, add to the art, detract from it, or simply serve as a mechanism to view the developer's artistic vision?

Seems to me like it serves as a mechanism. You can't entirely appreciate a fully 3D world without exploring it. It would be possible for the entire story aspect to be told without me ever taking control of Raz, so I don't think the story aspect is somehow furthered by the platforming aspects.

I've ordered up the game (PC), I'll see how it plays. If this is the first one of many of these discussions (or threads?) that's cool, since I might well own other games, and not have to wait 2-4 weeks for delivery :)

I've heard good things, and hopefully the mechanics mentioned won't stop me at any point.

As with most people on this forum I hated the last level, I was getting so pissed that I didn't even finish the game. I just lost interest, a game that had been so well crafted and level designs that were unique, to come to the Meat Circus and find that all of a sudden we are back to the most irritating platform levels almost killed the game for me.

It is like playing the original Half-Life and getting to Zen only to find your back to jumping puzzles and it's FPS roots to have something that was so plot driven and thrilling and go back to that before the end of the game, just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

In the end I will play psychonauts again, I loved it to much. The Milkman Commeth, Lungfishopalous, Waterloo, and Running against the Bull. The next time I will spend more time trying to interact with people and enjoy the dialogue that occurs between the characters so that when Raz finds their brains his reactions make more sense instead of seeming to care for characters that have no depth to me.

As a note to the editors, I really enjoyed this concept of the monthly game club, please keep it up. :) I look forward to next months game.

Andrew Armstrong:
If this is the first one of many of these discussions (or threads?) that's cool, since I might well own other games, and not have to wait 2-4 weeks for delivery :)

It is. We'll be doing another one for next month. Stay tuned.

Great, I'll be on the lookout. Seems a good way to focus a discussion on specific games without going into huge discussions on the merit of them vs. others, or on why people are discussing this game and not another (like so many "What's your fav FPS game!11!" and the like).

Somewhat more critical discussion of specific titles, good stuff.

First post to The Escapist (you can thank Yahtzee for bringing me here)!

Playing Psychonauts was some of the best adventure gaming I'd managed to pull since Grim Fandango (and a $10 copy of Full Throttle!).

@Lara Crigger, now you make mention of the differences between the rest of the game and the final level, it does make sense in context - taking into account Rasputin's past, shunning and then psychic development. However, I feel that the steep learning curve required for the final level was a little harsh. I've been playing platformers for far too long and I had to give up when attempting to manoeuvre the metal grates.

You argue the gameplay wasn't as difficult as some levels in K&D and PoP:SoT, and maybe it's just I was playing the PS2 version (now have it on PC and will give it another shot if I can get over BioShock) but Raz wasn't as well equipped to tackle certain sections of that level as those characters were in J&D and PoP.

Overall, I felt the dark, twisted humour and story-telling in Psychonauts was the most refreshing thing for a long time. Better yet, it was a game that didn't feel the need to hold your hand at every stage and really allowed you to explore and experiment and search freely. Even though the game is fairly linear there was enough reward and room to explore that provided that extra depth and replayability. And replayability is something found in short supply when it comes to adventure gaming. I've finished the original Monkey Islands and some Lucas Arts games a number of times to see what else could be accomplished but honestly, Indian Jones from Lucas Arts was one of the only adventure games that allowed you to select one of three styles that affected the way some segments of the game play out.

Ok, going to try Psycho again with a 360 controller on my PC. Back to bitch about the shoddy PS2 controls in a minute ;)

In related news, Tim Shafer had some great things to say on the subject of creativity at Leipzig.

"Schafer addressed a fact that many creatives know too well; that being creative isn't always easy.

A lumberjack has it easy, he said. A lumberjack just sees trees and he knows it's his job to cut them down.

The job of a creative person, such as a writer, begins with a blank page-creative people don't always know if and when they'll have a job."

and:

"...Being uncomfortable is an important part of the creative process... [that's] when your brain does its best work."

Good stuff.

The Zero Punctuation video was excellent, seems to encompass most of the points in this thread actually. I can't wait until my copy comes (2-3.99 weeks remaining!).

Jeez, I TOLD you guys not to play the PS2 version! :) It absolutely reeks. Worst port I've ever played. StolenName and somnolentsurfer, you owe it to yourself to get the PC version. I even had problems in the exact same places as you did (especially that stupid brain tank - on the PS2, it took me an hour to beat; on the PC, five minutes). It's really like playing a totally different game.

Look, it's $20 on Steam; that's like, what, five lattes? Just do it already. :)

In this case, to what degree is the player involved in the artistic quality of the game? Does the fact that Psychonauts is a game, as opposed to a book, movie, or painting, add to the art, detract from it, or simply serve as a mechanism to view the developer's artistic vision?

I think the player is intimately involved in what would make a game like Psychonauts art, as opposed to a book or movie. Books, movies and paintings are passive experiences: The artist creates a certain artistic vision, and the audience intakes it. But games go a step further by allowing the audience to actively interact with the creative vision. (Sometimes - in the case of mods or user created content - the audience can even add to the creative vision.)

I think that the artistry in Psychonauts relies on that interactivity. If we simply viewed a painting of Boyd's suburban mindscape, or read about his arson in a book, it wouldn't be the same; it wouldn't be art. But the fact that we can actively interact with and change these environments, and through these interactions discover more information about ourselves - that's what I think elevates The Milkman Conspiracy to "art".

Let me return the question: What do you think? Does Psychonauts being a game help, hinder or make no impact on the artist's vision?

In the specific case of Psychonauts, I think that the vast majority of the artistic quality is passive. The interaction in the game is both limited and linear. Dialog trees are essentially non-existent, but is essentially all prescripted. The gameplay is very basic and has no bearing on the surrounding story or setting (which is not to say the reverse isn't true).

As such, the artistic portion of the game is entirely in the hands of the developer, and the gameplay simply sets the pacing of the story. Certainly, it does this well, but you could tell the exact same story in film and not lose anything.

With a handful of exceptions, of course. First, gameplay keeps the player entertained when the story slows down, possibly improving the quality of the piece. Second, in the Milkman Conspiracy, because the player has to take on the role of the various citizens, the player, more than at any other part of the game, becomes Raz.

The other major exception to this, is the Bull in Edgar's mind. The hatred you gain for that bull could only exist in a game.

Lara Crigger:
Jeez, I TOLD you guys not to play the PS2 version! :) It absolutely reeks. Worst port I've ever played. StolenName and somnolentsurfer, you owe it to yourself to get the PC version. I even had problems in the exact same places as you did (especially that stupid brain tank - on the PS2, it took me an hour to beat; on the PC, five minutes). It's really like playing a totally different game.

I've got a Steam press account, believe me - I've already got it and am grabbing a 360 wireless hub for the PC so I can use the controller ;) That's acceptable right?! haha.

Games such as Psychonauts and Okami need to be played to fully appreciate their level of story telling. If this was viewed as a purely visual medium like film, Trillinon - spot on the money - that bull wouldn't be hated though we'd still be rooting for Raz. There's a certain amount of exploration that has to be done in order to fully experience the world Raz resides in - and the minds of the NPCs. For instance, if you didn't sit and patiently absorb the ramblings the Agents make you might not understand the insanity the Milkman has or his actions once Raz is done in his mind further down the track.

For some part, the removal of player control has a significant effect during the cutscenes. When the dentist is stealing brains I genuinely felt like slapping him and screaming at Raz to wake the hell up! I wouldn't have had that same experience had I been passively watching Raz previously. Even though in some films (lets say Dumb and Dumber - Jim Carey ya'll!) I felt like hitting the actors for doing ridiculously stupid things.

Aw - the Double Fine website's been changed, so the comics are now elsewhere:

http://www.doublefine.com/news.php/comics

There's in fact a lot of new things on the website...

Not really having anything to do with the game itself, I just wanted to note that I bought the game when it came out (directly from DoubleFine, as it didn't have a publisher then where I live), and was rewarded for my faith in the game by having someone from the team draw a little smiley on the receipt, saying "Thanks"... Made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Then I was blown over by the game, of course.

I'd buy the game, but for some reason the Demo on Steam decides to force-reboot my PC whenever I open it. So I'm a little apprehensive ordering it off Steam in case the full version does the same thing.

Saying that, its £5 from Play.com, and at that price it doesn't matter if it doesn't work :D

OK guys, since this is the last week of Psychonauts' tenure as our game circle game of the month, it's time to let loose. Feel free to spoil everything.

Let's start the discussion on strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths
Obviously the characters and voice acting come to mind here. I think the characters in the game existed well short of the uncanny valley, and because they were so hideous to look at, allowed them to present some truly moving emotional experiences. High drama it was not, but you couldn't help but feel for them. The writing and acting contributed greatly to this.

I think the game's second most important strength was the concept. You and the 'normal' world, and then a series of skewed altered states based on the mind of whoever you were invading at the time. I think this opened up the game to present a lot of varied experiences that wouldn't have been possible any other way, and it was on the strength of these experiences that the game went from "neat" to "must play."

Weaknesses
Level design for sure. Some of the levels were just plain impossible hard. I think play mechanic has to go in here to. yes, the game allowed for some brilliant experiences, but you also had to fight the controls or spend an unnecessary amount of time learning their nuances to succeed at all, much less become proficient. The hoverball, telekinesis and acrobatics come to mind here.

After that, I think the games greatest weakness was the overall story. Yes, the episodic writing was superb, and couldn't have been better. But I don't think the overarching whole was particularly well written. Raz's story was pretty lame, and discovering his background didn't have nearly he impact it was supposed to. After all he'd been through to that point, it made his background seem - instead of troubling or intriguing - lame.

Aside from that, the whole game had a kind of episodic feel, as if it were merely part one of a possible multi-part saga. And then it ended. And everyone had a nice G.I. Joe belly laugh and that was it. Obviously if it had performed better at retail a sequel might have alleviated that, but even when you're expecting a sequel you want episode one to feel complete.

Thoughts?

Russ Pitts:
OK guys, since this is the last week of Psychonauts' tenure as our game circle game of the month, it's time to let loose. Feel free to spoil everything.

Let's start the discussion on strengths and weaknesses.

I didn't feel that the overall story was weak because there were so many substories within the game. It does a good job of having the extra plot, without burdening the player. Raz's story was one of many, and he just happened to be the lead character in terms of action. I'm playing the game through again, going out of my way to get dialogue from every character as it changes through the game. (and holy crap there is a lot there)

I'd argue that since it's really an adventure game at heart, the point of the game is the playing around in the real(ish) world, and not the conclusion. FPS shooters usually have a sort of 'boss escalation' where every enemy encountered in order must be bigger than the one before it to match the player's rise in ability; the adventure game isn't as linear in the escalation of abilities, so the problems can stay the same with different tools available to solve it. Hmm... There's probably an near-academic paper that can be extracted from that last sentence.

Here's another thing to look at, along those lines - apparently Tim Schafer went and created Myspace pages for all the camper characters, and used the comments for each to outline the personality traits and changes for each: (links posted about halfway down the page)

http://www.lucasforums.com/archive/index.php/t-163800.html

I was entertained enough by Psychonauts and the adventure form, that I acquired Grim Fandango and I've been trying to play it - I've been having some trouble with stability, though. Next stop is probably SCUMMVM...

539 arrowheads... (also, I finished BioShock.)

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