This is a game that got lost in my Steam library backlog for a long time. I don't know why it took me so long to get around to it considering it had great reviews. Those reviews are well deserved as Psychonauts is a bizarrely different and very fun game. The level designs are diverse and you never know quite what you will get, but you can be sure it will delight you with its quirkiness. It does not suffer from the repetitive mission syndrome and you will never get bored with the environments.
Still, if you are a person who judges a game in the first ten minutes, the opening scenes could put you off. The cut scene grahics are not so good and when I fired this game up, I wasn't keen when I saw what looked like really poor visuals. But this was misleading as it only applies to the cut scenes and the gameplay graphics are good. It's a prime example of why you can't judge a game without giving it a fair shot. Some games can take a little while to get into full stride.
The venue is Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, a secret government training ground to hone the abilities of children with psychic abilities, preparing them to become agents against evil doers. Raz is a young boy eager to advance and become a true Psychonaut. In order to accomplish this, he must pass the training courses and receive completion badges. Once achieved, he gains that psychic ability. Training courses involve entering the minds of various people through the means of a portal into their brains. At first the counselors facilitate this, but later you will receive a portal card in your inventory that allows you to enter at will. Everyone's psyche is different, which allows for great diversity in the levels. Everyone's psyche also has some evil and dark secrets that Raz must fight with the aid of his own powers.
But the story is not all fluff and silliness. Raz must deal with his own demons. Raised in the circus, he has issues with a father whom he believes hates Raz's psychic abilities. Instead of encouraging the boy's natural tendencies, he pushes Raz into perfecting his acrobatic skills, which provides the rationale behind Raz's platforming skills. But Raz wants to be a Psychonaut, so he runs away and infiltrates the Whispering Rocks Camp. After being caught, his parents are contacted, but decide to let him to stay.
Once Raz is allowed to take training, he discovers a dark plot by someone to steal the children's brains and use them to power weapons. Suddenly, more and more children are going around brainless and Raz must find and re-acquire these brains. He is aided by the camp counselors, a romantic interest, and agent Ford Cruller, a Psychonaut with problems of his own. In the field, once you have the bacon, you can use it to call on Cruller for hints and up until the "point of no return" you also have the option to teleport back to HQ. From there, you can also return to the place you were.
There are eight psychic powers to be earned and upgraded and different missions can lean on particular psi powers so that none of them are redundant. You can also buy a few useful items at the camp store with arrowheads acting as currency. Arrowhead locations respawn and at a certain point in the game, fast travel opens up and you can return to previous areas to finish collecting. Once you have collected a predefined number of items, you can transform these into upgrades by traveling to Ford's HQ. Collectibles include mental cobwebs and baggage and lots of figments that float around the environment. The game is free roam in the sense that you can return to camp at any time as well as revisit dream areas. You can also snap back to the real world using the smelling salts.
Psychonauts is very much a platforming game, which leads to a few camera angle problems. You do not have a 360 degree view. There are some pixel hunting problems and jump registration sometimes needs to be at an exact spot. However, it's nothing serious enough to prevent moving forward. Using the keyboard and mouse is also no problem, except for a few areas where camera-lock is utilized. This mechanic always proves more difficult with the keyboard as suddenly you need diagonal moves using two movement keys in a direction that's often not intuitive. I died a fair number of times on a map that utilizes this in conjunction with a timed run.
I don't know why some good and critically acclaimed games don't sell well. Is it bad marketing, bad timing, behind the scenes problems or just bad luck? Whatever it is, it unfortunately results in no sequel. However, sometimes these games become more popular well after the fact and develop a following. Psychonauts is one of them. Originally intended as an Xbox exclusive, Microsoft dropped the deal and it was released for the console and Windows through Majesco, but even though it had received the 2005 E3 award for best original game, sales were lacklustre. It did better in later years after it became available in Europe and on Steam.
The developer, Double Fine, was created in 2000 by Tim Schafer after he left Lucas Arts. Psychonauts was their first game followed by some others including Brutal Legend, Iron Brigade, Costume Quest 1 and 2 and the Kickstarter funded game, Broken age. Most recently, they have run into some trouble with their first entry into Early Access release with the space sim, Spacebase DF-9, which will not be developed further due to its unprofitability. It's a shame Psychonauts did not develop a following till it was too late to fund a sequel, but don't miss out on this one folks, it's a real gem and is currently still being supported.UPDATE Feb 2016: Double Fine announced a new crowd-funding campaign for Psychonauts 2 through a platform called Fig. It quickly reached its 3.3 million goal and a tentative release date has been set for the fall of 2018.