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Psychonauts is a new game from Tim Schafer, the guy who designed Grim Fandango and Full Throttle. If you’ve not heard of either of those, they’re widely considered adventure game classics. I’ve only played Grim Fandango myself, but I can say that it’s definitely worth hunting for a copy. The game had absolutely amazing art direction, voice acting, music, and writing. It’s one of those rare video games that will stick in your memory for years to come, not so much for its gameplay, which is really just the vehicle for transporting the actual content, but for its unique character.

Both of those games were developed when Schafer worked at LucasArts (back in the days when it didn’t routinely butcher its flagship license), but he has since moved on to found his own company, Double Fine Productions. Psychonauts is their first game, and the first game that Schafer has worked on (to my knowledge) since leaving LucasArts. Its development has been somewhat protracted and rocky, but after being dropped by their initial publisher only to be picked up by Majesco, they are set to finally release the game on the 19th (for PC and Xbox, with PS2 theoretically coming ‘soon’). Double Fine recently released a demo of Psychonauts to the public, which includes what looks to be the introductory training area of the game. I took the time out of my busy schedule of homework, homework, and more homework to play through it, and now you get to hear what I thought. Exciting, no?

The first thing you notice is that the fantastic art direction of Grim Fandango is still present in spades, along with the voice acting. What little of the writing I saw was promising. While the humor was forced at times, it was certainly entertaining, and the script quickly establishes the relationships between the major characters, not falling into the trap of a too lengthy exposition, which can quickly kill a video game. I was also very appreciative of the fact that what is essentially the tutorial section of the game is pretty well integrated into the narrative- many games have tutorials that are very jarring, forced, “Now click the left mouse button on the flashing box” affairs that are never any fun. Pyschonauts throws you right into a very simple level that presents you with a series of obstacles that are easy enough to figure out one by one, all while a psychotic drill sergeant is screaming imprecations and occasional instructions at you. It worked well. Technically, the game looks nice enough, with many of the new whiz-bang effects that we’ve come to expect, but when compared to Half-Life 2 or the like it doesn’t stand out in this respect. This game will succeed graphically purely through art direction, as far as I’m concerned.

Overall, the game that this demo indicates could go either way. The section represented here is certainly a good start, but it’s of course very difficult to draw any hard and fast conclusions from the brief opening sections of any game. As compared to other current games, Psychonauts most notable features were unquestionably its art direction, character design, and so on. The gameplay itself was solid but not outstanding, and certainly runs the risk of falling into the common action/adventure/platformer mold, but again, it’s very hard to tell from such an early segment. In any case, it’s likely that the story and art will be what carry the game.

While I sat here writing this, it occurred to me that Psychonauts was one of maybe four game in the past year that I’ve been actively interested in playing. (Along with Paper Mario 2, Half-Life 2, and World of Warcraft.) Though I have next to no time to actually play games anymore, I do try to keep up with the industry, and despite all the impressive steps that have been taken as far as graphical capability goes, there have just not been that many interesting games released in a while. Maybe I’m just not paying enough attention and missed a slew of amazing titles, but you can be sure that I’m really holding my breath for Psychonauts, particularly since I may actually have time to enjoy it this summer. It has the potential to be one of the first genuinely fun games to come my way in quite a while.


The American Society of Magazine Editors has posted their picks for the year’s best magazines.


Written by Daniel Grady

April 14, 2005 at 21:33

Posted in Games

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