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Psychonauts’ a crazy, imaginative ride

Mark Bemenderfer | Tuesday, September 13, 2005

When asked, most people can think of their favorite film director right off the bat. Or their preferred musician. But their favorite video game designer? Not so easy.

Even if that last question was answered, one should consider the name of Tim Schafer. A legend in the world of computer games, he was the mind behind such LucasArts classics as “Grim Fandango” and “Full Throttle”. He left LucasArts a half-decade ago to create Double Fine Productions.

Since then, things have been fairly quiet. Double Fine Productions has juggled distributors and ran into some of the problems with which many fledgling companies are associated. Things were looking grim for the company until its first game hit shelves in the form of “Psychonauts.” And what a game it is.

At heart a platformer, “Psychonauts” tries and succeeds to defy description. The player assumes the identity of Raz, short for Rasputin. At the beginning of the game, he sneaks into Psychic camp in hopes of one day becoming a Psychonaut.

Raz soon finds that all is not well in the camp, as some malevolent force is stealing the brains from the campers. To find the one responsible for the cranially-challenged campers, Raz must use his own psychic powers to enter the minds of the people around him to seek out clues. This is where the game truly stands out.

Each of the minds that Raz enters is unique and tailored to the individual, be it a camper, an ex-military man or a lungfish. Some minds are neat and tidy, but most are a complete mess, as is to be expected.

The levels warp and wrap around themselves, creating what could only be a physics nightmare for the programmers. They executed it perfectly though, making this one of the few games that feels technically flawless.

As the game progresses, Raz unlocks more psychic tricks, further setting the game apart. He is able to roll around and bounce on a thought bubble, see through the eyes of others and set things on fire using pyro-kinesis.

The character in the game is alone worth the purchase, or at least a rental. Using the aforementioned pyro-kinesis skill on random objects triggers many scripted lines of Raz, many of which are often hilarious. It’s hard to resist smiling upon hearing Raz exclaim that shooting things is fun and useful or some other random remark.

This can be expected however, looking at Schafer’s previous work. One thing that has always characterized his work was an unusual and creative sense of humor, an element that defines “Psychonauts.”

In the minds into which he ventures, it is often Raz’s task to collect various objects and trinkets. Using tools that he acquires, Raz will collect the mental cobwebs, baggage and figments to further unlock new abilities.

As the game progresses, it loses some of the original spark as the difficulty ramps dramatically. It remains a rewarding experience through the end though, making “Psychonauts” a highly recommended title. It would be a good idea to add Tim Schafer to the list of names to watch.