Psychonauts gets in your head
Seven years after its critically acclaimed and commercially ignored debut, Double Fine’s Psychonauts (Mac App Store link) has finally made it to the Mac. Happily, this game is worth every second of the wait.
Young Rasputin—Raz to his friends—has run away from his boring family of circus acrobats to crash Camp Whispering Rock, a summer camp that trains psychic kids. Like the other campers, Raz longs to become a Psychonaut, a brain-infiltrating, world-saving secret agent. But when he discovers sinister doings beneath the camp’s quirky surface, Raz plunges into a mind-bending mystery.
Psychonauts’ head writer and creative director Tim Schafer got his start on many of LucasArts’ classic adventure games. Like them, Psychonauts brims with sharp dialogue, subversive humor, and a hilarious and well-voiced cast of vivid weirdoes. But it also fuses story and character development like no other game I’ve played. Each gorgeously designed level unfolds inside a different character’s mind, with challenges reflecting their troubled pasts and personal demons. A little curiosity can lead you from a goofy go-go dance party to a roomful of flames, where shadows chillingly hiss, “Why didn’t you save me?”
There’s something fun and different around every corner, from adventurous puzzle solving to hectic combat to fast-paced racing. The plot can get so compelling that it’s easy to get ahead of yourself, missing fun chances to explore and interact with your fellow campers in your haste to advance the story. Thankfully, the game builds in ways to backtrack when you need a crucial item.
The sudden shifts in gameplay keep things lively, but they can also get confusing. The difficulty tends to spike unexpectedly, and it’s not always initially clear what you need to do to survive. Sometimes, the game will sense this after a while, and offer helpful hints. Other times, you may need to consult gameplay videos on YouTube. The in-game camera also occasionally swings the wrong way at inopportune moments, and at one point left me stranded outside its view, trapped in a perpetual loop of failure. Thankfully, you can save and reload the game at any point. (Do so, often.)
Even on my three-year-old aluminum MacBook, Psychonauts ran smoothly and looked great. It seemed to freeze in mid-game once or twice, but two or three seconds’ wait restored everything to normal. I also noticed a few stutters in some characters’ dialogue, but nothing that diminished my enjoyment of the game.
Aside from the occasional hand cramp, Psychonauts played just as well with a keyboard and trackpad as it did with a gamepad. The game sneaks in a few off-color jokes, but on the whole, it’s appropriate for older kids and adults alike.
You can buy Psychonauts from the Mac App Store or Steam; the latter platform includes unlockable achievements within the game. As a bonus treat, Double Fine has an iOS app called the Psychonauts Vault Viewer that lets you view with developer commentary all of the game’s beautifully drawn “memory vaults.” Download it after you finish the game, or you’ll get thoroughly spoiled.
Macworld’s buying advice
Psychonauts made me laugh, shiver, furrow my brow in bafflement, and then laugh some more. I lost hours playing late into the night, eager to get just a little further. Like its psychic protagonist, this game will get into your head in the best possible way.
[Nathan Alderman is a writer, editor, and foe of telekinetic bears in Alexandria, Va.]