With its snarky wit and twisted mental landscapes, "Psychonauts" is a video game that'll blow your mind.
It's a new title from the bizarre brain of game designer Tim Schafer, the guy many will fondly remember for the oddball undead adventure classic "Grim Fandango."
If being an original game in these days of endless sequels were the only mark of quality, "Psychonauts" ($50, PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox, T-rated) would rank among the most imaginative games in a long time.
But Schafer and his development team at Double Fine Productions have done more than filter witty banter and oddball characters through his wacky imagination: They've made it really fun, too.
There's a bit of something for every gamer in the house, whether you prefer hunting for hidden treasure, performing acrobatic feats or blasting big, bad monsters.
First, a bit of background: In a kid-friendly decision by the developers, you play as Razputin -- Raz for short. He's a scrawny but strong-willed child with an innate gift for psychic powers. After being forbidden by his father to use his abilities, he runs away to -- where else? -- Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. More than just a place for parents to forget about their kids for a week, this camp is a training ground for future Psychonaut secret agents.
You begin "Psychonauts" as a raw, untrained student along with dozens of other children and instructors.
Here's where Schafer's creative gifts glimmer. The characters, all well-acted and with very distinct looks, have unique, umm, mental issues. One of the most endearing is Dogen Boole, simpleton with a brain so powerful he wears a foil cap.
Think "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" for a sense of the character stylings.
As Raz, you learn the techniques of these mental marines and do battle inside their brains (their minds, more precisely).
Each synaptic realm serves as a unique level, with 10 mental worlds in all. The designs range from the ultraprecise geometry of uptight instructor Sasha Nein to the haunting, meat-filled (you'll see) caverns of Raz's own cluttered psyche.
It's a video game even Sigmund Freud might enjoy psychoanalyzing. Each head is filled with foes like personal demons and mental cobwebs. There are many items to collect that increase your powers: luggage tags unlock emotional baggage and figments of the imagination.
The gameplay itself is fairly straightforward, with a lot of running, jumping and shooting you'd expect in a mostly platform-style game. Most levels end in confrontations with dramatic, oversized boss characters who are especially powerful.
The bouts rely on paranormal powers you'll slowly gain as the game progresses. Psychic skills include telekinesis and clairvoyance.
The game is a bit short, taking me only three days of casual playing to complete. But it's a well-executed experience with a good reminder: It's the journey, not the destination, that makes "Psychonauts" such rewarding fun.
Three stars out of four.
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