You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who enjoys high concept games more than I do, but regardless of how fancy or sophisticated the idea is, there still needs to be a solid core of enjoyable play behind it. Psychonauts's premise hooked me from the start, and though I have great respect for what creator Tim Schafer has contributed to the world of videogames, I found the "mental spelunking" experience here to be lacking both in terms of plot and content.
Frankly speaking, it feels as though the people behind this game have completely ignored design advances in platform and character adventure games of the last five years. Looking at the formula, I haven't been asked to collect this much crap since Donkey Kong 64, and I haven't missed it. It's very disappointing to see such a decrepit collect-a-thon design choice take center stage. It doesn't mesh well with the "mental powers" concept of the game either; it's just boring and tedious.
For example, it makes little sense to me to have Raz learn new psychic powers by collecting glowy doodads or digging up arrowheads and exchanging them for random bits of junk to create powerups. In one segment of the game, an invisibility power (that I didn't already have) was needed to progress, bringing the game to a complete halt while I went on a binge of money-collecting and picking up scattered items in order to get what I needed. What happened to natural progression of powers? Why isn't Raz's acquisition of this ability built in to the story and character development? Granted, the game is played heavily askew, but it just reeks of laziness.
The controls feel slightly off, and the simple combat lacks crispness. In this genre, control is everything, and compared to recent luminaries like Sly 2: Band of Thieves, or Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, Psychonauts comes up sadly lacking by presenting dull tasks and uninspiring ways to complete them.
Since the mechanics don't match up to what the competition has to offer, I fully expected the story, characters, and humor that Schafer games are known for to more than compensate, but I don't think they do.
Main character Raz did not strike a chord with me, and I felt the plot and supporting characters were surprisingly weak and uninteresting. Graphically, the game is tops. I love the quirky Burton-ish style and I was ready for the kind of absurdist surreal content that is visually communicated, but I never found the experience to be as funny or sophisticated as I would have guessed from the art design. The main storyline is especially limp, hardly generating enough interest to keep me going. It feels like the Psychonauts team had a great idea, but slapped it all together with very little of its immense potential fully realized. Compared to the creative masterpiece that was the PC's Grim Fandango, Psychonauts seems like a shadow of what could have been possible.
I know a lot of other reviewers were happy to see Schafer back in action (myself one of them) but I can't give this game a pass just because the man's done some truly great work before. It's got killer art style, but in every other aspect, Psychonauts comes up needing a lot more time on the couch before putting its scattered self in order.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.