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Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Humble Bundle Reviews, Part 1: Psychonauts

Welcome to my Humble Bundle specials!

Since a rather fortuitous sale by a bunch of amazing indie developers has bestowed some beautiful games on Andrey, the rest of you get to benefit from a review! Or rather, five of them, because I will have a short review of every game in the pack.

This is Humble Bundle 5, for those of you unfamiliar with this charity campaign; this time, it's Child's Play, the group that provides games and controllers to kids with severe and terminal illnesses. And what do you get for your "pay what you want" donation? Why, only Amnesia, Psychonauts, Limbo, Superbrothers: Sword and Sorcery, and, if you pay more than $7.82, Bastion--and, they give you the soundtracks for the games too, which is amazing.

All right, now you're convinced that it's awesome, so here's a link to get the games and do some good. There's more information on the site, obviously:

The treasure trove, for your consideration.

Just to remind you--and to let you newcomers know how this works--he plays while I spectate, and my reviews are focussed mainly on writing and general construction rather than on gameplay. Some mechanics will be mentioned, but only if they're useful, relevant, or just overwhelmingly freakin' annoying. That's just how I roll.

All right! So, time for summary no. 1: Psychonauts. (2005)

Psychonauts: I May Not Know Karate, But I Do Know...Really Amazing Writing.

Psychonauts is a wonder. It's a genuinely amazing piece of gaming, and its legendary status is well-deserved. I was expecting to rip a few holes in this one, even though it's a classic, but, nope...it's marvellous. Many gamers have bemoaned the abandonment of sequels for this game, and the reason for that is simply that it somehow didn't sell enough back in 2005. That may change, though, since Schafer has made some cautious comments recently about a sequel, and fans have been clamouring for it since its release. Tim Schafer's brainchild is still alive and well, though, and it has held up shockingly well to the test of time. If you, like me, had heard of this game but never experienced it, you're going to need to go play it. Like, right now. Here are some reasons why.

Visual Design: The graphics do show their age, but seemed quaint rather than ugly or lumpy. The unusual design and stylised characters still look pretty good about seven years after its initial release. In the future, I can't say how well they'll hold up, but they look a hell of a lot better than I expected them to. The colourful worlds and whimsical detailing make it very entertaining to look at. It's a little bit reminiscent of American McGee's Alice, but not quite as dark. Any darker details tend to show up in specific levels in out-of-the-way places. However, discovering characters' memories in safes, and the old-fashioned projector/viewfinder that showcased their deeply private moments, yielded some disturbing and haunting still-image short stories. It's silly, but serious, and self-consistent; for a vaguely similar aesthetic, check out Xenoclash. (That baby is going to get a review as soon as there's time for it, by the way...)And similarly, there are some freaky sections--this is a serious spoiler, but "Milla's Children" creeped me the hell out. And the asylum's people were something special...and we haven't even gotten to the meat circus. Dibs on that band name, by the way.

Plot: Do I really need to tell you how many spoilers there will be in this section? Well, there are. Anyway. I will do a very brief version of this, because the only way to describe the full plot would take most of the article. A kid called Raz runs away from the circus to a fancy camp for psychics, to train them to be professional soldiers called "Psychonauts". He encounters other kids, crazy instructors, and a janitor-secret-agent with entertaining split-personalities. Eventually he also realises that something is awry when kids walk around moaning, "tee...veee...TV..." and the adult teachers go missing. Investigations reveal that the kids' brains are being stolen for a tank that runs on brains (extracted by super-sneezes, of course). Eventually, after he runs around for a while and rescues literally every other person in the camp, amusing circumstances result in him being stuck in his own brain, inside a tank, with the main antagonist as a child. There is a meat circus and a happy ending where everything is resolved...and then, there's a cliffhanger, where a second game was supposed to go, and never did. It's an odd little plot, very Saturday-morning cartoonish, but it works. Above all else, it's very well-implemented, and there are subtle levels of meaning and moral that make it a truly feel-good experience, not just a lump of candy.

Source. Raz, at left. And if you were wondering, yes, he does use those goggles, shockingly; they aren't just there for looks.

Characters: Oh thank god for giving us a childish game with a main character who's not a dumbass. Razputin--Raz--is a nice kid, and actually manages to be spunky without being offensive or pertly annoying. The other kids are realistically rotten, perverted, goofy, and sweet, without being precious or artificial. The voice-actors are pretty fun to listen to, and the same goes for the adults. I admit that the gap-toothed, ginger-fluff-haired bully made me want to punch the computer, but that was mostly due to my personal hatred for really gappy, uneven teeth. Surely this fancy government camp has a dentist somewhere? Oh well. I really liked Sasha Nein, too; his wry humour was understated and well-implemented. The romance is pretty good too--the kids are appropriately shy, enthusiastic, and inept, and the adults' romance tends to stay off-screen. The loving detail that went into the supporting cast is very apparent, and the well-developed world full of real characters makes the game even more fun.

Dialogue And General Writing: This was a real treat. There were lots of witty visual jokes--as someone trained in counselling, the fact that you can find "Emotional Baggage" and remove it by labelling it was hilarious. The use of Jungian theory and touches of other psychological ideas really amused me, and added an extra level of intelligence to the jokes. Then, at the asylum, the investigation into mental illnesses via metaphor was simply the best exploration of the subject I've ever seen, in a video game or movie, ever. There are also some good one-liners, and the settings are absorbing and believable. Of course, when I say "believable", I mean "involving wandering around the city mind of a mutated lungfish as a Brobdingnagian version of Raz in order to free said lungfish from mind control." Yeah. That's what I thought, too. This, my friends, is the essence of phuquerie, pure and undiluted.

Mechanics And Gameplay: The quests are nicely laid out in your notebook, and they'll pop up on your screen when you're in the relevant area. They keep these simple, and it's nice. It doesn't feel like you're doing a pointless grind. There is a lot of crap to pick up for various things, and as usual with adventure games, getting some of the items is a pain in the ass, but that all sort of goes with the genre. The camera doesn't move around too much, which is a relief for those who find shaky cam an irritation rather than a 'gritty style feature'. It's smooth, fun, well-done, and lacking in the usual adventure-game glitches. There are no sticky corners and minimal pixels, and that makes for a headache-free experience. Unless, of course, it crashes, but that is mercifully seldom. Some elements in navigation, monster-killing, and crap-finding are, and I quote, "doable but frustrating", but it's hardly the nightmarish difficulty level of, say, Dark Souls. (And yes, there will be a Dark Souls review eventually, but I need to get Andrey to stop rocking back and forth and whimpering every time I mention the game.)Oh, sure, there are level glitches and some annoying camera-work at times, but it's mostly pretty good. Some end levels are a pain--the meat circus and the day-glo velvet nightmare mexican level with the luchadores had Andrey swearing a fair bit, and I personally found the dancing level tiresome, but the rest was pretty decent.

Final Prognosis: A damn fine game that is actually worth the fuss. It's been reviewed by many people before, but it is definitely worth your investment in the Humble Bundle or on Steam. The visual design is absolutely wonderful, the writing is sensitive, cute, and clever but not afraid to go dark, and it all makes for an unmissable experience.

Thanks for tuning into the SciFiMagpie channel today. Follow me on Twitter for more updates and reviews, at SciFiMagpie. And, of course, don't forget to keep coming back this month for more reviews of the Humble Bundle, news about my writing, clever ideas, and more fun stuff than you can handle in a single sitting! So long for now...

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