On one hand, I try to stay away from negative reviews. Insulting things is easy, creating things is hard. On the other hand, mentioning a game on this blog makes its purchase tax deductible to me. You see my dilemma.
So let’s talk primarily about Psychonauts, which is an excellent game. It is one of those nebulous “puzzle platformers”, meaning it involves both jumping and carrying things around until they can be used as keys. But where it really shines is the meta game: most levels take place inside people’s heads, and reflect their inner damage. For example, the drill sergeant camp counselor’s brain is a fairly standard 3D platformer. Occasionally you have to knock a wall down, but there aren’t even real enemies.
Later on you enter the mind of a woman who clearly has bipolar disorder, and you work her through her abandonment by her stage mother by enacting a series of plays. Then you shoot down the real villain, her inner critic. You also help a guy with multiple personality disorder defeat his inner Napolean by entering a ~chess board to run errands for medieval peasants.
It’s hard to convey how much this works in context, but it really does. The gameplay is fun (most of the time. Don’t judge by the first level), the puzzles are solvable (most of the time), the narrative is rich, and they all go together really well. I might occasionally look up the solution to a particular puzzle and I will definitely look up where to find the collectibles because I’m an adult with
a job work to do, but this feels more like hacking the game to my style.
FYI, this game is currently available on HumbleBundle.com for free until 9/16.
The creative power behind Psychonauts is Tim Schafer. Schafer made himself famous making point and click adventure games for LucasArts. My older friends regaled me with tales of Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango, but they were old and unavailable, even on gog.com.
I contented myself with new Tim Schafer games. Stacking‘s movement mechanic made me motion sick but otherwise it was reasonably fun. And eventually Shafer’s old games were not only remastered and released, but I waited them out until they appeared in Humble Bundles, which is very nearly free (although not entirely, IRS). And even more eventually, I had time to play both Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango.
I tried with these, I really did. I was afraid they were hidden gems I was failing because I couldn’t give them enough attention. But ultimately? They’re not fun. It’s not that the puzzles don’t make sense- they don’t, but I’d forgive that if exploring the solution space was cheap. Then I’d get to feel clever for figuring something out. No, both games’ sin is that they are slow. Walking across a room to pick something up is slow. Moving between environments is slow. Going through dialogue trees is extremely slow. Retrying a strategy with a slight variation requires going through the first six steps over again.
I thought maybe I just didn’t have the attention span for games anymore, which was a little terrifying. Then I played Massive Chalice, from the same studio but a different lead designer. MC is great. It’s a tactical RPG, where you move your dudes around to shoot things, but also a creepy eugenics simulator, where you breed your heroes to produce better heroes next generation. This game was frustrating and unfun at first, but in a way I immediately recognized would become fun if I put enough thought into it. So I did the natural thing and recruited my friends to play it too, so we could talk about it and share the burden of finding out how to play. This was a mixed success as far as “learning to play” went, as people disagreed violently over the best strategies, but it was fun.
Massive Chalice’s breeding minigame is not what one might hope. Inbreeding is disallowed, there aren’t many families, and the long period of reproductive senescence creates big gaps in the ages of your heroes in each family. You end up throwing in whoever is least bad, rather than carefully crafting a strategy. Also, I don’t like hard choices. I make enough hard choices in my day, when I’m playing games I just want to build things.
Recognizing how creepy this sounds: I spent a long time looking for a game with the breeding elements of Massive Chalice or Crusader Kings 2, but where that was the entirety of the game. There’s nothing. There are some pet reproduction games but not with the depth I want. Basically I’m looking for AKC: The Video Game.