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Linux game review: Psychonauts

I take a look at the Humble Indie Bundle V's Linux version of Psychonauts. How has this much loved game aged, and how does it run on Linux?

Fighting this crazy camera makes the game frustrating, because you know that half the time you die not because of something you did, but of something the camera forced onto you.

From a story perspective, this game is excellent. The characters are lovable, and setting is memorable, the humour is charming, and it’s a game which will stay with you for a long time (along with many, many one-liners). This much is to be expected from the Double Fine guys, many of whom are ex-Lucasarts. This game has a pedigree, and on the story front, it really shows.

Psychonauts is an action RPG platformer, starring Rasputin, a kid who ran away from the circus and wants to hone his innate psychic powers at a psychic summer camp. Here, he’ll face challenges and make new friends, and learn a little more about himself.

On the “game” front, Psychonauts is less successful. Part of this is the core game design, part of this is shoddy controls, and part of this is a buggy Linux port. The version you download from the humble bundle website is so bad, that I’d consider it unplayable. From the currently forgive-able full screen issues to constant texture popping and strange low-res textures all throughout the game, to outright hangs under certain circumstances, this is a game where you dread the bugs more than the monsters.

When you download the patch, things improve markedly, to the point where I didn’t see any more crashes, and the textures and fullscreen were also fixed. There were still some camera and control issues, but I wonder if this is just a shoddy implementation as opposed to a bad Linux port.

I’d like to take a lengthy aside as to how you get the latest patch. There’s no website telling you that this is the latest patch and here’s how you apply it. You have to hunt around in to find a bug report that has a patch attached. This is unacceptable. It irritates me that the Mac has as small an audience as Linux, but they’ll get gilded knobs and dials, and we get scraps. Double Fine didn’t just ship a bad game, but they didn’t even have a simple website linking to the latest patch and some instructions.

I see this over and over again, and then companies talk about how Linux doesn’t have a good return on investment. The fact is, Linux doesn’t have any “investment”, and that’s why there’s no “return”. Considering that Double Fine are humble bundle darlings right now, I think it’s a real shame that this sort of treatment is coming from them. Hopefully one day I will be able to write a review without the frankly crazy pre-amble of “hunt through a bug database for the latest patch before playing”.

Once you patch it, I consider the game “fixed”, and any other issues to be control or gameplay ones. And there are plenty.

First, the camera is mostly situated behind Raz, the protagonist. This means you press “up” (on WASD keys) to go forward, “left” and “right” to turn, and “down” to run towards the camera. This “feels like” an over the shoulder game at this time, like Dead Space or Gears of War. However, sometimes there are set pieces, and the camera will zoom out, and the controls become more like a platformer. At other times, there’s a “boss” battle, and the camera will focus on the boss, so you need to move with relation to (i.e. in a circle around) the boss character.

None of these are a problem in and of themselves, but as the game goes on, increasingly, there are complex transitions between these cameras, and hence controls. When you’re at the bottom, you might be in “over-the-shoulder” controls, then you jump onto a platform and it’ll switch to platformer, then a boss will momentarily come into view, then out again. In these transitions, what your controls do will change.

Notably, near the end of the game, you’re following a boss, and the game will switch from over-the-shoulder to follow-the-boss. If you’re jumping and running forwards at that time, this means the direction of your jump changes from “forward” to “wherever the boss just moved”, which invariably means death. At other times, you’ll switch to platformer mode, but you’ll be running during the transition, which means you’ll run into something you didn’t intend to. Fighting this crazy camera makes the game frustrating, because you know that half the time you die not because of something you did, but of something the camera forced onto you.

There are other notable cases too, like running away from a boss. Towards the screen. Where you can’t see where you’re going. Luckily, Double Fine take care to ensure that the level layout is easily to understand, and there’s no strange obstructions, but this isn’t the best game design. Level design, too, tends to conflict with the camera. Often you’ll be climbing or jumping ever upwards, but the camera is reticent in looking up or down. This gets you into awkward situations where you can only just see the next jump, but you can’t see the destination you’re aiming for.

The Marksmanship ability (shooting stuff) also conflicts with the camera system in a non-nice way. You can hit “Shift” to “aim” before you fire, but I found that if you were running away or to the left, for instance, instead of “aiming” where your camera reticle was pointed, your camera would instead violently rotate to face wherever your character was facing, aiming at probably nothing. In order to use the “aim” ability properly, you have to stop, face the way you want to shoot, then choose “aim”, then shoot. This was a constant source of struggle and death for me, and there was no reason for this to be so.

The level design, in general, is nothing to write home about. It’s nice, but there’s nothing that you remember explicitly, except for the charm and character. Often there are streets which curve in on themselves, Inception style, or other twisting architecture reminiscent of American McGee’s Alice. There’s a level where there is a bull repeatedly running through the main street. You remember the bull, and you remember the charm and character of the locale, but the level design itself is meh. It’s good at forecasting where to go next, but again, this isn’t a particular strength. I did get a little lost occasionally.

Having said that, the charm and aesthetic design of the levels, my god! The area which you run around in isn’t very large, but it is varied. The best levels are the ones in people’s minds (which you travel to often), and Double Fine go to great lengths to showcase the characters via the levels that represent their minds. In fact, a large amount of your relationship with the characters will come from the levels in their mind, from the war-torn mind of Coach, to Sasha’s highly organised brain. Each and every mind is wonderfully constructed and varied.

A large part of this game is collection. You’re either collecting mental cobwebs or arrow-heads, or cards or psychic cores, or mental baggage or mental vaults or scavenger hunt items or brains. These all create a sort of mini in-game economy for increasing your lives or upgrading your character. I didn’t enjoy this one bit. While I felt highly motivated to recover the brains of my comrades, the rest simply didn’t interest me. I basically didn’t buy anything for a major part of the game, to the extent that I needed to Google why I couldn’t proceed (because I needed to buy a cobweb duster).

The game made a note of this, right at the end, that I basically hadn’t “spent” most of the resources I’d gained, and gave me some upgrades. This was a pretty central mechanic, and I think Double Fine could tell that perhaps a lot of people weren’t going through the trouble of keeping track of all of these resources and upgrades. Ironically, it may have been the same charm and character which prevented people from taking part in this economy.

The way you buy things is either by laboriously walking to the camp store, or later using the bacon to ask Agent Cruller for the upgrades. The problem is that you’re in part of the story, so getting new abilities, complete with the mini tutorial it involves, really pulls you out of the context. Similarly with walking back to the store.

The second “tier” of this game is 3D platforming, and it’s as it sounds. 3D platformers never really “worked” (except Pandemonium by Crystal Dynamics, which I loved), because judging jumps was made error prone and tricky due to the depth. Psychonauts does nothing to help in this regard. To make matters worse, you have various “acrobatics” in the game by way of ropes which you walk on and bars you swing on. If you can imagine it, ropes and bars makes judging distance all the more tricky, and jumping onto a rope hanging onto a bar can be exceedingly tricky. Thankfully, the level design is fairly good at minimising those problems, but it happens often enough that you’re left wondering why they didn’t just make this game a 2.5D platformer instead of a full 3D one.

Psychonauts exudes character. If you’ve ever heard of Psychonauts or Double Fine you’ll already know this. The people which make it up, the level design, even incidental things like arrow-heads (from ancient indian burial grounds), are all intricately, deeply, beautifully drawn and thought out. The game itself, however, is sloppy and middling at best.