The original Psychonauts is the definition of a cult-classic. Tim Schafer spent over a decade at LucasArts making comedic adventure games like Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, and The Secret of Monkey Island. Eventually, he left LucasArts to found his own game studio, Double Fine Productions, and their first game was a third-person platforming adventure about a secret society of psychic spies. Fans loved it, critics adored it, and as is the case sometimes, it just didn’t sell well.
Fast forward several years after a handful of re-releases of the original and Psychonauts 2 is officially happening following the studio’s raise of over $3.8 million thanks to the democratic power of crowdfunding. Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin then, alternatively, is a VR-exclusive first-person adventure puzzle game in which you embark on a rescue mission for the leader of the Psychonauts himself. The entire 3-4 hour adventure begins right where the original game leaves off and leads directly into the numbered sequel set to release next year in 2018.
Last week I visited Double Fine’s San Francisco office and had the chance to play through the first 45 minutes of the game and chat with Project Lead, Chad Dawson. He explained that when Schafer had first theorized the idea for Psychonauts 2, this interim story we find here wasn’t factored in at all. The plan before was to simply reference the mission you embark on with your team in the sequel, but just leave it as a quickly referenced unplayable flashback. The prospect of Sony’s PlayStation VR (PSVR) quickly changed that.
After playing the game for an extended amount of time, I can see why. When I originally got my hands on an abbreviated demo at E3 and was pleased with the quality of the presentation and the appearance of Double Fine’s trademark humor, but was unsure how well it could translate to an entire adventure. Thankfully the mechanics seem more than capable.
Dawson explained that what I was playing was essentially a final build of the game that’s already passed certification by Sony. After donning a PSVR headset, I selected the “New Game” option from the main menu and got loaded into the mind of Raz, the main character of the series and primary protagonist in each of the franchise’s games. As a psychic spy, he has a litany of special mind powers.
For starters, his clairvoyance allows him to jump into the minds of other people, seeing things through their eyes and reading their thoughts. Telekinesis lets him lift and move objects, he can push things too, and even set items on fire as well. The game’s opening moments serve as a tutorial of sorts, as it slowly introduces new powers and mechanics.
Eventually I’m able to connect to the mind of the captured Psychonauts leader, Truman Zanotto, while he is being held captive in a secret enemy base. This is where the real game starts. In a traditional point and click adventure game, you’d explore the environment and search for clues about what to do next, but in this new Psychonauts game, it feels like a more organic puzzle solving adventure. I can look around my surroundings using my actual head and leap into the minds of guards standing around.
After taking over the minds of others, I can see the room from new perspectives, looking for clues and items to help me figure out where the leader’s being kept. All in all, that’s what the game boils down to. You’ll be placed in a tricky situation, tasked with finding out what to do next using your surroundings for clues, and listening to exposition and details explained through dialogue. And even though in real life I was sitting in a meeting room surrounded by other people while I played, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself at the jokes and witty humor throughout.
Dawson also explained the myriad challenges that a game like Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin presented. Since the team had never worked on a piece of VR content before, they started to realize that traditional movement caused some sickness in people, which is part of why the clairvoyance mechanic is used to teleport around levels by traveling through the minds of others. Since PSVR performs best as a 180-degree device, every time a player teleports there needs to be at least one other person in the line of sight directly in front of you so that you can move again.
This changed the way environments were designed and forced the studio to think about levels differently. An old-school adventure game or a modern interpretation of the genre like Double Fine’s Broken Age might simply display 2D illustrated scenes that you can move around and click on, but that doesn’t work in VR.
Some games like Obduction [Review: 8/10] adapt immersive, puzzle-based adventure games into VR with little changes, but Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin feels like a more robust re-imagining of the genre. It’s designed from the ground up with VR in mind and the mere presence of psychic puzzles truly make you feel like the headset is a portal into the minds of the game’s characters. It’s about as clever and clean of a genre/platform combination you could hope for and feels right at home.
You won’t have much longer to wait until you can get your hands on it either, as Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin is set to release for PSVR this February 21st. Currently there are no plans for a Rift or Vive version, although perhaps that will come at a later time.
Are you a Psychonauts fan? Do you plan on getting this when it releases in a couple of weeks? Let us know in the comments down below!