Game Ramblings #164 – Psychonauts 2

More Info from Double Fine Productions

  • Genre: 3D Platformer
  • Platform: Xbox Series X
  • Also Available On: Xbox One, PS4, Windows, macOS, Linux

It’s not necessarily that this is a new benchmark for 3D platformers, but this is a pretty special game. It’s in the way that the game gets into the minds (literally) of its characters that makes it work so well. It’s great storytelling and great set pieces and great handling of character motivations that all combine into something that takes what the series did well in the past and elevates it in a fantastic way. It’s the type of game that was worth the wait, which isn’t something that happens often.

The gameplay itself is pretty standard platformer fare. You’re basically doing variants of running and jumping, with a little bit of combat. Ya, they mix in psychic power flavor in that glides are levitation or throwing things is telekinesis or your gun replacement is a PSI blast. However, it’s mostly set dressing around standard mechanics. It all works well and it’s easy to fall into because it’s all sort of expected, and that’s a nice thing. It’s a much more positive thing that I probably made it sound, but don’t expect this to be treading new ground from a mechanics standpoint. Where this game is actually special is where it handles the personality and history of each of the people’s minds that you’re diving into.

To skip a bunch of back story, the bulk of the game takes place within the brains of a set of Psychonauts that within the in-game universe are historic and famous. In the picture above, you’re inside the mind of one of those members who to some extent was seen as the glue of the group and is now hurt by the fact that they’ve largely gone their separate ways. The way this manifests within the game is the person envisioning the group as a band, and your path through their story is to find the rest of the members and reunite the group.

Another member comes from the opposite end of this story, and sees themselves as having been abandoned. As you work through their story you end up seeing that it isn’t just the case of the group splitting up causing this sense of abandonment, but other situations in the past that lead to this. In working your way through the story, you’re helping them see that the personal traumas that came from it may be somewhat validated, but that they are only seeing things from one side and that with more information things may not be as they see for themselves.

Dealing with personal traumas is always a subject that is interesting for me to see within games. Games that do it poorly can often feel over the top where the traumas inflicted on characters are so extreme that it feels malicious, where it leads to me just reacting negatively to the story. Games that do it well instead lead to me feeling sympathetic to the characters while also leading me to want to help them through their trauma. Psychonauts 2 luckily falls into the latter.

The characters all have back stories that at least feel relatable. Even if it’s not something that has happened directly to me, the things that have happened all feel grounded in reality. Given the psychic powers twist to this universe, they’re all things that feel like they could happen to a group that is trying to harness powers beyond the imagination of normal people. These are all people that were dealt great power and didn’t necessarily deal with it in a positive manner and are now to some extent left broken by the experience, but they all feel redeemable in that they never felt like they were maliciously trying to harm others, main villain aside. Even in that case it feels like you’re seeing someone who was pushed beyond their limits and lost to their own inner demons, rather than being someone who is just inherently evil.

I think that is all why this game works so well to me as a sequel. The first game and the VR experience proved out the core idea that you could make a platformer that exists within the minds of various people, but those two games didn’t feel as fleshed out to me from the perspective of seeing sympathetic characters and wanting to help them. This game just goes the extra mile to really provide that story backing. The mechanics in place are good enough to not get in the way of the rest of the experience, and it lets the story shine and be what is pulling you through the game in a way that I never wanted to put it down.

Although I am a bit miffed that they wouldn’t let me be immature…

Game Ramblings #163 – Trigger Witch

More Info from Rainbite

  • Genre: Action/Adventure
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Windows

This is one of those rare situations where two types of games mixed together actually works out. The best way I can describe this is Link to the Past if it was a twin-stick shooter. At face value it doesn’t make much sense, but when you add in multiple weapons with upgrade paths you get enough of a power curve that it really fits into what you’d expect out of a Zelda style game.

It’s not too difficult to write this off as just a violent twin-stick shooter given the above video and that isn’t necessarily inaccurate. If you ignore the sort of story/meta game aspects of this, that is certainly a lot of it. The core twin-stick aspects are done really well. The guns are varied enough that you can find a set of weapons that both feel good to the pace of gameplay you want but still fit a bunch of different situations. Movement is tight in a way that you don’t often feel cornered while still giving you a get out of trouble dodge that you can use in tough situations. Basically, on its own the game probably would have been fun enough.

It’s where it starts to lean into its ARPG roots where it really starts to shine though. It’s not necessarily that it’s Zelda and full of items and stuff, but it brings in the things that make total sense within the gameplay at play here. The main overworld is definitely there, and that plays into the overall metagame. Besides getting cash from killing things, you’ve got weapon upgrades hidden all over the world that really encourage exploration. Those weapon upgrades then take cash to apply, which gets you into the main meta upgrade loop that worked so well in Zelda. There’s always a reason to be out killing things, so it never feels like wasted time even when you’re retraversing.

The dungeon loop is also the same, which is to say that it’s not really original but it’s still pretty fun. You still get keys, you still get a dungeon map, you still have some light puzzles, you still end the dungeon in a boss fight. Where they do kind of bend to something unique at least to this type of game is that the dungeons generally also have some kind of flying broom segment, where rather than being a twin-stick shooter you’re playing a vertical scrolling shooter. Again, it’s not necessarily that it’s unique on its own, but it brings an unusual little change to the gameplay to keep it fresh as you’re getting through things.

This is just one of those indie games that hits the right positive notes. It’s not that it’s incredibly unique, but it blends a few genres in a way that feels interesting without needing to push too many boundaries. It’s fast moving, tight to control, and doesn’t take itself seriously (….I mean come on, Mecha Stalin.). It’s super easy to just jump in and enjoy without really worrying too much about fussy mechanics, and after some of the longer games I’ve been playing recently it felt like just what I needed.

Game Ramblings #162 – Splatoon 3’s Single Player

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Third-person shooter
  • Platform: Switch

Splatoon 3 sits in a weird spot. It’s far more involved than the base single player of Splatoon 2 thanks to it taking advantage of the sort of Portal chamber setup from the Octo expansion. However, it’s not nearly as inventive as that was. Because of that it’s simultaneously a lot of fun but also predictable, so I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.

It’s easy to get drawn into a game when it’s this stylish, and that’s always been a mark for the series. They get a ton of mileage out of bright colors, the cool painting mechanic, and a great soundtrack. However, that’s all stuff that we knew we were going to get. The Octo expansion for Splatoon 2 showed a certain level of play that the series really benefited from in a single player setting. Having a level where you play Breakout is unexpected. Having a level where you are pushing a ball around a maze is cool. It felt like it was taking the playful aspects of the shrines from Breath of the Wild and putting them into a shooter.

Splatoon 3 has the same meta game aspect as that, but it feels like it leaned too hard into the shooter aspects. The levels are almost entirely one of two things – physics platform puzzles around your ink jumps or straight up combat segments. The handful of times that it leans into something a bit more playful, it often feels like it’s just replaying ideas from Octo. It’s not that the mechanics are bad, because honestly the levels are a ton of fun in isolation. However, it’s disappointing. We already knew the mechanics would be solid, and we already knew how they work because this is the third game. It didn’t need to lean into reteaching that core.

The boss fights end up being the real highlight of the single player as a result. Some of them are purely combat focused, but really play well into mixing ink movement and accurate firing. The one above is a standout, not because it’s original, but because it is a 100% riff on the same manta ray ink fight from Super Mario Sunshine. Ya, it leans way harder and leans way more unforgiving, but it was fun to see something so obvious being done to great effect. The final boss just ends up being a complete spectacle. It’s got multiple phases, some ridiculous robot fighting, and all the story spectacle of something that belongs as a game ender.

It was also nice to see some more lore. The previous games have fed some aspects of this being a post-human post-apocalypse world, but seeing the full scope of how the world got into its current state and how the inklings came to exist was a nice little bonus.

In the end though, I was just wanting more. I’m not necessarily looking for something open world or more traditional third-person shooter, because I’m not convinced that it would bring anything beneficial to the gameplay. Splatoon as a multiplayer experience is such a specifically crafted core gameplay that I don’t think translates to a larger experience. What I wanted was just more creativity in making interesting puzzle chambers. The thing that they benefited from with Octo was being able to just do silly things because they were crafting 2-3 minute long isolated experiences. This just felt like it leaned too safe, despite the quality of what is there.