In the original Psychonauts, released back in 2005, you visit nearly a dozen mental worlds. These are large levels set within the psyches of various characters and enemies. A lot of these worlds are creative and a blast to explore. But some are terrible. (Looking at you Meat Circus..)
I recently played through Psychonauts for the first time in preparation for the upcoming sequel releasing this August. While I enjoyed the characters, story, and (most) of the platforming, what really kept me glued to my controller were the various mental worlds you get to explore throughout the game. So I figured after nearly 16 years it was finally time for Kotaku to rank these worlds.
(Heads up we are ranking these levels from BEST to WORST.)
I almost feel lazy calling this the best mental world in the game. Everybody already has. I’m not telling you anything new. But, yeah, this is a great world that really shows off how wacky and wild Psychonauts can be. Set inside a twisty-turny recreation of the suburbs, Milkman Conspiracy is filled with paranoid agents, deception, secrets, and some of the best visuals in the game. A classic level that I’ll never forget.
Easily the most visually distinct mental world in the game, Black Velvetopia is set entirely in a world created in a black velvet painting. Neon colors pop on dark black backgrounds and objects. Even Raz, the main character of the game, gets a visual overhaul to match the setting. What keeps Black Velvetopia just below Milkman Conspiracy is the inclusion of repetitive and boring boss fights you have to complete to collect cards used to move forward. And that bull sucks. Annoying bastard.
Being a giant monster and squishing tiny citizens as you destroy a city is always fun and in Lungfishoplis you get to do just that. This all happens after you defeat a giant-fish monster (Linda) in a boss fight. Raz jumps inside the fish’s mind and learns that it’s not evil, it’s just had a rough and unfair life. As monster-Raz, you are able to destroy small buildings and climb large skyscrapers while helping a fish-monster revolution. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s an important moment in the overall narrative of the game, even if the final fight isn’t much fun.
A good first level should teach you how to play, set the tone, offer some intrigue or a reason to keep playing, and help establish the characters and world. Psychonauts does this perfectly with “Basic Braining.” Yes, it’s “just” a tutorial level, but the platforming is solid and the theme, a warzone, is a stark contrast to the summer camp vibes you get at the start of the game. This establishes how varied these worlds can be. Plus you get the first hint that someone might be hiding something…
Another tutorial level, Milla’s Dance Party mainly ranks this high thanks to two factors: The look of the world and the introduction of levitation. Set in a psychedelic ‘60-era dance party, this mental world is a colorful treat compared to the previous mental worlds you’ve seen up to this point. It also introduces you to the wonderful “Thought Bubble.” This bubble can be used to hover in the air or can be rolled on, providing a fast way to get around future areas. This is a fun level that’s mainly let down by a lack of things to do. (It also contains one of the game’s darkest secrets.)
As Raz, you get sucked into the mind of a man who thinks he’s going crazy. But instead, it’s just Napolean Bonaparte invading his mind via DNA memories because they are related and the man lost a game of chess to a mentally disturbed person…hmm, trying to explain this is tricky. Short story: You need to help someone win a table-top war game by shrinking down, getting on the board and doing various things to help achieve victory. I love the look of this level but it goes on a bit too long.
This is a world set inside Raz’s own mind! It could have been a cool idea, but Double Fine doesn’t really do much with this neat setup. However, there is a lot of narrative foreshadowing that happens in this level. Once you’ve beaten the game, going back through this stage will make you go “Ohh..wow…now I get that..” a lot. The best part of this world is near the end when you fight a mechanical menace inside a world made out of blueprints and math.
This is probably the first level that I would call bad. The idea is great, a running theme with all of these worlds. You are stuck in the head of a famous actress who is trying to deal with her past trauma and success by funneling them all through a mental stage show. You need to help make this show work, which mostly involves hitting a lamp that swamps the sets and mood of each stage. It’s boring and the world feels so small and stale compared to the previous mental worlds you’ve visited up to this point. I do enjoy the final boss fight, but not enough to rank this higher.
Another tutorial level built around teaching you the combat in Psychonauts. But, there’s the problem. Combat in this game is probably its weakest element. This is something Double Fine is trying to address and improve in the sequel. I hope things get better in 2. Anyway, back in 1, a whole level devoted to combat is just not much fun. And its simple, sleek visual design leaves this world feeling dull and lifeless compared to other worlds.
This is just a hub world. I almost didn’t include it but it’s a mental world of a sort. It connects all the other worlds you visit together, letting you go back to get missed collectibles. There’s no platforming, enemies, or anything to do really. It’s still better than Meat Circus.
Oh, Meat Circus. Like so many other mental worlds, you had a great premise and theme. Two minds combined into one strange, creepy world filled with enemies and characters from both minds, distorted by the unnatural combo. Great stuff! Sadly, this level plays like shit and is filled with frustrating platforming that feels too precise for this game’s engine. If you’ve played this level you’ve no doubt screamed in frustration as Raz falls to his death over and over. It also ends in a bland boss fight that feels so out of place I almost wondered if it was an idea ripped from another failed prototype.
Meat Circus is almost bad enough to make me warn people away from this game. Instead, I’ll just say play Psychonauts, but skip the final level and watch it on YouTube. You’ll be happier that way.
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