I always denied to myself that Psychonauts was broken, but let's be honest; it barely feels finished. It's got some of the most amazingly creative and original levels of any game I've ever played, from the mind of an angry mutant lungfish to the twisted mind of a deranged conspiracy theorist, to the latin-themed Black Velvetopia. The game features hilarious dialogue coming from some of the most memorable characters. And yet when it all boils down to it, the actual gameplay should never have made it past QA. Collision detection is shit, clipping errors abound, the camera is wonky, and targeting gets confused easily. The majority of the game's difficulty comes not from challenging game design, but having to battle against the game's design flaws. It's not unplayable by any stretch, but it's certainly aggravating, particularly in the final "Meat Circus" level. I genuinely hate beating on one of my favorite games of all time, but it's the painful truth.
If you read my Costume Quest review, you may recall that it suffered from a similar issue. The writing, art, and design were all wonderful and jam-packed with imagination. The gameplay, however, felt like an afterthought. The RPG-style combat featured absolutely no depth whatsoever, no strategy, no thought, and no challenge. The noncombat gameplay was bland and repetitive, traversing back and forth three large areas performing fetch quests. I spent the entire game wondering what had been going on behind the scenes; it felt like the whole thing was made by two groups; the talent, who handled conception, writing, and art, and then a group of interns that got told to make a half-assed mechanic.
And now, I'm mid-way into playing Brutal Legend. I want so badly to love this game. It features an amazing cast of heavy metal gods like Lemmy, Ozzy, and Rob Halford. It's got engaging cutscenes and funny dialogue, a 180+ song soundtrack comprised of the best of heavy metal, and it exists in this painstakingly realized universe that is a huge love letter to everything that is rock. Unfortunately, it's not very fun to play. At all. Progressing through the game is a bland slog, because once again, the gameplay feels like an afterthought. Solo combat is decent but sloppy, and your combos only seem to work half the time. The squad-based combat feels ridiculously out of place, and it's not even remotely enjoyable. The game world just feels like someone doodled a map and peppered random collectibles around it because they felt they should.
So what gives, Double Fine? You guys have always been one of the few companies whose name has always been synonymous with quality, in my mind. Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert (even though he recently left the company) are two of my favorite names in the gaming world. Why have you guys neglected your gameplay so much? I mean I know you both originally come from the world of point-and-click adventure games originally, which is why The Cave turned out so brilliant, but you know we've moved past that right? This revelation is deeply disturbing and disappointing to me, almost like finding out Santa Clause is really your parents. If it had been just one game, I could understand, but so far it seems to be all of them. Admittedly I've never played Iron Brigade, but even the demo for Stacking told me that the gameplay was taking a distant backseat to the concept, story and dialogue. Why are you doing this to us?
I get that money is tight. I get that Double Fine isn't an enormous powerhouse company churning out AAA titles, nor would I ever want you to be. I like you as an indie company; it suits you. Tim, Ron, and most of the people at Double Fine are artistic and creative geniuses, in my opinion, and I think becoming a AAA company would do nothing but stifle your vision and spirit. But would it kill you or break your bank to hire a couple of gameplay devs to polish the actual gaming experience? The gameplay shouldn't be an afterthought. I'm not trying to tell you how to run your company or anything, but I can't help thinking that having someone whose job is solely dedicated to that aspect of the game, rather than having everyone wear multiple hats, would greatly improve your games.
I'm not turning my back on Double Fine by any means. I love you guys. I'm excited for Broken Age, and excited to see what's next. I keep hoping for a Psychonauts 2, or a current-gen update to the Maniac Mansion/Day Of The Tentacle series. Hell, just today Ron Gilbert tweeted "If Gary and I ever make a new Maniac Mansion, I think it's time for an appearance of the long lost brother: Red Tentacle." My heart nearly jumped for joy reading that.
Just guys, please...make them fun to play?