Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Psychotoxic (PC, Germany, 2004): Not Psycho, But A Little Toxic
August 28, 2010, 7:36 pm
Filed under: Psychotoxic (PC, 2004, Germany)

(EDIT: I was missing one crucial bit of information when writing the following review. Namely, that SIX FREAKING PEOPLE MADE THIS GAME. I wrote the review about 15 minutes before the end credits rolled, but just now finishing the game, I saw the pics of the studio (with “HalfLife” poster on the wall), family members, and all six effing developers at work. Six of them; that’s it. In some ways, this very fact makes me want to censor any of the heavy-handed criticism I’ve spewed below and simply praise the title for what it is–clearly a labor of love that ate up years of these dudes’ lives. I’ll nevertheless let the following review stand. But my overall mixed reaction to the game makes a lot more sense to me now. BTW, the devs say “We hope you had some fun!” at the end. Wanted to let you know: I did.)

Inconsistent is probably the best word to describe the apparently long-in-German-development modern-day semi-supernatural action-shooter “Psychotoxic.” The game, like many titles, was hyped early in its development (“You must see it to believe it!”—IGN) only to be hoisted with its own petard after release due to some intermittently cruddy visuals, sketchy voicework, jagged controls, and bugs on top of bugs inside of bugs. If it means anything, the website created for the game is officially defunct (and this is not always the case with some of these older games. For example, at the time of this writing (2010), developer JoWood’s original “Chaser” (PC, 2003) website is up and running and still hosting patches (even though four people on the planet are still playing that title).

But I choose the word inconsistent to describe “Psychotoxic”  because the game actually has some middling-to-admirable highs, and the requisite barrel-bottom lows which, oddly, when added together—well, they can’t all be added together to simply make the game average. That’s one of the strange qualities of this game. It is a patchwork of inspiration conjoined with some truly haphazard (and sometimes, it seems, uncaring) implementation. Before an explanation, the plot:

You play as leather-clad, bob-haired Angela Prophet (balloon boobs and punky white-streaked hair included). With parents who died in an accident when she was young and raised by her Aunt in New York, she has lived a protected life until she reaches adulthood and moves to DC and starts work as a barmaid at a dive. Sounds promising (not). She has always had special powers (could stop time, things can bounce off of her in shield-like fashion, she can enter people’s minds, etc.), but she keeps it to herself for fear of being considered a freak. Then, Armageddon: The FBI appears at her front door telling her she has to help stop nuclear bombs from being detonated in New York by some Satan-loving terrorist named Reverent Aaron Crowley and his gang. Apparently, the government has known about her powers all along—complete with hints that she is some kind of “angel”–and the world needs her assistance.

SPOILER: As the narrative eventually reveals, you are a government-sanctioned experimental test-tube baby [named Angel One, har har] whose genes have been fused with “ancient alien material” [specifically nanobots dubbed “the fourth horseman] discovered at some point while a subway was being dug in NY, or something like that. Your stand-in parental figure, Aunt Julie, was actually the secretary to the governmental body overseeing your development—so your parents did not die, they just never existed. At some point in your development, around your teens, the powers you had been developing through your nanobot-infused body simply disappeared, and the government abandoned the project [ie. they dumped you]. A “fortunate” lab accident involving electricity around the same time as the demise of the project wiped your memory clean, and hence you began your life as Little Orphaned Angela Prophet being raised by Aunt Julie. The current crisis—Armageddon in NY—is actually “the fourth horseman” nanobots which suddenly became active and are roaming free through the city creating havoc [specifically, making folks super violent]. The impending nuclear missile attack has actually been ordered by the government itself to cleanse the city of the nanobots. Since you have the same nanobots in your bloodstream, you’ve been called in to rescue the planet to maybe avoid that “final” solution. Ultimately, the only interesting thing in all of this is that while the game (according to its general look and feel, as well as its “gothicky” title) appears on the surface to be a “supernatural” type shooter, it actually would be more accurate to categorize it as a science-fiction shooter…but whose counting those beans. Oh, I guess I am. SPOILER ENDS.

Half the game takes place in the real-world of DC and NY (gunning down Satanists, thugs, and wayward policeman in deserted airports, office buildings, Central Park, sewers, etc.), and half of the game takes place in people’s minds you must enter for various purposes (and the playspaces can be incredibly abstract, comical, horrific and are populated with various monsters formed from the individual’s psyche). At one point, you even have to enter your own mind to uncover some bit of relevant information. The real-world and dream-world sections alternate.

Now to the highs and lows that characterize the inconsistency of this game. Some lows first: Par for the time, the cutscenes are pre-rendered, maybe even with the graphics engine itself. But even if not, they are crappy, inappropriately cartoonish, fuzzy-looking, stiff…just awful. The voicework doesn’t sound professionally recorded (or at least mastered properly), and the acting is sub-par, even if the actors are clearly not native English speakers. The writing of the dialogue is weak, nonsensical at times, but not so poor to the point of being entertaining (boo).

On the other hand, the half of the game that takes place in the “dreamworld” (the scenarios when Angela is poking around in a person’s brain and fending off psychological demons and monsters) can be absolutely striking—or at least surprisingly goofy, creative, and inspired. Walking around inside a security officer’s hellish nightmare as he sleeps (scanning every nook of his brain for the numerical code to a locked door which is halting your progress in the real world), fighting off ghosts and avoiding large monstrous faces protruding from walls, demons losing all gravity and tumbling crazily to the ceiling when you dispatch them…well, it’s really fun, frankly. And strange. Oh, and it adds variety too: One level takes you by surprise by teleporting you into a neon-pink-and-green cartoon world where explosive bunny rabbits pursue you across floating land masses with stupid, helium-voiced rap as the background track—in this case, the graphical representation of a politician’s mind who has lost his sanity. Anything goes!

Oh, but then, if you find that security code (or whatever the objective is in the dreamworld), the game switches back to reality, and in this game, the ordinary world is often (but not always), cramped, mundane, and poorly drawn. Critics (all 3 of them) who reviewed the game argue that they wished the whole game could take place in the various whacky / abstract / unsettling “dreamworlds,” instead of having to switch back to the dismal grays and browns of Angela’s trudge through DC and NY. I don’t personally mind many of the suitably-deserted, industrial real-world settings (these can be convincing enough, even intimating a semi-effective creepy atmosphere from time to time). However, on this point, I’d have to agree with the critics. In this game, ordinary is REALLY ordinary.

Equally ordinary in the real world sections of the game are the enemies. There’s nothing interesting here, just dudes and gals with guns—they may be police officers, SWAT or other spec op folks, a gangster or two. Ordinary-world enemies are relatively easy to take down, have a limited number of moves, and repeat the same taunts ad infinitum—this is a special bête noir of mine. The repeated phrases are monotonous and supremely irritating; the fact that the background sounds are unreliable and are triggered only intermittently doesn’t help (since these endlessly repeated taunts are usually front and center in the mix and the broken background sounds are not doing their job of covering them up, errr). The “dreamworld” enemies are slightly more inventive—ghosts in one map, zombies in another, half-people crawling around on their elbows, some automaton-type dudes—but still not much to write home about. 

The game is crazy long—about 30 levels or thereabouts. Great game to get your money’s worth (I paid about $8 for a used copy)…or is it? Some reviews make the case that the game is in need of some serious editing—having been in development for so long, the game may have grown to an unwieldy size. In a way, it falls apart under its own length. I am never one to complain about a game being too lengthy, as long as the gameplay is halfway interesting—even if repetitive. In this case, the runtime is a bit of a mixed bag. For example, ultimately, you do not have to use your special powers (shield, health restore, time slow, invisibility), though they are provided to you—the game just doesn’t seem to require their use, so I forgot about them most of the time. The AI is, about half the time, acceptably real, but the other half they have that early Y2K habit of standing around corners, just barely visible, waiting to be shot—something you cannot help but take advantage of…endlessly. You are given a usable variety of guns, but I never employed more than one of them in any consistent way. The game can be played using only one gun the whole time—most likely whichever gun you choose will do the job if you handle it well enough and if you have ammo (which is plentiful, so you never have to scrounge). Simply put, there’s no motivation to experiment (though some of the environments are partially destructible and can dispatch enemies as well). There are timed sequences where you must complete a jumping puzzle, or kill a room full of enemies, before such-and-such happens (complete with timer on screen), but the game likes to crash in the middle of these exercises, creating frustration and requiring repeat playthroughs. And somehow, though I tried to “give in to it” as much as possible, the game avoided generating any real tension (with some levels you can virtually run through without firing a shot); even the various time trials are oddly tensionless. This is a letdown. But on the upside, some of the action in the last chapters rival HL2 at times (or is at least appropriately inspired), and the “this isn’t actually the last chapter” twist at the end is both amusing, effective, and unique (in my experience.)

So, what you get is a lengthy, average shooter with some very experimental, innovative, environmentally creative sections that shine well enough that the rest of the game looks careless. Oh, also the game is VERY TOUCHY in regards to modding any files or even trying to simply apply the developer-made patches that are available for download. Anything and everything I tried would immediately crash the game.


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Psychotoxic is not a jewel, but it’s still playable and some fun. The big problem with this game are the cutscenes on modern systems like Windows 8 and 8.1. On fullscreen no image. On windowed it’s a pain: cutscenes with a lot of flickering. It’s because of the vp3 codec, too old and not configurable.

Comment by sundark

Hi sundark: Thanks for the update–pretty sure I originally played this on XP a lifetime ago, but I always had trouble finding any info on it, so I included it here. Similar problem with the game Rathunter, which I’ve not added to the blog, but cutscenes don’t run in game there either. With that, I managed to re-encode the standalone video files so at least they could be played in VLC or something outside of the game. Sometimes, that’s the only option. It’s kind of heart-breaking to see these games become more and more broken as technology leaves them in a cloud of dust. Maybe someday there will be some universal format or platform where everything can be revived and played…I know, dream on….

Comment by wkduffy

Yeah. It’s a shame Psychotoxic isn’t full enjoyable anymore on modern systems. I’ve tried a lot of things to play cutscenes in game with no flickering: codec interferences, codec settings on windows registry, freshrates, driver settings, etc. No luck. Only left to disassemble the vp31vfw codec to set the default parameters with others, but this is complex. On Windows XP the game was working, so maybe the Win 8 technology is an obstacle too to play old games like this. Not to mention Windows 10, on this OS the game is completely broken. I agree with you, maybe someday…

Comment by sundark

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