Psychonauts does great things with themed levels. We have grown used to thinking of WoW as varied because there is a zone of green forests and then one of red mountains, but Psychonauts exists on an entirely different level. Much of the action takes places in characters’ minds, so you get wildly varying settings that fit together perfectly well. What comes next remains surprising.
Your base setting is a summer camp for psychic children. Your training grounds consist of an obstacle course soaked in war memories; a shooting range themed around strict geometry and floating, dream-like architecture that uses imagery and a small enemy set to suggest the trauma and repression behind the precise facade; and a ’70s dance party crossed with the inside of a pinball machine. You will go on to play Godzilla and fight Napoleon. I will not list all the levels because they are pleasantly surprising, and even when you recognize the point in the game when you will be meeting Napoleon in battle, the structure of the level should remain unexpected.
The levels represent characters’ psyches, and they do it well. You wander around in someone’s head, maybe help him sort out some problems, and you get a notion of how things work in there. If you explore carefully, you will find more, like the little room where someone’s nightmares are locked away or the really meaningful figments that seem out of place but make perfect sense once you have the whole picture. Not to spoil Edgar’s level, but the nature of your unreliable narrator becomes apparent along the way, piece by piece, until it is explicitly spelled out at the end … and then comes back later to explicitly cash out one of the wrap-up jokes.
It’s just a wonderful thing to have this huge variety in levels and have it all fit together coherently. Each level is tied to a character, so it fits that way, and they collectively explore a lot of the space you would imagine for a game in characters’ minds. We have strict, abstract geometry in one level, and another shows a different sort of impossible landscape with a world that is twisted upon itself. We see varieties of trauma incarnated, paranoia and multiple personalities made concrete, and then stack that with scenes played out from the enemy’s point of view.
And then they are made well, wonderful with details and personalities.