Psychonauts 2, the long-awaited sequel to the 2005 cult hit Psychonauts, is a game I can only describe as “mental”. It’s apt, as the game is “mental” in the way it is written and designed by the idiosyncratic mind of Tim Schafer and the Double Fine team, and in the manner the game articulates the theme of mental health. More importantly, it improves upon its predecessor in many ways, while still retaining the patented Double Fine warped sense of story-telling and humour, making this game my contender for Game of the Year.
Set merely days after the original and the 2017 VR title, Rhombus of Ruin, Psychonauts 2 continues the story of Raz as a Psychonauts-hopeful (secret agents with psychic abilities), as he tries to find a mole in the Psychonauts organization and prevent them from reviving a past evil. For those that missed out on the 2005 original and the Rhombus of Ruin, a recap video catches new players up to the plotline, allowing them to hit the ground running, although they will miss out on a cult classic. These new players will also miss out on the janky platforming in the original, as the sequel have improved these elements in significant ways. Gone are the early 2000s days of pixel-perfect landings on platforms; thankfully, Psychonauts 2 has evolved with the genre, to an extent.
Armed with his psychic powers, Raz (short for Razputin) figured he was a shoo-in to be inducted as a Psychonaut. Reality bites, however, as he soon realises he is to be inducted into the internship program at the Psychonauts HQ and prove his capabilities before he becomes an official Psychonaut. This headquarters serves as an open world hub, while each level is a journey through a subject’s mind.
Having two separate approaches to world design keeps both fresh, and allows exploration, upgrading, and dialogue with characters to colour in the world further—the side characters that Raz converses with are the gems that add to the world-building, as nearly every character has dialogue and personality that adds a little je ne sais quoi to the game.
These adventures into a subject’s psyche are when the developers flexed their level design muscles. Using elements of mental health as a theme—think phobias, addiction, nostalgia—Psychonauts 2 executes the ideology well, and brings enemies into the same mix by naming them as unfavourable thoughts. While the enemies are mostly fodder, christening them names like Regret, Doubt, and Panic Attack, and then implementing attack mechanics that is name-appropriate (Regret drops weights to weigh you down, Doubt ooze slime to slow you down, Panic Attack comes out of nowhere) is another credit to the development team’s outside-of-the-box thinking.
Raz has his own arsenal of psychic powers, and they are introduced organically and consistently, with every level having a new power to learn and master. These powers are used for combat, traversal and puzzle solving, and while neither of these aspects are overly difficult—I would be inclined to say too easy—they fit within the theme effectively. The game isn’t overly difficult, and no one should go in expecting a complete innovation in the platformer genre. Then again, this isn’t a game I am fawning over because of its gameplay.
What I truly loved about this game, to drill it down to one word, is its charm. Raz, as the protagonist, is the epitome of this: he exhibits enthusiasm and youthful exuberance at realizing his psychic potential at his dream job, and the occasional insight he offers, that you would expect to come from a wise sage, make for a character that you can’t help but root for. The founding members of the organization are all unique in their own way, and intrinsically mesh together through the fabric of the story so that you feel their every triumph, failure, and heartache.
While the game starts off with a science fiction/espionage feel to the story, it subtly, but very convincingly, evolves into a story about family and those you build bonds with. The change in theme was so organic that it had already metamorphosed before I was cognizant of the evolution, mostly due to my investment into the plot to uncover the secrets that befell the Psychonauts institution. Folding in the topic of mental health was executed perfectly, as Psychonauts 2 beautifully delineates the idea that everyone goes through some type of mental hurdle, be it addiction, to phobias, to past regrets and what-ifs. Shepherding the player through these concepts, 10-year-old Raz balances youthful optimism to help solve the subject’s issue, with nuggets of wisdom that elders decades older than him may never come to cognize.
Psychonauts 2 retains the unique art design first established in the original, and while it looks updated to today’s standards, the hub world and characters are very much a reminder that this is a sequel of a game from 2005—not that this is a negative. It honors the original greatly without making too many concessions for a modern day release; if Tim Burton made a sequel to The Nightmare Before Christmas in this day and age, it would look remarkably similar to the original, too.
Even though the mechanics and movement have improved, there were still the occasional platforming issues, sometimes attributed to the camera,sometimes the level design. I also found the swapping of the psych powers a hassle, as it requires bringing up the psych power wheel with the bumper, selecting a power up, then assigning one of the bumpers/triggers to the selected power. It becomes tedious in the middle of a fight, when different enemy types call for different psych powers as their counters.
But what makes this game so endearing to me is that it retains the quirkiness that was prevalent in early 2000s games, further enhanced by the talents at Double Fine Productions, while tackling and expounding on a matter that was not overly prominent sixteen years ago, but is a serious, topical issue in 2021. In a way, perhaps Psychonauts 2 coming out this year was the best thing for this franchise.
Fans of the original can now rest easy, knowing that the sequel they wanted, for the best part of two decades, has finally come to fruition, and it’s everything they could have wanted, and more. Psychonauts 2‘s story is deeper, more heartfelt, and wonderfully compelling. The mechanics and concepts in the original have greatly improved (although not without its minor issues), and the characters and their personalities exude bucketloads of charm. Without a doubt, this game will be on a number of game of the year nominations. Better sixteen years late than never.
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PC (Windows Store, Steam)
Release date: 25 August 2021