Back when it released in 2005, Psychonauts blew me away with its mind-bending antics. It was something totally unique: a game where you entered the minds of other characters and explored them as platforming levels, all with the goal of helping people come to terms with their inner demons. Sixteen years later, a sequel is finally coming. And after playing six hours of it, it’s clear Psychonauts 2 stays faithful to its roots with ingenious level design and well-placed humor as you explore reality-warping worlds. But, like the original, it’s also rough around the edges.
Psychonauts 2 takes place only a few days after Rhombus of Ruin, the tie-in VR game that bridges gaps between the original Psychonauts and its sequel. Protagonist Raz, a young psychic, has left summer camp and hopes to join the psychonauts, a powerful anti-terrorist organization whose members are somewhere between superheroes and super-spies. Raz, by contrast, is delegated to the intern program. The story will, like its predecessor, tackle serious mental health topics but with a lighthearted veneer. Striking a careful balance was important to Double Fine, so they consulted clinicians and mental health professionals during development.
“There’s nothing in the game that I feel anyone would feel is doing anything but having a really empathetic look at the human condition and what people are going through when they suffer from these conditions, as well as being a lighthearted game,” game director Tim Schafer told Fanbyte during a press Q&A event. “It doesn’t present itself as a psychiatric textbook or anything like that. It’s still game, but it try to be very respectful to the people playing it.
Though the six hours I played didn’t dive deep into mental health, it did touch upon an interesting character development for Raz. Much of the story revolves around his difficulties proving himself to the psychonauts and other interns who, unfortunately, relentlessly bully him (they even steal his clothes and lock him in a storage closet). This friction brings an interesting conflict to the story — Raz and the interns must, after all, work together. I’m curious to see how these hostile relationships morph over time.
Raz’s feelings of inadequacy weave well into the story as he makes poor decisions, or even as he talks to others around the Psychonauts HQ — a relatively large new hub world — where agents dismiss him due to his young age. Still, the protagonist powers on, determined to prove he’s worthy while helping the psychonauts track down a murderous villain back from the dead. It’s an intriguing mystery. Though it’s really all about Raz searching for his place in the world.
Unsurprisingly, he finds his chance by entering the worlds of others. Like the original, the best parts of Psychonauts 2 are themed levels within characters’ brains. Each psyche reflects the character it belongs to: Inside the demented dentist Dr. Loboto (a returning antagonist from the first game), you find salivating tongues and enormous teeth. In another, you find a strange mix of hospitals and casinos, representing a woman preoccupied with finances and her past with the medical world. In each, there’s a satisfying variation of platforming, combat, mini-games, and story. Not to mention a wide array of collectibles encouraging you to explore every corner. And it’s worth it, considering how well designed each level is. It never ceases to be fun as you grapple, swing, jump, and levitate through artistically brilliant environments.
My favorite, at least from what I played, is a later stage that takes the form of a deranged cooking show. This is Psychonauts at its best, where it leans into its own twisted humor. You play as a contestant, who must cook dishes to impress judges to progress. Yet the set is almost like a jungle gym, with cooking-themed obstacles such as alternating stove tops to jump across. Every audience member is made entirely of food, so you also need to cart the strangely eager eggs or slices of bread to their designated stations and complete mini-games. You pull levers to mulch happy strawberries mush with a blender, or chop an onion down the middle. And you have to do so quickly if you want to reap all the rewards. It’s an adrenaline-fueled race to figure out which ingredients go where, as well as how to operate each of the cooking tools. Each gizmo at each corresponding station feels like a fun, but not terribly difficult, little puzzle to solve.
Excellent level design acts as the backbone to this section — with shortcuts to rush across the layout with ease. You can grind on rails, slip down slides, jump on trampolines, and zip from one place to the next with “mental connections,” a new power that lets Raz grapple onto anchors in the air to move quickly through environments. Mental connections also introduce a fun new puzzle mechanic. One in which you need to connect certain words to convince characters to think differently, which is an interesting persuasion method from inside someone’s head.
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You have several other new abilities (all of which can level up and be modified, RPG-style) that further round out Raz’s impressive skill set. I loved how a lot of these new skills introduce ways to interact with and navigate through the world. The projection ability, for example, lets you create a paper-thin double of Raz that can slip through narrow cracks to open previously inaccessible doorways. I also appreciated an ability that slows down time, which is unsurprisingly useful during tough fights. Levitation, a returning ability which lets you balance on a holographic ball to move quicker or use a holographic balloon to fly through the air, feels much more polished and easier to control than in the original game.
But not everything works. Raz’s telekinesis can be tricky to control; I often picked up the wrong object because of its imprecise aiming system. There are many new and wonderful enemies, each with different weaknesses and strengths (I particularly like enablers, who, until they’re killed, can make another foe invincible), but these fights never felt all that engaging.
When it comes to combat, rather than puzzles and platforming, Psychonauts 2 feels like a mediocre Xbox 360 game. Your moveset is a mix of hitting, dodging, and using the aforementioned abilities. But switching between each ability is a massive pain. You have a weapon wheel, but bafflingly can’t directly activate abilities when pulling it up. Abilities must first be mapped and equipped to one of only four slots. This limitation quickly makes combat frustrating. Rather than rapidly swapping through different abilities on the fly, you slow down to a crawl while constantly moving abilities in and out of slots. It’s a strange design decision that breaks the flow of combat, affecting anything from small encounters to bigger boss fights. Thankfully, you can skip all these issues with an invincibility mode in the options menu, so you can speed through enemy encounters without a scratch.
Issues aside, I still found myself marveling at the astounding worlds within Psychonauts 2. And, just like my time with the first game, I’m personally able to look past these gripes. I’m excited for the final product, especially so I can see the nuggets of excellent storytelling unfold, and continue to experience the joy of its ingenious level design. The creative soul of Psychonauts is alive and well, even if it’s occasionally bogged down by some unpolished gameplay. That’s enough for me, but whether it’s enough for you, well, you’ll find out when the long-awaited game launches August 25 for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, and PC.