Anxiety and depression have been a part of my life for a long time. So has Psychonauts. I grew up adoring the first game, astounded by its mind-bending worlds and engaging story. Playing the long-awaited sequel so many years later came with both excitement and apprehension. Would it live up to what I hoped it would be? And, more importantly, as a game about mental health — one that developer Double Fine consulted with mental health professionals to create — would Psychonauts grow in the same ways I’ve grown?
Discussing a subject as broad and personal as mental health requires a willingness to venture into uncomfortable, awful, and confusing spaces. It’s not easy to do. Psychonauts 2 boldly takes the plunge, but serious topics like PTSD are quickly brushed aside and robbed of the attention they deserve. Although it doesn’t handle mental health as deftly as I’d hoped, there’s still a lot to like about Psychonauts 2. The overall package is a faithful continuation of the surreal world and comical writing, and that makes it well worth the wait, even with its occasional stumbles.
This sequel continues where Rhombus of Ruin, a virtual reality tie-in game, left off. You play as Raz, a young acrobat-turned-psychic, who has been delegated to the intern program of the Psychonauts, a team of super spies he’s long idolized. After rescuing the head of the Psychonauts, you discover there’s a mole planted inside the organization, and a larger conspiracy surrounding a decades-old monster returning from the shadows.
Unravelling these mysteries is compelling, especially since the answers lie in other characters’ minds. As a psychic, you hop into anyone’s brain and explore them as physical spaces, almost like mental amusement parks filled with fears, desires, and regrets disguised as attractions, obstacles, and enemies. You scour brains to resolve inner demons. As you do so, Raz learns about himself, his past, and his own insecurities. Psychonauts 2 delves deep into lore that was surface-level in the first game, giving us a better grasp of this world, its characters, and its history than ever before. For long-time fans, it’s a treat to explore places we had only heard of previously, like the Psychonauts HQ.
One particular brain (level) presents itself as a deranged cooking show, giving clever insight into performance anxiety by having the player race across a TV studio set to cook meals with ingredients plucked from the audience (literally — audience members are an assortment of eggs, onions, and so on). This level works so well because you can feel that buzz of anxiety, that rush of apprehension as you race from one station to the next. It’s extremely comical, too, as a strawberry joyfully exclaims it can’t wait to be mulched by a blender, or an egg basks in boiling water as if it were a spa pool. There’s a great balance of humor and relatability, demonstrating how our minds catastrophize situations to ridiculous levels when under stress. It’s also one of the best levels in terms of platforming and level design, giving you several grinding rails and traversal options so that you have to carefully choose which pathway will be the most effective.
Psychonauts 2 deals with themes like repressed feelings and compartmentalizing parts of ourselves, our lives, and our pasts to survive. And while it generally conveys those initial themes well, it has trouble evolving them. Everything wraps up a little too neatly, never really taking us through the aftermath of how confronting past traumas can change a person’s life. Even Raz, who gains new perspectives about people he’s spent his youth looking up to, never grows enough from the new information he learns about his heroes. There’s so much going on narratively that these threads often become tangled, making you lose sight of what the overall story is trying to say. As a result, mental health feels like set dressing in Psychonauts 2, never extending enough beyond clever narrative tools or colorful backdrops. That’s a problem the first game had, too, despite my deep love for it.
While mental health and narrative beats can occasionally be off-kilter in Psychonauts 2, the platforming is better than it’s ever been. Every “brain level” is an absolute joy to explore — I haven’t felt this kind of awe and excitement in a platformer since playing Super Mario Galaxy.
Creator Tim Schafer’s off-the-wall humor shines through every space you explore and through the tightly written, pun-filled dialogue. I particularly loved chatting with all the talking cutouts in a world built from papers and books. A paper cat would randomly warn me not to drink surrounding murky water because it’s “filled with mercury,” or I’d discuss with a fleshless image of the human anatomy whether he can feel pain and if he regrets donating his body to science.
Each brain is oozing with creativity, reflecting the feelings and sensations of the person they belong to. For example, one level is a psychedelic brainspace infused with bright colors and feel-good music to tell the story of an isolated brain with no body, and it’s up to you to reconnect it with its senses (who appear as band members that lost their instruments), though this erupts in sensory overload. In another, you find a disorienting-but-dazzling melange of hospital equipment and casino decor, signifying a discord that Raz had accidentally caused after messing with someone’s mental connections without consent. Like any good platformer, there are many collectibles and secrets to find, but sometimes it’s too much. Most levels have hundreds of collectibles — a daunting number, especially when most don’t offer much of a reward.
But you’ll find that, overall, Psychonauts 2 refines much of what the first game did well. For example, there’s a new role-playing system as you level up through intern ranks, so you can morph Raz’s powers in fun ways both aesthetically (i.e. changing the color of your levitation ball) and gameplay-wise with different perks. You can give your pyrokinesis a wider area of effect, slam down on enemies with your levitation ball for extra damage, or, just for the heck of it, gain the ability to pet forest animals via telekinesis. Every little tweak changes up gameplay or exploration enough to make this system feel satisfying, especially as you learn new powers.
You learn psychic powers a lot quicker than in the first game — this makes sense narratively, since Raz just has to recall his training. Having more tools at your disposal means you can experiment with different combat tactics or explore worlds in new ways from the get-go. There are a handful of excellent new powers, like “mental connections,” which allow you to grab hold of anchors in the air as a new way of traversal, and Raz’s ability to conjure a paper-thin copy of himself that can help distract enemies in battle or slip through small spaces. Best of all, these new abilities let you explore previously inaccessible areas.
A lot of powers from the first game return, too, but they thankfully also come with refinements. For example, PSI Blast, which lets you shoot tiny projectiles toward enemies in quick succession, now has a reticle for better aiming. The controls and the platforming itself feel simultaneously smoother and weightier than they did in the first title.
It’s a shame that these fun abilities and better controls don’t always have a chance to shine. While there are a slew of new enemies — a big improvement over the first Psychonauts’ limited variety of foes — combat scenarios themselves are frustrating. You only have four equippable slots for active powers, meaning you constantly have to swap between different abilities while fighting. This is especially irritating when you’re engaging with waves of enemies with differing weaknesses. It’s a shame, and a baffling design decision that slows down combat to a crawl. The good news is you can turn on accessibility settings like invincibility to blast through combat without taking any damage, or toggle another setting that lets Raz inflict higher damage. I occasionally took the liberty of using these features when combat or boss fights became stale or annoying.
Psychonauts 2 isn’t a perfect game, but it’s also a game about imperfections. You aren’t hopping into characters’ heads to fix them, but rather help them come to terms with the parts of themselves they loathe or try to forget. Examining how to accept all the different parts of ourselves is a compelling premise — though it’s never really clear how Psychonauts 2 proposes we grow. As a result, its own growth can occasionally feel stunted. In some ways, this is disappointing, but there’s also so much of this world to love. While it doesn’t feel like Psychonauts 2 grew up with me, I can still appreciate it as a worthwhile, zany, and clever continuation of a childhood memory I’ll always cherish.