Psychonauts 2 has nothing to prove. That’s the sense I got from my theater demo of the game at E3 2019. The session showed a toothy, fleshy nightmare with plenty of trademark Double Fine humor. It was so trademark, in fact, that you might be forgiven for thinking it was a remaster of the original game. Everything from the comedic timing to the ways protagonist Raz punches baddies feels plucked straight out of the first Psychonauts. Even the plot has barely inched forward — just a few days in-game, while 14 years have passed in reality.
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Reality is, of course, subjective in the world of Psychonauts. The core conceit remains; you use magic doors to enter the minds of corrupt individuals. Then, using psychic powers, you untangle the manifestations of their muddled psyches. Psychonauts 2 specifically kicks off in the brain of Dr. Loboto. The recurring baddie is both a dentist and an amateur brain surgeon. So his consciousness is appropriately filled with teeth and walls of raw, wiggly nerves underneath.
Inside the corrupt mind, Psychonauts 2 plays a lot like Psychonauts. In other words, it’s a 3D platformer. You jump around to collect collectibles, punch monsters, and mix things up with a smattering of special abilities.
The sense of humor is less tangible, but just as recognizable (if you’ve ever played a Double Fine game). There aren’t jokes, exactly, so much as clever one-liners that spring out and surprise you, eliciting laughs instead of scares. Even then, the game isn’t really a laugh-out-loud riot. It’s charming and surprising — which is often more than enough.
Much of the more interesting stuff about the game came from Creative Director Tim Schafer himself. If the first Psychonauts is a fan favorite game (that didn’t set the world at large on fire), Schafer is an equivalent industry personality. He’s fun and snappy and pleasant to be around. That’s not new, either, but some of his insight at the Psychonauts 2 demo certainly was.
Schafer doesn’t see Psychonauts 2 as the biggest Double Fine game yet, for instance. That’s somewhat surprising. The studio has largely focused on smaller downloadable games for years, like the Kickstarter backed Broken Age. Psychonauts feels like a return to bigger, denser packages.
Even so, Schafer says the (criminally underrated) Brutal Legend still eclipses Psychonauts 2 in terms of scope, if not necessarily quality. That’s not to say things might not get bigger in the future, of course. Double Fine and Microsoft announced during E3 2019 that the studio was being acquired by the hardware manufacturer. That news leads to some concerns, no doubt, but also to positive changes for the developer.
Schafer explained that constantly having to pitch new, wacky ideas to potential partners took its toll. He mentioned that creators would call Double Fine games “really creative”… which usually preceded things like “Too bad people aren’t looking for creative stuff anymore.” Hearing one of its games was “really creative” usually meant a rejection for Double Fine.
Now, though, with Microsoft, the company can afford to let ideas gestate. It no longer needs to jump from one concept to the next, hoping to keep the company afloat in the short-term.
Intentionally or not, Psychonauts 2 feels like the perfect game to christen this new potential. It’s a game that, in some ways, is 14 years in the making. Schafer himself explained that there is an appeal to coming back to this world — these characters and this distinctive style — so many years later. That’s because it opens doors to anything. Different minds, different times, different views of the world: they’re all possible in an endless supply of fictional imaginations.
Now Double Fine finally gets the chance show that this was always the case. It can hone the very basic acts of Psychonauts 2, but it doesn’t need to prove anything. The series always had bite; now it’s just a little sharper.