Psychonauts 2 is finally in our hands. The long-awaited sequel to the cult classic Psychonauts was only 16 years in the making. In this day and age of games being platforms and operating as a service, it is refreshing that Psychonauts 2 sticks to its roots. It takes everything that people loved about the first entry and cranks it up to 11. Dare I say, it is easily Double Fine Production’s finest game to date.
Developer & Publisher // Double Fine, Xbox Game Studios
Platforms // PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
MSRP & Release Date // $59.99, Aug. 25, 2021
Reviewed On // Xbox Series X
The story of Psychonauts 2 picks up right after the events of the first game. Our hero Razputin Aquato, aka Raz, just officially joined the organization he has looked up to his entire life, the Psychonauts, an international psychic espionage organization. Raz has revered the group for most of his life.
He has memorized every detail of the careers of the Psychic 6, the organization’s founders, through the psychic detective comics that he cherishes and often refers to throughout both installments. So, when he finally joined the Psychonauts as an intern, it was a dream come true. However, he couldn’t relish the time for too long as trouble immediately started brewing.
If you haven’t played the first Psychonauts, you shouldn’t worry. Psychonauts 2 fills you in with a video that neatly sums up the events in the first game when you start a new game. The narrative is very well-written and paced, it kept my attention from start to finish. The plot keeps you intrigued through constant plot twists and surprises. The craft displayed really is superb, and it is backed by humorous and witty dialogue. However, a plot is only as good as its characters, and these characters are simply great.
Fantastic Cast of Characters
Like its strong narrative, the characters of Psychonauts 2 stand out as well. Most of the main characters are well-written, multi-dimensional, and relatable. Take for instance our hero Raz. Before joining the Psychonauts, his family and he were circus acrobats known as the “Flying Aquatos”.
Raz’s father, Augustus Aquato, instills his fear and hatred of psychics in all of his children. Even though Raz himself and other members of his family are psychics. This hatred is due to a bloody past feud with a family of psychics from a rival circus that cursed the Aquatos to die in water. As a result, the Aquatos have a crippling fear of water. In fact, Raz can die if he stays in water for too long in the game.
Eventually, this hatred of psychics forces Raz to run away from the circus and attempt to join the Psychonauts. The metaphor is not hard to see here, but it is well done. We can all relate to not being the perfect kid our parents wanted us to be. This attention to detail also translates to Psychonaut 2‘s level design as well.
Clever Level Design
Levels in Psychonauts 2 take place in the mind of different characters. Raz is able to enter another person’s mind via a miniature doorway he throws and latches on their heads. Each level’s design reflects a character on a personal level. This includes their background, fears, and trepidations.
One of the early levels in Psychonauts 2 has Raz entering the mind of Dr. Hollis Forsythe. The level begins in a hospital representing Hollis’s medical background before she joined the Psychonauts. She was betrayed by one of her colleagues, and it continues to resonate within her mind.
As Raz progresses in the level, players will see that Forsythe’s level changes after she is thrusted into the Psychonaut’s leadership position. It is here that her fears of trying to keep the organization afloat are represented in the level.
Forsythe convinces herself that gambling is a worthy venture to bring in much-needed funds for the Psychonauts. This turns the level’s hospital setting and fuses it with a casino. Beating a level is about bringing catharsis and helping characters overcome the fears and traumas that haunt them. Although Psychonauts 2 deals with serious topics like mental health issues, they are presented tastefully without being too preachy or overbearing for players.
When you break it down, Psychonauts 2 is a combination of Raz’s coming-of-age tale and creating awareness of mental health issues. Since the levels are based on the minds of different characters in Psychonauts 2, we see how they endured ordeals that continue to plague them. These afflictions vary, but they deal with issues such as anxiety and enabling behavior. These mental health issues humanize the Psychonauts that Raz reveres.
It is in these moments that players see Raz come into his own. He realizes that his idols are people that have been through adversities. It takes the phrase ‘never meet you heroes’ and gives it a unique spin.
The same applies to the game’s villain as well. Without revealing too much or spoiling it for players, Psychonauts 2 provides real context for the motivations of the main villain. This helps create sympathy for the character. It reminds me of animated films that divulge how a villain, who was once an innocent character, becomes a monster they never thought they would be.
It is this combination that really makes Psychonauts 2 such a special title that goes to show why it has such a devoted following. On the surface, the game looks like a quirky platformer. But the more you pay attention to the level design, narrative, and different elements of the game, the more you realize it is much deeper than it appears. It is a game about the flawed humanity in all of us.
Solid Performance Boosts Platforming in Psychonauts 2
At its core, Psychonauts 2 is a platformer. Raz will jump, climb, shimmy, and swing in the game’s various locations. Luckily, this time the game performs at a rock-solid 60 FPS and up to 120 FPS on certain displays on the Xbox Series X. Unlike the first iteration that had a locked 30 FPS, the difference in smoothness is very welcome. There were hardly any slowdowns or stutters that are worth mentioning. The game was very polished and performed great throughout my playthrough.
Psychonauts 2’s solid performance benefited the platforming side of the game. Animations were smooth and consistent and it helped remove the judder that plagued that first installment. I hardly missed a beat when it came to jumping on different platforms or grinding on rails. It was all intuitive and movement was smooth and easy.
Psychonauts 2 Hub World and Nuanced Mechanics
Psychonauts 2 primarily takes place in the Psychonaut headquarters, the Motherlobe. The Motherlobe operates as a hub world. Though you can go anywhere you like at any time it is not an open world in the traditional sense. You will not be bombarded with multiple quests to complete. Instead, you will have the main storyline quest and perhaps one or two side missions available at a given time.
The side missions themselves are lackluster. They simply tasked Raz with collecting certain items at different levels. Luckily, there is an extensive guide to tackle the scavenger hunt. There were a lot of items to collect and the reward was not worth the effort.
The game has some unfortunate moments where certain mechanics are just not explained. They are meant to be moments of discovery, but when I accidentally discovered them, it was more of a facepalm. For example, in one of the levels, you have to shine a telescope on a glass platform to reveal a rainbow trail that lets you progress in the level. Another example occurred during the barber level where mites would block your progress. The only way to get by them is by knocking down a bottle of hydroxide liquid on the mites to scatter them.
It wasn’t too frustrating for me personally, but I can understand how it can be frustrating for others.
Engaging Combat and Psychic Abilities
Once again, combat remains within the boundaries of the first Psychonauts. Raz can map different psychic abilities to the shoulder buttons and triggers while melee and dodging remain on the face buttons.
Of the abilities, the psi-blast ranged attack ability was especially useful at getting easy shots at enemies from afar, which helped in crowd control situations. Meanwhile, pyrokinesis proved to be a useful AoE attack to help deal with multiple enemies.
Additionally, the new psychic abilities that Psychonauts 2 introduced are a joy to use. I especially loved using projection. This power lets Raz create a paper-sketched version of himself. The projection ability has multiple uses, including distracting enemies and healing Raz during combat. It also helps players open locked doors and other useful purposes. I liked the new powers, they felt well-thought-out and complement previous psychic abilities nicely. Overall, combat felt more engaging and varied compared to the original and was enjoyable in Psychonauts 2.
The game achieved variety in combat through diverse enemy types that are tied into themes and require suitable abilities to defeat them. For instance, the anxiety demon required you to slow them down with the Time Bubble ability before you could land attacks on it. While the enemy known as Judgement wields a massive gavel that Raz can pull and throwback at him with his Telekinesis ability. The enemy variety serves a quality gameplay purpose but also gets across the messaging of the game’s themes. In this case, slowing down your thoughts, and withholding judgment.
Beautiful Graphics and Distinctive Art Style
Psychonauts 2 graphics remain consistent with the first iteration’s original art style. While its graphics are not at the same level as Ratchet and Clank, Psychonauts 2 still retains its distinctive art style. The game has an almost Tim Burton-esque look and feel that Tim Schaffer and Double Fine’s titles have made their own. When you’re playing one of their games, you can easily recognize that it is their work based on their distinctive look. The art style has a quirkiness that is easy to identify.
It was also refreshing that some of the levels changed things up a bit. For example, the musical festival level had a vibrant cel-shaded look. While the library level incorporated paper-sketched characters in the level. This helped keep Psychonauts 2 visually fresh and intriguing through my time with it.
The game also boasts an impressive use of HDR. Some of the neon signs brilliantly radiate darker levels, while colors had a certain pop to them. Though it must be said there are some slight texture pop-ins during some of the game’s cutscenes, this is typical for games that use Unreal Engine. Luckily, these instances are few and far apart and don’t detract from Psychonauts 2’s overall graphics and visual aesthetics.
Final Thoughts on Psychonauts 2
Psychonauts 2 is a tremendous journey from start to finish. It takes what was successful from the first game, and improves what wasn’t, and cranks everything up to 11. Psychonauts 2 is the culmination of everything Double Fine has learned from its decorated history and is easily their best title to date. If you’re new to the series, you don’t have to worry. The game does a good job of filling you in on the characters and events from the first Psychonauts.
Graphically, the game is beautiful and still retains its distinctive art style. Combat and platforming were engaging and never felt dull. The level design is diverse and oozed personality. The narrative and its pacing were phenomenal. While the cast of characters is well-written, deep, and relatable. The story touches upon serious themes such as mental health issues, but it does so tastefully without bogging down the experience. Psychonauts 2 is a serious game of the year contender and proves why the franchise is so beloved and has such a devoted fan base.
Psychonauts 2 launches on August 25. It will be available on Steam, Windows 10, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, macOS, and Linux.
Note – An Xbox Series X|S copy was provided for the purpose of this review.