Psychonauts 2 Review
The world moves quickly nowadays, and the video game industry is no exception. Developers have to capitalise on popularity if they’re set on turning a game into a larger franchise, and sequels are often greenlit by the time a title has gone gold — but equally, for commercially underperforming ones, a potential series can just as suddenly be canned in favour of a new IP. In the last few years there’s been a number of efforts to revitalise older games (with mixed success) such as Streets of Rage 4 or Battletoads, each of which had almost thirty years between instalments. The fifteen-year gap between core Psychonauts games (ignoring 2017’s stop-gap VR adventure Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin; a satisfying but short amuse-bouche to warm audiences up to Double Fine’s extra-sensory world once more) feels pretty unheard of for a title without the same popular appeal. But I’m very glad that Tim Schafer’s sequel has been kept alive by groundswell and finally made it out of development hell — and in doing so has managed to improve almost every aspect of the first game, ironing out a lot of the kinks found in the original Psychonauts.
Psychonauts 2 picks up just a few days after the events of the first game, but a handy recap is there to catch you up on the main plot beats. You play as Rasputin ‘Raz’ Aquato, newly graduated from psychic summer camp, and now enrolled into an intern program for the titular Psychonauts — a globe-trotting group of psychic superspies. Raz starts the game with a good number of mental abilities up his sleeve, being able to set fires, shoot mind blasts, or grab and throw objects with an astrally projected hand. Over time Raz will increase his arsenal with new powers not seen in previous games, such as slowing time or creating a 2D projection of himself which can follow basic instructions. Psychonauts 2 is primarily a platform game, so these powers are chiefly used to activate switches and bypass obstacles in your way; whilst repetitive combat areas do return from the previous game, these seem to have a lesser weighting for the first half of the experience (outside of some colourful boss fights). New enemy types and mini-bosses are eventually introduced as well, and even if the basic combat isn’t super satisfying, it does require some planning and the correct powers to be equipped to take down different enemies in turn. This adds some needed zip to Raz’s mid-level combat encounters, and more importantly invites engagement rather than simply being able to spam punches and mind bullets until the last onscreen baddie has given up.
Starting in ‘The Motherlobe’, the Psychonauts’ base of operations, this hub-like open world gives you free rein for exploration in between story missions. New areas are opened as you progress and level up, making it a nice, neutral place to return back to — but the meat of the game is found once you dive into a character’s mind to help them overcome their inner demons. Varied and dizzyingly imaginative at times, these settings careen from grotesque, toothy, flesh-scapes to idyllic tropical paradises. Each brain you dive into has its own set of rules to crack, and individual perils to avoid. Psychonauts 2 thrives on this constant switch-up, as you’ll rarely spend more than an hour in any single mental world, constantly jolting Raz into a new situation before the previous level can run out of steam. Some worlds have clearly had a touch more TLC in their creation than others, but when they’re good they are very good. A personal highlight is a psychedelic level overlaying new-age spiritualism on a 60s music festival, as you activate rainbow bridges and jump across slow-motion fish swimming through the air. This elevated world adopts a super-saturated, cel-shaded art style which is unique to this setting, further accentuating the trippy experience. Another strong entry sees you taking part in a cooking game show with an audience of anthropomorphic ingredients volunteering to be sauteed, with a judging panel of sniffy glove puppets. Psychonauts 2 is inventively bonkers, and beaming with happiness as it throws anything and everything at you.
If the original Psychonauts had a number of issues with sloppy controls and overly-exacting jumps, here those are a thing of the past. Sure, you can occasionally get stuck on some objects or face some minor judders, but there has been a vast improvement in the moment to moment gameplay. Special abilities are a lot easier to switch between with a touch of the D-pad, and running and jumping feels so much more responsive. It’s not up there with Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart in this respect, but with the complexity and mind-bending designs of these worlds, it allows you to enjoy them the way they were intended.
Outside of a handful of optional side-missions, Psychonauts 2 is very story-focused, with pretty good pacing leading you from one level to the next, rather than trotting through these mental worlds at random. It’s worth noting that the world of Psychonauts 2 can be picked up without any prior knowledge, thanks to early exposition and tutorial sections outlining your role and relationships with returning characters, but older fans will appreciate the occasional nod to previous adventures. What starts off as a simple mission with the Psychonauts soon morphs into a far wider-ranging quest for answers, with new characters fleshing out the Psychonauts world and its history of civil unrest. Writing duties are carried out by Tim Schafer solo this time, and even if it misses some of previous collaborator Erik Wolpaw’s snark, the writing is funny and sweet by turn. There’s a knowingly bad pun for any situation, and oodles of homespun wisdom to complement each character’s plot beats: “Even gutterballs return eventually,” remarks an introspective bowling alley employee trying to piece his life back together.
Diving into the minds of troubled characters unearths all manner of mental trauma, but these aren’t portrayed in the intensely realistic way that games like Senua’s Sacrifice have. Issues of anxiety, worthlessness, and addiction make themselves known through the themed enemies and objects littering the game world, but it never feels uncomfortably dark for a casual audience. The focus is instead on lending a helping hand to dismantle these issues: whilst you wouldn’t misconstrue Psychonauts 2 as medical advice, it promotes healthy discussion and a compassionate understanding of the struggles people face every day. Broadly facing mental health issues in the abstract rather than a representational way, it walks a careful line tempering melancholy with optimism — it’s okay not to be okay, but it’s not okay to be okay with not being okay.
Psychonauts 2 is a wonderful sequel which builds the gameplay, setting, and story into something bigger and better than the original. Across twelve-plus hours of main game, with another half dozen for side-missions and collectibles, the experience is vivid and exciting with big sequences breaking up adventurous platform exploration. Graphical hitches cause stutter when faced by too many enemies and when transitioning between areas on a base PS4, but these can be looked past due to the overall quality — especially when considering crowd-funded projects of limited budget. Brimming with heart and ideas, Psychonauts 2 justifies the series’ cult following and will hopefully find a better audience this time around.
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