Psychonauts was a 3D platformer ahead of its time.
Sadly, the game initially bombed when it first released in 2005 as an exclusive for the original Xbox, and could have easily been swept away with other platforming also-rans (remember Blinx: The Time Sweeper or Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, anyone?). But it had far more going for it thanks to its unusual art style that was less Pixar, more Laika, with a genuinely interesting story that wasn’t just about saving the princess, the world, or collecting a hundred MacGuffins.
Its long overdue sequel - following a crowdfunding campaign before Microsoft decided to snap up developer Double Fine Productions - is a timely one. Not only are games about psychic powers on the rise, from Control to Scarlet Nexus, but in exploring the mental psyche in light-hearted but sensitive ways, Psychonauts 2 is also an important game that contributes to the more open discussions of mental health.
Last time on Psychonauts
A direct sequel that takes place only a few days after the first game, Psychonauts 2 is keen to catch you up on everything that happened to ten year-old Raz prior to his graduation from psychic summer camp to becoming a member of the secret elite Psychonauts organisation 16 years ago.
With that in mind, the game spends the first hour on a lot of exposition, all the while introducing a large cast of characters that newcomers won’t likely know, which could be a bit tedious for fans who are already up-to-date. Of course, it’s possible to play the first game on Game Pass, but less easy to dip into VR-exclusive The Rhombus of Ruin, which this game actually directly follows up from.
But once the story kicks into gear, which sees Raz investigating both the Psychonauts organisation and his relationships with his circus-performing family, it happily diverts you off course, as the assumed hub leads to new areas to explore and side quests to take on. As was the casse with the first game, Psychonauts 2 is at its best when it has you journeying into other characters’ minds, with each mental world having a different theme, allowing for imaginative level design, sometimes even changing up the art style into something a bit more colorful and psychedelic, or in one level, papercraft.
At times, a straightforward A to B sojourn might divert you into doing something entirely different. While that might interrupt the pacing somewhat, it’s also hard to complain when these are so varied, as you find yourself navigating a giant pachinko machine or taking part in a bizarre cooking show.
Mind over matter
Raz has and learns a repertoire of psychic powers that add to the gameplay, which you can upgrade or modify over the course of the game. There are the obvious ones such as telekinesis and psi blasts for ranged attacks, but the most inventive ones come in useful for platforming, combat and puzzle solving. For instance, time bubbles can slow down enemies but equally fast-moving objects, like a spinning fan that’s blocking your path. Levitation lets you move around fast on a ball that can traverse dangerous terrain but can also be upgraded as a way to knock down or ground-pound enemies.
One of the more inspired powers is mental connections, on the surface a grapple hook but which can be used to connect two disparate ideas in someone’s mind. In fact, you could even break off someone’s negative thoughts associated with a certain idea and reconnect them with a more positive one. Yet under this seemingly simplistic puzzle-solving, the game also explores the implications of trying to “fix” someone’s mind, and the unintended consequences that can arise.
It’s one of many examples of how Psychonauts 2 playfully and meaningfully uses mechanics thematically and narratively. Ideas and metaphors are also presented in literal and clever ways, from collectibles like the hundreds of unique figments found in each mental world, to the enemies based on concepts like censors, bad ideas, and even panic attacks. These do however also include more physical manifestations, so a fair warning if you get queasy at the sight of brains, or big teeth.
Combat is probably the weakest element, often a bit scrappy with a lock-on that can be more a hindrance than a help when you’re occasionally mobbed from all directions, although large-scale bosses are inventive. Nonetheless, they’re not the main attraction so those who haven’t signed up for a challenging game can opt to toggle to invincibility mode at any time (at the very least we recommend turning off fall damage).
But if we’re going to talk about accessibility, Psychonauts 2 could have done more to provide hints or ease your navigation, such as prompts when you’re stuck at a puzzle because you don’t have the correct power equipped. While consulting the journal will often tell you where to go and who to talk to, an option for waypoints or mini-map would have saved us time from wandering around the first hub in the first few hours as we were still unfamiliar with its layout or character names (a journal page with a character index and bestiary wouldn’t have gone amiss).
Ultimately, these annoyances are minor and are far outweighed by the game’s generosity, with backtracking eased by fast-travel points, and it being possible to revisit past mental worlds or anywhere else, even after the credits have rolled. Its physical and mental worlds are both so full of warmth and humour - be prepared for plenty of punnage, which Raz always likes to emphasise with a pause.
Most importantly, Psychonauts 2 isn’t afraid of personal examination. This isn’t a game about heroes fixing people or defeating villains so much as it is about recognising our own flaws and how dark negative thoughts exist within everyone, and it treats your own journey of mental wellbeing with patience and empathy.
Psychonauts 2 verdict
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart may excel in sheer spectacle and no one can be beat the pure joy of Mario's platforming, but Psychonauts 2 wins hearts and minds with a story that brims with imagination while also addressing very real issues, delivered with humour and empathy.
While the original was only a cult hit, this deserves to be enjoyed by a new generation of fans, and if you have Game Pass then it's an absolute no-brainer. If there’s any justice, being part of the Microsoft family will mean Double Fine can get to work on Psychonauts 3, and we won’t have to wait another 16 years for that one.