“Psychonauts 2”, by Double Fine Studios
Asking a company to follow up a cult-favorite game from their past is generally asking them to disappoint their fans. Even good games tend to pale in comparison to the original. But, Double Fine’s Psychonauts 2 isn’t going to be remembered as one of those. It stands head and shoulders above even the original as one of the best games I’ve played in 2021 because it’s a polished and fulfilling experience that will likely be held as the example of what the action-platformer genre can do in the modern day.
The game opens directly into the accessibility settings (subtitles, brightness, etc., are helpful to be able to be set before cutscenes start) and follows that up not with the game, but with a content warning. The game deals with heavy issues, including illness, addiction, grief, and horrifying dental imagery, and it’s really appreciated to see a game be upfront about such things, particularly in light of some of the other games to come out this year, particularly Twelve Minutes.
When the game starts, it places our hero, Razputin Aquatos, Psychonaut and ten-year old…in an office job. It’s revealed quickly to be simply a mental construct intended to find the identity of the person who hired Dr. Loboto to kidnap the head of the Psychonauts and—hold on, let’s start from the beginning.
Psychonauts and its sequels take place in a world where pulpy sci-fi psychic secret agents—the titular Psychonauts—help to protect the populace from those that would use their psychic gifts for evil. You play as the psychic preteen and Psychonauts fan-boy Raz, who, throughout the first game (and the VR sequel), proves his worth to a few Psychonauts agents that work at a summer camp he attends. Fulfilling his wildest dreams, he is brought to their headquarters to become a Psychonaut—or, at least to become an intern.
The parts of Psychonauts 2 that spoke to me started with that content warning. Whereas the first game had you going into a weird array of brains (the series’ levels) such as asylum patients, camp counselors, and large fish, the second game sticks to people you know and interact with as part of the narrative and its emotional throughline. Almost every brain you go into is of one of your fellow Psychonauts, broken and beat down by the events that led to the game’s story. Rather than the generally reductive takes on insanity in the original game, you have a more nuanced look at the ways stress—primarily loss—impacts people, albeit presented in exaggerated ways.
That isn’t to say that the game is no longer a comedy—it’s approximately 30% fart jokes by volume—it just has a stronger heart at the center. Based not around a child’s desire to be a secret agent and their crush on another child, but on the bonds of family, of finding your place when you’ve drifted from the path they set or moving past a tragic loss you shared. Raz represents the former. Having run away from the circus to become a Psychonaut, his family are divided on how to view him. Their built-in distrust of psychics stems from having to balance their love of Raz, who, like his father, developed those same psychic powers, from the curse that keeps them from going in the water. Pulling his family from behind the scenes to prominent characters in the plot of the game helps to ground the boy, but also to provide a foil to the Psychonauts founders, weathering their active trauma against the losses the latter suffered.
The founders are largely represented by Raz’s mentor, Ford Cruller, who is most clearly broken by the tragedy they suffered. His psyche was quite literally shattered by the experience, and his friends are not much better, burying themselves in work, drink, or isolation. The narrative uses these two paths, interwoven by the connections between them, to show how groups can rally and heal when they work together to do so.
The gameplay has been fine-tuned as much as the narrative. The basic platforming is fluid and easily controlled, losing the imprecisions that made the twitchier parts of the first game (like the Meat Circus) a struggle to complete. The psychic powers Raz has access to—existing powers such as psi blasts and levitation joined by newcomers like mental connection—have more variance and use, inside and outside of combat, than before. Personally, I never tired of running around a battlefield on a rolling psychic beach ball, chucking projectiles back at enemies. The revamped enemies take full advantage of this, each type embodying a concept such as Regrets or Bad Moods, and each requiring you to mix up your tactics as you go, making encounters feel different and exciting based on just changing one or two enemies around.
Of course, the real thrill of Psychonauts combat is in the boss battles, and Psychonauts 2 delivers. Each one is visually striking, puzzly without feeling cheap or easily cheesed, and built up to by their preceding levels into satisfying showdowns for the health of the brain they are in.
All of this said, what Psychonauts is remembered for is its environmental and level design. The Milkman Conspiracy’s fractured suburbia that functions as a stripped-down hitman level, or Lungfishopolis where you play as a kaiju-sized menace to a race of fish people, are remembered for the inventiveness, visuals, and sheer fun factor. Will the psychedelic rock festival where you collect a person’s five major senses, or the brutal cooking show where the audience are the ingredients, and your goal is to give the patient confidence, going to hold up in a few years down the road? I think so, but only time (and screenshots) will tell.
The game is, of course, not perfect—no game really is—but its flaws, particularly if you know them going in, don’t keep the game from being successful. From a gameplay standpoint, it is annoying that you can’t collect all of the objects you are meant to in the hub world until after you’ve completed the game. You can go back and do so in the post-game, but it still feels bad to search for hours only to find out you should have waited. I also encountered a bug that seemed to make a collectible in a brain never accessible, which I’m hoping either was user error on my part or something that will be patched—though it’s just the one. Accessibility-wise, the menus definitely fall below par, which is surprising given that the game has options for displaying in-world text in a more readable font (essentially subtitling signs and such) but uses such a small font with a difficult-to-read color scheme in the menus, especially the shop menu.
While including content warnings as mentioned, it could also do with some extra clarification on that front. For example, one brain could be extremely triggering for a player with bulimia, and it would have really benefited from an additional heads-up before you start that block of content or even a way to skip doing that brain and continue with the story after it. Skipping content in that way isn’t necessarily a common thing in games, but maybe it should be.
In the end, Psychonauts 2 is just a very, very good game. Its heartfelt narrative, mechanical engagement, density of jokes that mostly land (seriously, walk around headquarters using clairvoyance, it’s great), and high level of polish, have set it up to be one of my favorite platformers of the current generation, if not one of my favorite period. It’s bigger, bolder, less caught up in chasing down hard-to-find objects, and ultimately a worthwhile play even for those that missed the first. It introduces plenty of new, memorable characters, from the Psychonauts founders to the other interns in Raz’s class, each of whom has at least some development and whose character designs revel in singularity. I felt triumph in combat and puzzles and empathized with the pain the characters experienced. There isn’t much more I can ask of a game.
It also was purportedly made with zero crunch at the studio, which is pretty awesome.