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Nov 24, 2021

Psychonauts 2 Review

Lights Off
4 Awesome
Retails for: $59.99
We Recommend: $59.99
  • Developer: Doublefine Productions
  • Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
  • Genre: Action, Adventure
  • Released: Aug 24, 2021
  • Platform: Windows, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4
  • Reviewed: Windows

If the Golden Age of Gaming has already passed us by, then we are surely experiencing a renaissance now, in which the possibilities for turning ideas into playable reality are nearly limitless in scope. Modern classics are made regularly, old favorites are being revived and resuscitated through emulation or remasters, top to bottom remakes of landmark games are becoming more commonplace, and beloved fan favorites are getting the sequels they grossly deserve. Enter Psychonauts 2, the long-rumored, highly desired but largely mythical (until recently) follow up to the cult classic original released in 2005. I have fond memories of traipsing about the first Psychonauts‘ trippy mindscapes as Razputin Aquato, budding young misfit adventurer and Psychonaut-to-be, collecting endless figments, exploring bizarre locales that feel ripped directly from the bizarre imaginations of its creators, and utilizing the myriad psychokinetic powers Raz had at his disposal to engage in some serious platforming and mystery solving all in service of thwarting an evil plot to exploit the very Psychonaut agents whose creed it was to protect the world from psychic terrorism.

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Psychonauts was a hugely imaginative title in 2005, and while its gameplay may not have necessarily been revolutionary, it was revered for its strong storytelling, lively characters, incredibly imaginative environments, and its unmistakably distinct and bold style that borrowed heavily from an eclectic set of influences and themes like 1960s spy thrillers, Burton-esque art direction, and childhood summer camp stories. The result was a unique twist of classic Americana and adventure that indelibly imprinted itself into the memories of anybody who played it; rather fitting considering the game’s themes. A sequel to Psychonauts was hotly anticipated by fans, but as time dragged on, the possibility of one materializing seemed fainter, and the potential for a sequel to fill the shoes of its predecessor became simultaneously greater and more daunting a task in which to succeed, especially given developer Doublefine’s series of ups and downs with its releases in the intervening years. At last, Psychonauts 2 is here, and it has a huge reputation to live up to, a challenge which it is thankfully aptly prepared to meet. It is, thankfully, every bit as creative, exciting, surprising, and heartfelt as its forebear, with the benefit of significantly higher production values and technology that allow the true vision of the universe to come forward.

Psychonauts 2 knows that it has big shoes to fill, to the extent that this is reflected in the story arc that follows Raz on his journey through the Psychonauts’ internship program, a path he takes on begrudgingly but with his typical gusto and optimism, much to the chagrin of his fellow interns. Raz has a bit of a chip on his shoulder through much of the narrative, feeling that as he has already succeeded in thwarting a major sinister plot or two, and earned his place among the Psychonauts proper. Indeed, the game opens with Raz participating on a mission with agents Sasha Nein, Milla Vodello, and Coach Oleander, setting the stage for the first of many adventures for Raz as a proper Psychonaut, which all seems wonderful until you arrive at Psychonauts HQ, aka the Motherlobe, and learn that Raz’s anointment as a full-fledged Psychonaut by Ford Cruller at the end of the first game is not considered official as Cruller was not of sound mind at the time. So, it’s the intern program for Raz, and a mandatory re-climbing of the ladder to prove himself to his peers, his superiors, and everybody around him, even though he already knows full well that he’s capable of so much more.

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Not unlike Raz, Psychonauts 2 understands it has a lot to prove, and can’t stand on the shoulders of its previous outings alone. Thankfully, it is incredibly eager to show you just how deserving of your love and respect it is, and it wastes little time in setting out to win you over. Visually, Psychonauts 2 is a beautiful game to behold, its art style and direction benefiting majorly from the technology advancements of the past 15 years. Granted, 2017’s Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin has already given the series a first pass at upgrading its presentation and generating modern art assets, but that title is still four years old and a majority of fans haven’t had the chance to play it given its VR exclusivity. Psychonauts 2 is a feast, dense with detail and full of life, and every environment you traverse both real and imagined is chock full of things to see and marvel at. The real-world locales play with the possibilities that exist for a world populated by psychics, taking advantage of the relaxed constraints of this universe to produce environments that prioritize form over function and indulging in superfluous architectural details. Stepping foot inside The Motherlobe invokes memories of limitless-budgeted spy headquarters from Saturday morning cartoons or childrens’ movies, a place of infinite wonder, immaculate polish, and piles upon piles of secrets. This serves as your primary hub between missions, and it’s a great place to advance the game’s story, interact with side characters, and of course, use the currency you’ve racked up to improve your abilities and stock up on consumables. The best trick that Psychonauts 2 pulls here is making The Motherlobe feel like a seamless part of the world and the narrative rather than the glaringly obvious hub or interstitial areas that are typically popular.

If the real-world locales are special and lavish, the contents of the various minds you’ll explore are absolutely surreal, and they push the boundaries of what you might typically imagine is possible in creative level design in nearly every conceivable way. The unconstrained environment of imagination can be a blessing or a curse, as allowing for total creative freedom can make it hard to know where to set boundaries. Psychonauts 2 manages this in a way that feels effortless, through clever usage of strong themes in each of its mindscapes that help define the parameters of what can exist within them. The variety and creativity present in the series’ mission design has always been one of its best quality, and in that way Psychonauts 2 continues in the tradition of finding all manner of ways to surprise the player, deftly weaving paths through numerous twisted places, connected and unified by consistent mechanics and elements that help ground you as you try to wrap your head around the sheer impossibility of each new place you visit or mind you explore. And let me tell you, you will see some shit in this game, starting from moment one and seldom letting off the gas.

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The game opens with a level that tutorializes Raz’s movement and abilities, and the game’s core mechanics pretty well, but it all takes place in the mind of demented former dentist Caligosto Loboto (Dr. Loboto is still one of the funniest names I’ve ever heard), so when things go awry it’s no big surprise that the boring bureaucratic office environment that was created for his simulation becomes overrun with giant walls of gums and teeth, in a turn that’s equal parts whimsical and disturbing. It’s a literally visceral enough experience that the game presents a warning at the outset about dental imagery, a kind and necessary gesture as anybody with a phobia of those themes would likely be challenged to make their way through the level. Mental health-focused warnings are a pitch-perfect inclusion by Doublefine, considering that mental wellness plays a central role in the story’s overall themes and many of its subplots, and it’s heartening to see them take the issue seriously and treat it with reverence.

This is apt too, because while Psychonauts 2 deals heavily in the whimsical, it is still dark and graphic in ways that can push the boundaries of your discomfort. It generally does so playfully, and it knows how to show restraint, but the point is to make you feel things. Honestly, one of the best things I can say about Psychonauts 2 is that even amongst all of the things it does so well, the thing it excels at is connecting with the player emotionally. I have seldom experienced games that make me react on so many different parts of the emotional spectrum; the writing and presentation are so strong and work so well together, I couldn’t help but be fully immersed in the world. The game’s many jokes are genuinely funny, the disturbing parts thoroughly unsettling (but like the fun, safe kind), and you will feel sadness, loss, regret, and frustration on behalf of the characters you meet and the journeys they go on because it is so easy to identify and connect with them. It’s truly remarkable and reason enough to play it.

If there’s one thing I wish was better about Psychonauts 2, it’s the platforming. It’s not that the game doesn’t control well or isn’t fun to play, but to me the speed of things feels a bit slow, and I had some issues with the way the abilities work together for traversing some of the environments that made things feel clunky to me. Most of the time, things work fine, but I struggled on more occasions than I care to mention to make some jumps between floating platforms, and not being sure right away whether I could cross a gap with my normal jump alone, or whether I should use the bouncing ball jump to get extra height, or if I needed to jump and glide, and would fall to my death repeatedly while either trying to determine the right tool to use for the job, or because of failing to aim myself properly and falling short or wide of my target. To be clear, I consider myself very skilled at platformers and don’t typically encounter these problems, but the lack of a clear useful visual indicator of Raz’s position above the ground like an easily visible shadow, for example, made some sequences harder than they needed to be. In general, I often found myself being held back by Raz’s movement speed and the physics behind his psychic abilities, not able to traverse environments at quite the pace or with the fluidity that I’d like. That being said, Psychonauts 2 is not a game that’s meant to be sped through, and it’s good that you are given time to take in the visual spectacles, I think I just wish that controlling Raz felt a little faster, and a little more precise.

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Minor shortcomings aside, Psychonauts 2 is the rare sequel that succeeds in living up to the hype and delivering on the promise set up by its predecessor and many years of anticipation. It is such a treat to spend more time in this world, and I will still staunchly argue that Psychonauts is the best stuff Doublefine has ever created. I love that this exists, I love that a whole new generation of gamers are getting the chance to experience this magnificent world for the first time, and it is so refreshing to see a game with so much creativity get the time, attention, and budget it deserves. Psychonauts 2 is a heartfelt, joyous adventure that ups the ante in every way, and I think it’s a must play experience for anybody who loves a good adventure.

An Xbox / Windows code was provided in advance by the publisher for review purposes