All people are flawed in some way, regardless of whether they're a supervillain, a secret agent, a Viking in a psychedelic rock band or a cook serving honey-pepper boar bacon in a local cafeteria. Psychonauts 2 is all about realising this fact of life, and about how empathy may be the strongest tool in bringing people together, and in fixing past traumas. It’s this earnest depiction of empathy and kindness that elevates Psychonauts 2 above its many flaws. At face value, you may see a fairly generic, but undoubtedly very pretty platformer. Dig a little deeper however and you’ll find a genuine masterpiece. You’ll find Double Fine’s best work yet.
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If you played the first Psychonauts game, you’ll know what to expect with the long-awaited sequel. There are some real-world missions, but most of the game takes place inside the minds of its delightful cast of characters. The colours are bursting with hallucinogenic pomp, the character designs are somewhere between Tim Burton and Hermann Scherer, and the level design is lovingly stuck in the early 2000s. It all culminates into something that could only be Double Fine, though this can admittedly lead to some frustrations.
Psychonauts 2 is very much a modern PlayStation 2-era title. It’s learned some lessons from the last 16 years of game design, but not many. Platforming is ever so slightly imprecise, the combat is weightless and lacks punch, and the way you assign and execute abilities feels dated and clumsy. The thing is, none of this matters much at all. It can be annoying to fall to your death because you’ve collided with some invisible wall, or go to attack an enemy before realising you have the wrong power equipped, but one line from Raz, one look at your surroundings, and your smile returns. Combat makes up very little of the overall experience, most of the time you are platforming your way around intricately designed headspace dioramas, each themed after the character who’s brain you are rattling around in. There are some genuinely jaw-dropping visuals to take in as you hop from mind to mind, some which I’ve never quite seen in any other game up to this point.
Handle With Care
The central theme of diving into the mind’s of other people is explored with absolute care throughout. One of Raz’s first decisions is to try to alter the mind of a colleague to suit his own personal agenda. This is immediately reprimanded, a cautious and important lesson on how gaslighting others is never okay. Enemies are themed after mental stressors. Panic attacks, censors and bad moods all represent the ugly parts of what one might find when diving into their own head. They’re treated with a lot more honesty than other games I’ve played, accepting that these are natural parts of the human psyche, without dwelling too much on them as a central hook.
Over it’s runtime, Psychonauts 2 touches on heartbreak, grief and other heavy concepts. The tone is kept cheerful however, with protagonist Raz and his classmates being the stars of the show. This marries well with the classic collectathon and platforming structure that’s sure to invoke some nostalgia, as will the Easter Eggs and nods to other double Fine games.
Back to the Old-School
Where recent platformers like Crash 4 and Ratchet and Clank have doubled down on flashy tech and pristine visuals, Psychonauts 2 takes a completely different path. Pretty much anything in its levels can be jumped on and used as a platform. Levels are linear, but encourage exploration and experimentation via the many psychic abilities you’ll unlock. There’s even a semi-open area called the Quarry that acts as one of the game’s best bits. I spent hours jumping and gliding through this large space, mopping up collectibles and using new powers to reach previously unreachable places. There are modern touches then, but you’d be best going on with the expectation that this is a continuation of the kind of gameplay found in the first Psychonauts, not a reimagining or significant update to the formula.
The story ties into the first game, while offering something that stands on its own. It takes Raz across war-torn provinces, casino heists and painful memories of the past. I was surprised how much I cared about Raz and the rest of the Psychonauts, as I found myself hoping that everyone was going to make it out alive. Old friends are reunited and the bonds of friendship are strengthened as you bounce in and out of minds, each one offering something new to see and experience. Slowly you grow your arsenal of psychic abilities. Some slow time while others act as grapple hooks. Clearing each stage requires you to know your powers well, and you’re constantly rewarded for using them in interesting ways.
Psychonauts 2 is a difficult game to describe. At times, its refusal to step out of the past can be extremely frustrating, but not often enough to dampen the good times. It’s absolutely greater than the sum of its parts, and when taken as a whole, once the credits have rolled, it easily possesses the strongest narrative of any game this year. Above all else, Psychonauts 2 is unapologetically Double Fine. It’s sweet, funny and has a deep reverence for the games that came before it. The graphics and art direction are some of the prettiest I’ve ever seen, a shining example of the value that a strong visual style can have over mere graphical prowess. Psychonauts 2 is the result of a studio operating at the absolute top of its game. It’s an absolute must-play for anyone looking for a great story, deep characters and jaw-dropping visuals.
Reviewed on Xbox Series S