Psychonauts 2 is finally here. It may have taken 16 years since the first installment, plus a well-documented journey including Doublefine being bought by Microsoft, but it seems it’s been well worth the wait, as Psychonauts 2 puts in a strong claim for a game of the year 2021.
We last saw Raz and the gang in 2005 in a mainline Psychonauts game, although there was the 2017 VR-only game The Rhombus of Ruin. In Psychonauts 2 we pick up from where the first game left off. The cast of characters is as weird and wonderful as ever, and the writing is especially sharp and excellent. If you missed out on the first game then not to worry you are brought up to speed quickly by a sequence at the beginning.
You could quite easily go back and play the original, but to be honest I would simply jump into the sequel. The intro does a good job of catching you up, plus the game itself explores the main character Raz, his background, and also the background to The Psychonauts too, so if you go into this game blind, you won’t be missing out on anything. Like any good sequel, you can pick this one up and play through without having to play the original, but for the fans that did then there’s a whole bunch of callbacks and easter eggs for the original which definitely brought a smile to my face.
We pick things up a day after the story from Rhombus of Ruin, with Razputin Aquato arriving at The Motherlobe, the headquarters of the special Spy organization known as The Psychonauts. Raz thinks he’s made it, only to find he’s simply an intern. Given his new title, he’s got a whole lot more to learn before he becomes a fully-fledged Psychonaut, and he has to start at the bottom, in the mailroom. Things quickly escalate as you jump from environment to environment whether you are inside someone’s head or outside The Motherlobe exploring the wooded areas nearby.
Doublefine does a great job of making this feel like a spy caper with crisp writing, excellent settings, and character development throughout. If you are a fan of Tim Schafer’s early work like Day of the Tentacle, then you will recognize the feeling he manages to portray in his games. You’ll start out the game in the Motherlobe, then head outside to the camping area filled with giant redwood trees, lakes, and hidden caves. The change of scenery is a nice change-up and keeps things feeling fresh.
The cast of characters you have to meet and interact within the game is huge and can generally be split into a few groups. You have the main cast of the Psychonauts, plus the other interns (who start out bullying you but quickly become your friends), then you have the Aquato family. All of the characters and very well writing, they feel like they have unique and entertaining personalities and all are engaging making you want to play more.
The highlight for me in the game is when you dive into people’s brains and personalities. This is where the environment design, writing, and gameplay mechanics really shine and allow Doublefine to flex their game developer skills. You don’t go diving into every brain or everyone you meet, only the major characters who seem to be especially troubled, and early on this means a few of the Psychonauts themselves. These environments reflect the personalities of the characters themselves. For example, the first mind we jump into is that of a Dentist character and therefore the world is filled with teeth, gums, and other areas. Be wary of this level too because if you are scared of going to the dentist this isn’t going to make you feel any better about the experience. The levels are very creative, and the platforming really comes alive.
The mind control levels do tend to follow a familiar formula from diving in, having to retrieve an item of some kind, a series of platforming, and then battling a boss. The boss battles are great fun, the art styles are very different and the mechanics mix things up really well, feeling unique while tying the game together with a familiar feel. There are elements of Psychonauts that feel like a PlayStation 3 era 3D platformer, much like Ratchet & Clank earlier this year too. That isn’t to knock the game, as there’s a sheen and polish that sits on top of the gameplay which makes it feel like an up-to-date game 100%. It’s simply that the mechanics can feel a little repetitive and slightly outdated.
As a complement to the excellent storytelling, the other main gameplay elements in the game are the platforming and the combat. Both feel like they have been improved since the first game with Raz’s abilities given a welcome boost in terms of skills. You have a book detailing different skills and abilities, and as you make your way through the game you’ll collect points to level up abilities. There are not enough buttons on a controller for them all so you’ll have to be smart about which power you map to which button. The platforming generally feels really good, but there are the classic 3D platforming issues or not really being able to see where you are going the whole time, which can lead to some unfortunate moments where you might fall off the edge and not fully understand why.
Both the physical and the mental worlds you end up traversing are full of puzzles and creative ways to battle enemies. Platforming may not feel as crisp as other AAA entries this year, but don’t be fooled this is one of the best 3d platformers out there, with a great array of skills, abilities, and trees to upgrade. There are trapeze bars to swing from, trampolines to jump on, and tree-tops to navigate. Most of the mind levels feel fairly linear, however, when you are on the outside world you can pick and choose which way to go.
Combat is fairly straight forward but you are going to need some strategy in your gameplay as enemies can take you out fairly quickly if you simply end up going into encounters and mashing buttons. Enemies appear to be designed to overcome simply mashing buttons, so you’ll have to mix things up fairly quickly. You start out with a simple melee attack and jump but you’ll quickly accrue points that can be used to level up your abilities like Telekinesis, Levitation, and Mental Connection. Abilities have been slightly improved in the sequel, for example, the Telekinesis made a more effective in combat.
The sheer amount of collectibles you can find in the game is staggering, and something that makes me want to come back time and time again to the game. Collecting some items in the game gives you points you can use to upgrade Raz and his abilities, while other collectibles can be used to trade for pins that allow for more customisation. I appreciate this level of personalization and routes to leveling up.
Psychonauts 2 is an excellent demonstration of writing, gameplay, and level design that all come together very well in this package. This is a great demonstration of what Microsoft has bought in Doublefine, a company that delivers very high-standard video games that helps to bolster the library for Xbox Game Pass. I was surprised at the game. I went in with fairly low expectations and was blown away at every turn. I shouldn’t be surprised though really, given Day of the Tentacle is one of my favorite games of all time. This latest effort from Tim Schafer and team is well worth playing. Given it’s on Game Pass I am sure many of you have access to it, but I would go out of your way to play this sequel to Psychonauts, even if you have played the original. Perhaps especially if you haven’t played the original… it’s a delightful game that will entertain you with its story and gameplay in equal measures.
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Platforms: Xbox and PC
Release Date: 25th August 2021