Review: Psychonauts 2

It’s hard to explain just how revolutionary Psychonauts was and the impact it had. The moment I heard that it would be the newest game from Tim Schafer, who at that point I primarily knew as the man behind one of my all-time favorites, Grim Fandango, I was intrigued. Then when I saw screenshots and footage of it, something just clicked. To say that the world of Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp was a thing of beauty would be an understatement.

Psychonauts was unlike any other platformer at the time. The unique, well-written characters, the sense of humor and of course, the bonkers yet phenomenal level design was all a joy from beginning to end. After you’ve traversed an entire level made of black velvet paintings or battled evil scouts in a topsy-turvy suburbia, mere “desert” or “ice” levels just won’t do it for you anymore.

It was heartbreaking to learn that Psychonauts was a commercial flop, but it made it all the more exciting when a sequel was announced in 2015. After all, imagine what a sequel to one of the most innovative games of all time must look like these days. I bring all of this up because I want to establish just what this series means to me, and that my hopes were high for Psychonauts 2, which after such a long wait, has finally arrived.

Psychonauts 2
picks up right after the VR interquel Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, with our kid hero Raz having saved Psychonauts head Truman Zanotto from being kidnapped by evil dentist Dr. Loboto. It quickly becomes clear that Loboto couldn’t have acted on his own, however, and Truman couldn’t have been kidnapped without a mole in the Psychonauts. And a quick journey into Loboto’s mind in an attempt to find the mole reveals that a group of fanatics might be involved, ones who want to resurrect Maligula, one the world’s most powerful and dangerous psychics, and the most devastating foe the original Psychonauts founders, the Psychic 6, have ever faced. There’s a lot on the Psychonauts’ table all of a sudden, and this means Raz has to enroll in the Psychonauts’ intern program.

It actually makes sense that Raz would have to start from square one here, since while we may have waited over sixteen years for this sequel, the events at Whispering Rock only happened days ago in this universe. Sasha and Milla have barely had time to write a report on what happened, let alone there being enough time for Raz’s exploits to become legendary. Raz may have been the hero of Whispering Rock, but that still makes him a small fish in a big pond at the Psychonauts’ HQ, the Motherlobe. Small until he gets a chance to speak with Truman, anyway. At that point, he’s tasked with having to find Psychonauts founder Ford Cruller, as he’s apparently the only one who can assist with this dilemma, especially if it involves Maligula. This however, is where things go crazy (well, crazier), as long-buried secrets begin to surface…

The story in Psychonauts 2, unsurprisingly, is one of its biggest draws and it does not disappoint in that area. It’s a full-fledged mystery that begins in the middle of a hazing ritual and peer pressure as Raz tries to prove himself in front of the older interns and acting Lesser Head of the Psychonauts, Hollis Forsythe, soon has you questioning exactly who you can trust, delves into rewritten history from several different angles, and hits hard with several revelations that impact the franchise as a whole by the end (or the post-game, at least, in a cute way).

But while the main story draws you in, it’s easy to stay for the individual stories of the main characters, those whose mental worlds are again entered. The first game had amazing mental worlds that told impressive tales and touched upon bits of mental health issues, but Psychonauts 2 doesn’t hold back in those areas this time around. Double Fine isn’t afraid to go even further and deal with trauma, PTSD, alcoholism, loss, and arguably even consent at one point. The game makes it clear that the Psychic 6 were devastated after their battle with Maligula, and some still haven’t fully recovered.

Don’t be alarmed as Psychonauts 2 is still a light-hearted and humorous game for the most part, but like modern cartoons such as Steven Universe or Infinity Train, it isn’t afraid to tackle more mature subjects, and does so in a powerful and effective way. You feel a lot for the cast at the center of it all, which are an enjoyable lot that have still been through god knows how much suffering. This is a game described as being about empathy and healing, and by the time the post-game begins, it’s clear said healing has only just begun, even with Raz’s various triumphs over the course of the game, and that things are far from black and white, especially when it comes to the actions of certain characters. It’s still a master in the writing department when it comes to the story.

Speaking of the mental worlds themselves, though, nothing here tops the likes of Black Velvetopia or Milkman Conspiracy even if one level which takes the form of a demented cooking show could possibly come in third. Yes, the level design in Psychonauts 2 is still as creative and well-crafted as ever. This time around, a lot of them do feel more linear and shorter in some cases, but they’ve still been expertly built around these changes, and the end result is still a joy to flip, float and PSI blast your way through, especially as you scour each one for all the figments and collectibles.

In terms of concepts and visuals, the mental worlds are also stunners. Aside from the aforementioned crazed cooking show that uses the game show vibes to full effect, there’s also an entire journey through a psychedelic ’60s rock festival (accompanied by Jack Black, no less) with the six senses as the main band, a cross between a hospital and a casino where people are literally gambling on their health, and a bowling apocalypse in a city with germ citizens, to name just a few. All of them are wildly imaginative, colorful and packed with impressive amounts of detail, backed by incredible soundtracks as well.

Wandering through these levels isn’t always easy, though, especially with the larger range of enemies to deal with this time around. The first game mainly just stuck to Censors and a few level-specific enemies, but this time around, there’s a whole host of enemies that brilliantly represent negative aspects of the mind, from Bad Ideas that shoot exploding lightbulbs to Doubts that can literally bog you down and Enablers that literally cheer on other enemies such as those and make them invulnerable. One part of Psychonauts 2 that I admit I wasn’t expecting to necessarily praise was its combat, but it puts up an excellent fight with intense battles, especially as enemies attack you in groups and force you to quickly realize what PSI Power would work best in this situation while quickly dodging and diving through everything. These include new PSI Powers that are a blast to use like Mental Connection that can latch on to enemies, Time Bubbles that can slow them down and Mental Projection that summons a 2D doodle of Raz to act as a distraction (and involves one of the best meta jokes in the series).

Those powers are also used in order to bypass various obstacles and discover secrets, both in the mental world and the real world. And on the note of the real world, heading out into the Motherlobe for the first time is awe-inspiring. Whispering Rock is impressive, but seeing a whole sleek headquarters filled with all sorts of agents walking around, casually reading magazines via telekinesis, and carrying on whole conversations is amazing. It truly springs to life, showcasing not only how bigger things are this time around, but the hustle and bustle that goes on in such a massive agency such as this, be it working on monitoring new developments in the Nerve Center or awaiting the latest exotic mean of bacon in the Noodle Bowl cafeteria. It’s wide, open and stunning in several different ways.

That’s not all, though, as the Motherlobe eventually extends to a second map, the Quarry, a huge pool containing additional labs and attractions. And that eventually leads to the Questionable Area?, a tourist trap full of Psitanium-induced oddities and made-up B.S. that would make Grunkle Stan proud, and where Raz’s circus family has currently set up their latest show (having dropped by to see Raz, but still not happy about the whole “running away” thing). All of these maps add up to massive worlds to explore that are each creative in their own ways, filled with a ton of secrets to try and find well into the post-game, and a lot of opportunities for acrobatic platforming action, of course. It feels way more vast than Whispering Rock, and showcases the power on display this time around, and just how expanded this sequel truly is when compared to its predecessor.

There is one area where Psychonauts 2 fails to live up to the original, however, and that’s in the character department. Not the main characters, mind you, like Raz, Hollis, Maligula, Ford, etc, but instead the side characters. One way Psychonauts stood out was through the other campers, not just simply via their unique unique designs and how many there were of them, but how each one had their own personality and individual story. You could talk to them all in between major levels in the game (when their brains weren’t sucked out, anyway) and they’d have new dialogue that advance their tales, giving you a reason to keep coming back and highlighting how every character feels like an essential part of the camp.

While Psychonauts 2 introduces Raz’s fellow interns and the rest of the Aquato family, it sadly never gives them the same level of depth. There are two notable showcases near the beginning and end where the interns all get to show off their powers in fantastic sequences, one even evoking a heist film, but then they all seem to get relegated to background characters. These are kids who wield psychic yo-yos and skateboards, create bizarre pancakes with animals that they can talk to, and dream of creating pirate radio stations, and yet they don’t get any big chances to truly show off their personalities, despite still being generally fun characters. And with the exception of one or two family members, the Aquatos seem to get less, with Raz’s big sister Frazie secretly being psychic and a scene suggesting big brother Dion has a possible crush on one of the interns, Gisu…and neither plot goes anywhere, even in the post-game.

And part of this might be because the pacing and structure of the final third or so sort of sabotages it. In the first game, the campers all had little bits of story progression in between major levels. But after one particular moment in Psychonauts 2, the game takes you to a fourth map with no way to return to the previous ones until the game is finished (none that I could find, anyway). This should be the moment where we can interact with all the characters again and learn more about their stories, but instead, it’s a point of no return where there’s no choice but to continue with the main quests (and ignore certain side quests), and in the least-appealing hub world, one that’s basically just a forked road between locations with barely any characters.

The campers and characters in general were one of the original Psychonauts’ biggest strengths, so this is a bit of a blow (along with a disappointing fourth map, even with some good mental worlds and story bits). But there are still clever bits to be had with them, like how each major character’s view of Raz via Clairvoyance actually evolves over time, with some seeing him as an awkward kid at then beginning and a full Psychonaut by the end. So while there is a notable area where the writing takes a hit, it only takes that hit because of a testament to how high this series has set the bar when it comes to character work.

Closing Comments:

While Psychonauts 2 is an impressive platformer, it doesn’t match the perfection of the original. That being said, Psychonauts 2 is one of the year’s most enjoyable games and one of the best modern platformers of the past few years. The creativity in the visuals and level design is still on display at full blast, the story is superb and shows no fear when it comes to tackling mature subjects and the action is nice and intense, creating a perfect level of challenge. Now let’s get to talking about a third game…