The human mind. Within its curvaceous undulations hide wonders and terrors alike. Everything you could possibly imagine lies within this grey matter, even things you would rather not imagine. That’s where we come in – we face the demons other people can’t. Psychic secret agents dedicated to exploring the brain and helping the innocent overcome their mental blocks. We are the Psychonauts, welcome to the intern program, kid.
Psychonauts 2 takes place shortly after Rhombus of Ruin, with Raz and company infiltrating Dr. Loboto’s mind to figure out who hired him to kidnap Truman Zanato. His mental conditioning is just too strong however, and they only escape with one clue: it has something to do with the Delugionists – a cult of people trying to resurrect the evil psychic Maligula, who drowned the country of Grulovia with her water powers. Arriving at the Mother Lobe, everyone gets back to business as usual while trying to find more clues. Everyone that is, except for Raz, since he’s technically not an official Psychonaut yet. Instead, he’s nonchalantly inducted into the intern program, has his clothes stolen by the other interns, and assigned to a less than interesting position in the mail room. When he discovers the brainless body of his assigned mentor in one of the packages, the young psychic decides he needs to take matters into his own hands to discover the kidnapper, stop Maligula’s return, and prove himself to the Psychonauts once again.
So, originally, I was going to write this review as a Psychonauts orientation manual or a response to the constant letters Razputin writes to True Psychic Tales magazine (which serves as a catch up video when you first boot the game). As I played and experienced the story though, I decided the only way to do this game and the wonderful people at Double Fine justice was to be more genuine, because that’s exactly what this game is. It’s a beautiful story about the importance of empathy and kindness, both to yourself and others even if you might not agree with them. It’s hilarious to be sure as well, with plenty of laugh out loud moments, but I truly did not expect this game to affect me the way it did. The original game tackled these themes as well, but Psychonauts 2 really hones in on them in ways I won’t spoil.
It has problems sure, like how I wish the other interns got more screen time, but it’s clear that with the extra budget and visibility for the game the writers felt they had a responsibility to portray characters suffering from mental illness in a sympathetic way and they absolutely hit it out of the park. Speaking of an increased budget, this game is absolutely gorgeous. Every environment, from the real world zones like the Questionable Area (?), to astoundingly realized mindscapes such as a mailroom stuffing away unwanted memories, or a library where each book represents another persona. The long wait has been very kind to Psychonauts’ art style, and while 2 may sport more realistic lighting and texture effects, the aesthetics of each place helps further the story and themes while also just being fun to explore or hang around in.
The character designs are also on point. Raz and Lili look sharp in their new outfits, while the newer characters convey a lot of their personality through their looks. You can immediately tell that the acting head of the Psychonauts, Hollis Forsythe, is a business-first kind of woman who may have had a hot streak in her past simply by looking at her clothes, body type, and hair. It’s a masterful execution of 2D character design principles flawlessly translated to 3D.
Of course, great character designs are nothing without writing and animation to back them up, and Psychonauts 2 delivers both in spades. Every character has a sharp wit that Raz can only sometimes keep up with. Let’s use one of my favorite characters as an example: Dogen Bool’s sister Sam. At first, it seems like she has a much better relationship with animals than the rest of her family is known for, she even utilizes a whale to… help Raz in the casino mission early on in the game. However, when you meet up with her in the Questionable Area’s (?) restaurant making pancakes, it’s clear that animals are more afraid of her than anything, with various woodland creatures literally trembling behind her as she forces them to help her make substitutions in her cooking.
Every character is hilariously well written, and exhausting their dialogue trees after each “chapter” is an absolute must, especially with Raz’s family who have taken up residence nearby because the family dynamic there is seriously too real. I’d also like to praise the casual inclusion of disabled and queer characters, both are acknoledged and well done (though I am not disabled myself, so that that with a grain of salt), and just enough of a focus so players notice this and cannot deny these character traits, and not feel like the game’s talking down to you. It’s rad as heck, and other studio’s should take note of this approach if they want to include minorities in a more casual capacity.
Lightly touching on the animation, it’s also fantastic, particularly the facial expressions. The game uses a more generic model for in-game conversations than the intricately animated cutscenes, but the facial expressions on every character make this much more difficult to notice. You know the type, the shot reverse shot kind of conversations from Mass Effect and the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Even with the more limited animation here, the game still perfectly sells both comedic and emotional scenes as it works together with the equally excellent voice acting.
The original actors, such as Richard Horvits, return to reprise their roles and do just as great of a job as the first game, and the new characters give similarly wonderful performances. In particular, I really liked Cassie O’pia (all of the psychic six are great, but her level and story were my favorite) and the brain in a jar. I would actually recommend playing with subtitles off and headphones on if you’re able, because the delivery of their jokes is really enhanced by not reading the punchline beforehand.
If you can’t though, Psychonauts 2 has a wealth of accessibility options to help anyone enjoy the game in whatever way they’re comfortable. There are colorblind options, increased subtitle size, and the usual ability to reduce screen shaking, but you can also toggle invincibility, turn off fall damage, enable story combat, make the font more legible, and activate UI hints for critical signs in the game (like ones pointing towards the abandoned mine or Psychoisolation Chamber). The developers really went out of their way to make sure as many people as possible could play this game without completely removing what makes it fun. On the PC version at least, you can also completely rebind all of the controls and seamlessly swap between input devices like a keyboard and controller, which I imagine would allow for custom control setups some use.
While we’re talking about PC features, there are several options available so you can customize the visuals and performance to your needs. You can adjust the resolution scaling percentage, anti-aliasing, detail distance, texture quality, lighting, shadows, reflections, post-processing, and ambient occlusion. For my first playthrough, I played at a resolution of 3840 by 2160 with all settings at max and hot diggity dang is this game gorgeous. I did run into a few frame drops in very specific locations, but those seem to have been fixed by a pre-release patch and I haven’t had any issues so far in my second playthrough.
You read that right, I am already playing the game a second time. I’m still working my way towards 100 % and a new game plus feature would have been nice, but this game is just so fun I wanted to immediately dive back in after the credits rolled. Raz controls like a tiny cowboy slathered in butter – that is to say very smooth. Moving around, jumping, and executing acrobatic moves is fluid and satisfying, while all of the psychic powers feel like they’re all important and can be used multiple ways. Returning powers like Levitation may not be as overpowered as they used to be, but it is for the better in the end as you’re not using it for literally every platforming section now, providing “on foot” Raz with more use. The new Mental Connection power which allows you to grapple to stray thoughts gets a lot of use with other powers, like using PSI Blast to open up the way to another stray thought, but you may also have to time your use of it to avoid hazards in between nodes. Unlike the first game, it feels like the potential of each power is fully explored here, especially if you try to find all the secrets. Psychonauts 2 may have ditched the typical inventory object puzzles of adventure games, but the versatility of Raz’s moveset ensures that you’ll always find creative puzzles to solve.
As you explore, platform, and solve puzzles, you’ll find a ton of collectables to help you along your journey. Figments found in people’s minds will slowly help you rank up, which allows you to purchase enhancements for your powers, much like challenge markers and PSI Cards. Challenge markers now have an astral counterpart in the form of Nuggets of Wisdom, which serve the same function of instantly giving you one rank but visually are tailored to each mind. You can also complete a scavenger hunt, which will grant you access to Raz’s old outfit as well as others seen throughout the game. To increase your health this time around, you need to find and collect Halves of Brains, which sort of ruins the joke when written in plural. No matter where you find each Half a Brain (that’s better), collecting two will give you one extra pip of Mental Health, which are each divided into fourths. Early on, you’ll need to be more careful in combat, but as long as you actively seek these out you won’t die much unless you intentionally make the game harder.
Of course, I did anyway by using the Glass Cannon pin which greatly increases damage dealt and received. Pins can be purchased using Psitanium found around the world at the Otto-matic vending machines which you can usually find near the fast travel Otto-bon stations. Pins do all sorts of things, from changing cosmetics like making your PSI powers rainbow to more overtly useful abilities like having collectables magnet towards you slightly. You can only equip three at a time though, which made me hesitant to use the cosmetic pins. It’s not a big deal, but I would have liked to use the rainbow pin while also having more useful pins equipped that facilitated my playstyle; these would work well as a toggle instead. Overall though, these are a ton of fun and allow you to control more minute aspects of the game.
Ok, so that’s two minor complaints in almost four pages of text? If you couldn’t tell, I absolutely adored Psychonauts 2. Not only did it deliver on expectations set by the first game, it surpassed them while providing a story that deeply resonated with me and probably will with a lot of other people. It’s fun, heartfelt, funny, gorgeous, and meaningful. It will delight longtime fans and newcomers alike as they journey through the astral plane.
Psychonauts 2 is the perfect sequel. It builds on everything the original game was while adding its own unique spin on gameplay and story. The overworld is a joy to explore and the levels are more stylish and dazzling than ever before with fantastic controls. It’s a fantastic experience that will stick with you, and has a ton to see and do.