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Roughly two months ago, I wrote about Psychonauts, which I was replaying in order to get ready for its crowdfunded sequel, Psychonauts 2, which released on August 25. The original Psychonauts is a wonderful game that I encourage everyone to play. I thought I’d take a break and play something else before tackling the sequel, but then I decided to just jump right in. I’m glad I did. Psychonauts 2 is brilliant, managing to improve upon its classic predecessor in every way. I don’t play enough games to be able to make a judgment about the best games released each year, but it’s hard to imagine anything topping this. I recommend it without reservation. Go play it! If you need further convincing, I’ve written more thoughts on Psychonauts 2 below, which I’ve tried to keep as spoiler-free as possible.
Psychonauts 2 continues the story of Razputin (“Raz” to his friends), a young psychic who dreams of joining the elite ranks of the Psychonauts, an organization of psychic secret agents. He uses his 3D platforming skills to traverse both the real and mental worlds, in a playful and funny adventure that’s simply a joy to play. In my post about the original Psychonauts, I remarked that it has aged remarkably well, some technical issues aside. I went so far as to say that its stylized art and classic platforming action felt like they could have been released yesterday. Psychonauts 2 reveals that I may have spoken too soon. Sure, the original Psychonauts feels younger than its sixteen years, but in comparison Psychonauts 2 feels slick a modern in all the best ways. It retains the cartoony visual style of the original, but its crisp rendering, perfect animations and fancy lighting make it look absolutely gorgeous. I snapped over 450 screenshots while playing, each new location just begging to be preserved, the visual design endlessly inventive. I even sent some screenshots to my family, who generally do not care about games at all, because I thought that even they might get excited. I find myself wanting to use the term “set design” for many of the places in Psychonauts 2, because they almost resemble claymation dioramas. In certain moments — especially within one of the many minds players will explore during the game — the design leans into this sense of artificiality, of a staged performance or facade that masks the truth underneath.
These mental worlds are just as imaginative and varied as those in the original game, if not more so. They also benefit from modern tech that creates even more surreal spaces. Most notable are the portals, impossible doorways to other places that function much like those in the games for which they’re named, but are fixed parts of the mind rather than placed by the player. Open a refrigerator to reveal an entire building within. Head down the neck of a giant bottle and find another realm inside. The worlds also play clever games with scale, zooming in on elements of the scene only to have Raz explore them as gargantuan landscapes. Each mind is heavy with symbolism, filled with both obvious and subtle manifestations of its owner’s psyche. Here also Psychonauts 2 is an improvement over its predecessor, its explorable minds deftly dealing with the delicate subject of mental health while maintaining a positive tone. Where the first game might have Raz enter a mind that represents paranoia, in Psychonauts 2 Raz will instead explore the mind of someone whose grief led to substance abuse and eventually an unhealthy isolation from friends and family. Not only is all of that shown without judgment or resorting to stereotypes, it’s done with a beautiful visual style that ensures every mind looks totally unique.
As with the first game, I must struggle not to tell you about each and every mind I explored in Psychonauts 2. They’re all so amazing! I want to tell you how imaginative and original they are, in detail, but that would ruin the wonderful surprise. I will, however, permit myself one more example; skip the rest of this paragraph if you truly wish for no more spoilers. Perhaps my favorite mind belonged to someone suffering from sensory deprivation. To help them out, Raz had to reunite their sense of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, so they could learn to work together again. Naturally, this was framed as getting the band back together. A literal psychedelic rock band, with each of the senses playing an instrument. Raz had to scour the rainbow-hued music festival grounds for each of the band members and convince them to come back, but also had to be careful not to trigger a sensory overload, which might lead to a panic attack.
Which brings me to combat, which is also much better than it was in the first game. While the iconic censors — cartoony men in business suits who stamp out thoughts that don’t belong — make a return, most of the adversaries in Psychonauts 2 are new and more imaginative than the original’s cast of baddies. In addition to battling manifestations of panic attacks, Raz might need to fend off doubts, which leave puddles of movement-hindering sludge around, or regrets, flying creatures which try to drop their weights on Raz’s head. These are not only great fits for the themes of each mind, their behaviors generate interesting combat situations, especially in combination. Fights tend to be separated from platforming-based exploration, and are almost entirely limited to the mental worlds, resulting in a nice rhythm during play.
Combat and exploration alike benefit from Raz’s new and improved arsenal of mental powers. A highlight of the new powers is Mental Connection, which acts like a grappling hook of sorts. Not the type that would let Raz swing around, though, it’s more like zipping him between floating thought bubbles that might appear in certain places, letting him reach platforms that are otherwise out of reach. It’s also introduced rather brilliantly in a a sequence that sees Raz creating connections between different thoughts and concepts in someone’s mind. And yes, the implications of this meddling are thoroughly explored. Some of the less useful powers from the first game have been removed, and others are much easier to control than before. Telekinesis, for example, no longer requires players to awkwardly draw a trajectory in order to throw an object, it simply has Raz pick something up — often with a short delay while he pulls at it, which temporarily leaves him vulnerable to attack — and then lets him carry it around, and easily hurl it directly at whatever target he’s looking at. This change made Telekinesis so much more useful that I nearly always kept it equipped. Raz can now have four powers equipped at any one time, rather than three, but it is still a little annoying to swap them in and out. Fortunately, some handy settings in the game options means that Levitation no longer needs to hog a spot in the equipped powers. Turn these Levitation options on and Raz will employ his Levitation ball automatically after his standard double jump. This has the added bonus of making navigation feel more natural.
Speaking of navigation, there seems to be a consensus that the actual platforming mechanics of the original Psychonauts weren’t very good. I didn’t have any particular complaints on this front, although I’m no expert on 3D platformers. But platforming is noticeably improved this time around. Everything simply feels a bit more responsive, and it’s easier to read the scenery and determine viable places to jump and clamber about. I was initially surprised to find that the Levitation power no longer allows the same high, floaty jumps that it did in the first game, but soon came to appreciate this change. It means Levitation is no longer necessarily the default means of traveling around. It helps when moving quickly over open ground, but jumping and climbing is often easier on foot. It’s simply more fun to traverse the real and mental worlds with this new design.
This time around, the real world exploration takes place in and around the headquarters of the Psychonauts, known as the Motherlobe. The story in Psychonauts 2 picks up right where the original left off — or rather, it picks up right where the short VR game Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin left off, which in turn picks up right where the original Psychonauts left off. Like many players, I don’t have a VR headset and was therefore unable to play this connecting game, but I just watched a video playthrough instead. I recommend doing so (or actually playing it, if you have a VR rig) to get the full story, although there’s a nice summary at the start of Psychonauts 2 for any players who can’t be bothered. Anyway, these events lead to Raz traveling to the Motherlobe to help the Psychonauts deal with a new crisis. Several beloved characters make a return, with their original voice actors, but most of the other campers that Raz met at Whispering Rock Summer Camp in the first game don’t appear here. In their place are the members of the Psychonauts intern program, who are less than enthused when young upstart Raz suddenly joins their ranks. It’s a smaller group than the campers were, but they’re a likeable bunch, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know them. They’re also more integrated into the story.
That story centers on the original founders of the Psychonauts, old now, many with grandchildren carrying on their legacy. And it’s an excellent story. Filled with funny and poignant moments alike, it’s entertaining, surprising, and satisfying. One of its greatest strengths is the way it incorporates the explorable minds into the tale. In the first Psychonauts, some characters had little role beyond providing interesting minds to explore. In Psychonauts 2, the explorable minds belong to characters with an important stake in the story, Raz always enters their minds with good reason, and — critically — always with their permission. This makes each mind feel important to sort out, and provides a satisfying connection bewteen each of these fantastic mental landscapes. I also love how the story is all about helping people. Even villainous characters are multi-faceted, often suffering from circumstance or other factors, and they are not defeated through direct conflict but by sorting out what ails them, by helping them overcome that which drives them to do harm. When so many games are explicitly about conflict, it’s so refreshing and satisfying to play something like this, that’s all about empathy and the desire to help.
The Psychonauts founders are mostly new characters, but their addition is brilliant. They offer an excellent opportunity to dig into who and what the Psychonauts are, and for Raz to realize that his idols are not as flawless as he may have thought. I loved how each of them has a different specialty, such as communing with plants, or animals, or designing machines to enhance or control mental powers. Even the interns have their own particular skills which can come to bear on missions. These special skills tend to run in the family too, and there are pleasing connections to some of the campers Raz met in his first adventure. His friend Dogen, for example, is revealed to be the grandson of one of the founders, and Dogen’s older sister Sam is an intern at the Motherlobe; they all share an affinity for telepathic communication with animals. And speaking of families, Raz’s own family makes an appearance, which is another stroke of brilliance. This lets players delve into Raz’s own background a bit more, and gives Raz a chance to reconcile with siblings who are upset at him for running away to join a psychic summer camp. His family is unexpectedly large, and like the rest of the cast they’re all well written and a blast to interact with.
It’s all just so good! It’s everything I could have wanted in a Psychonauts sequel. Like its predecessor, it shows more creativity in a single one of its explorable minds than most games show in their entirety, and I’m struggling to find anything to criticize about it. The closest I come to a complaint is about the collectibles, but even these are improved when compared to the original. Figments retain their crayon drawing appearance, but new visual effects give them a more animated appearance that’s easier to spot. I still had to look up the locations of one or two of these, but in many minds I found them all on my own, which never happened in the first game. Emotional baggage and memory vaults make a return, and are generally hidden just well enough. In the real world, there are psi-cards and scavenger hunt items to collect, but dealing with the Otto-Matic vending machines to redeem these is far easier than the camp shop ever was. The vending machines also offer an assortment of pins that subtly tweak Raz’s psychic powers and ensure he always has something to spend his hard-earned psitanium on. I was particularly pleased to see that many collectibles cannot be acquired before the end of the main story. A playable epilogue gives Raz a chance to check in with everyone to see how they’re doing after the events of the game, and to track down any missing collectibles in the physical and mental worlds alike. This takes the pressure off during the game proper, letting players keep their focus on the story without sacrificing pacing by scouring every location before moving on. I mean, I still did that, but it didn’t take as much time as it might have, since it was clear I would need to return later.
As the existence of a playable epilogue implies, Psychonauts 2 doesn’t end on a cliffhanger like the first game does. Events tie up nicely, but leave ample opportunity for more. I don’t know if a Psychonauts 3 is planned at some point, but there’s certainly room for it. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited for the possibility of more Psychonauts games — especially if they take less than sixteen years to appear — but if this is where the series ends, it’s a fine note to go out on. And if you’ve never played a Psychonauts game, I can highly recommend them both. The original is a little fiddly to get running these days, but well worth it, and playing through its story will enhance your appreciation of its even better sequel. Play them! You won’t be sorry.