Psychonauts 2 Review
Aside from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, I don’t remember a lot about 2005. But I do recall playing Psychonauts, Double Fine’s groundbreaking action puzzle platform game with its weird, trippy visuals, quirky sense of humor, and unique take on the human mind. Playing it today Psychonauts remains a game with more ambition and heart than mechanical polish, but it literally set the stage for Psychonauts 2, where all the wondrous, challenging and creative ideas of the original are more than fully realized.
Sixteen years is an eternity in terms of videogame history, so it’s understandable that many gamers will approach Psychonauts 2 without any direct experience of the original. Double Fine has anticipated this with an engrossing, pitch-perfect prologue that entertainingly summarizes the events of the first game. You play as Razputin Aquato, an acrobatic and psychically gifted child of circus performers who, in an ironic twist of tradition, runs away from the circus to sneak into the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp in an attempt to join the Psychonauts. Hilarity ensues, as they say. Well, hilarity plus an action-puzzle-platforming approach to exploring the motivations and personality quirks of its memorable cast, most of whom reprise their roles in the second game.
Psychonauts 2 takes place only a few days after the end of the first game. The team from camp has rescued Truman Zanotto, the leader of the Psychonauts, from the mad dentist Dr. Loboto, and taken Loboto into custody, setting up the game’s lengthy tutorial. Unfortunately, Zanotto’s catatonic and Loboto isn’t talking, so Raz and the rest of the psychics need to dive into his brain as they travel to Psychonauts headquarters, the wondrously rendered, sprawling Motherlobe. It turns out, Loboto had help from inside the Psychonauts and that sets up the sequel’s story arc as Raz and the others attempt to ferret out the mole. The Motherlobe serves as a hub world of sorts, and it is not only where Raz can access vendors, but side-quests as well. Of course, the vast majority of Psychonauts 2 takes place inside the inventive and varied mental and emotional landscapes of its various characters. To talk too much about the plot of Psychonauts 2 risks both spoiling the revelatory twists and turns the story takes, and sounding utterly nonsensical. One of the wonders of Psychonauts 2 is how comprehensible and satisfying its lengthy and convoluted story actually is.
In any form of storytelling, from the Odyssey to Psychonauts 2, the plot and characters serve as windows through which we observe something important about ourselves. Aside from its entertainment value as an enjoyable puzzle platforming game, Psychonauts 2’s greatest strength is in its warm-hearted exploration of the human mind and all its quirks, insecurities, obsessions and unique connections that define who we are and how we think. Innocent yet wise beyond his years, protagonist Raz is refreshingly non-judgemental or cynical about the sometimes troubling or surprising things he finds — and sometimes, accidentally causes–along the way. The whole game, in fact, is built upon the thesis of sympathy for the human condition and a keen awareness of mental and emotional fragility.
Connect the Dots (and Thoughts)
It’s really hard to talk about Psychonauts 2 without getting a little wrapped up in its rather impressive subtext, but don’t let that fool you. Moment-to-moment, this is one of the best action puzzle-platformers released in recent memory, and in some ways it’s also a little remarkable for what it isn’t. It isn’t a roguelike, or a Soulslike, or a retro-pixel Metroidvania card battle game. It disregards all the en vogue popular genre flavors and returns to the purity of being an old-school 3D puzzle platformer, very much like the first Psychonauts only with far better controls, more precise movement and fluid, enjoyable combat. It brings back many of the psychic powers from the original as well as many of the same enemies, brilliantly based on our mental struggles and countered by Raz’s upgradable powers, which continue to be introduced several hours into the game. In addition to the main campaign, there are a number of side quests. Every now and then I was at a loss about how to start a sequence or approach a puzzle or enemy encounter, but not often.
It’s hard to fault Psychonauts 2 for much of anything significant, but while its platforming has evolved light years ahead of the original, there are still moments of imprecision where camera angles and jumping aren’t in perfect harmony, resulting in a bit of failure and frustration. While we’re picking nits, Raz’s dodge and roll are maddeningly sluggish compared to the more fast and fluid movement through space.
Although it isn’t a technical showcase for a new console like Ratchet and Clank: A Rift Apart, Psychonauts 2 is an undisputed masterpiece when it comes to art direction, sound, and music. With an endearingly grotesque aesthetic that is one part Tim Burton, one part Expressionism and one part tacky 1960s psychedelica, the sequel spit-shines the look of the original and brings it to current-gen standards. It looks great. Well, no, it looks (and sometimes sounds) ugly and weird and sometimes disturbing, but that’s the point. The characters are all acted and voiced with at least the same uniform excellence one would find in a Pixar film, and the script and dialogue are likewise excellent: funny without ever being mean-spirited, smart beyond anything most games aspire to, and only on rare occasion dropping its standards to pick the fruit of popular cultural commentary from a low hanging branch. The musical score by returning composer Peter McConnel is nothing short of brilliant, a pastiche of cool jazz, circus music, klezmer, 60s surf music, and big band swing.
So many videogames treat their human characters as singularly good or evil, or worse, as disposable cannon fodder that exist only to be killed. In addition to its excellent platforming, puzzles, and action, Psychonauts 2 impresses the most because it treats human frailty and failure with warmth, compassion, and humor that is never cruel or demeaning. Inside our heads, we’re all just bundles of doubt, random connections, ill-considered motivations, and weird memories mixed with kindness, aspiration, and delight. I’m grateful to Psychonauts 2 for the reminder.
***Xbox Series X code provided by the publisher for review***
Fantastic art direction, sound and music
Well written and acted
Memorable characters and worlds
Excellent puzzles and platforming
Some imprecise camera and platforming
Sluggish dodge and roll
Story can be a bit opaque