There are very few games that I could list where the moment that the game starts, I have a smile that never wavers. Psychonauts 2 is the latest video game that has been able to do that and for very good reason. The creativity and charm that exudes from every pore of this game is palpable.
This is a quality I often find exclusive to 3D platformers but they even struggle to hit this level of personality even at their peak. And if you were one of the people who were worried that Psychonauts 2 would lose any of its humor or creative world design, then you have nothing to worry about because Psychonauts 2 is one mind-boggling adventure after another.
Graduating to the Intern Program
Razputin and Lilli return to work alongside Psychonaut legends like Sasha and Coach at Psychonauts HQ. This time there is a mystery surrounding rumors that a powerful Psychonaut turned evil called Maligula might be revived by someone working within the Psychonauts, Lili’s dad is mysteriously comatose, and Raz is juggling being in the Psychonaut intern program with a bunch of stuck up children that he needs to prove himself to.
It’s a solid set up with plenty of unique character interactions and evolutions but the real magic is the detail to the world and characters that Tim Schafer and the team at Double FIne were able to achieve. Every moment in this world feels like a magical experience as you watch characters do weird and entertaining things. It’s a cartoon come alive in the best possible way.
While Raz does his best in the intern program with his new classmates, he will visit different Psychonaut minds where each one is just as imaginative as the previous game’s levels. What Psychonauts has always done well is help to tell character stories through its levels. Since the premise involves going into the inner consciousness of other people, the player is afforded the rare opportunity to see another character’s perceptions and inner feelings. This allows for some smart decisions in writing and level design.
For instance, Ford Cruller’s fractured mind was split into three different episodes that he hyperfocused on. One of them was about a bowling date that he had with someone from his past, but it was combined with a germaphobe mentality so the city was run by blobs of germs. The episode gives you a sense of one of Cruller’s little personality quirks while also giving you a background on the woman he was interested in.
This is how Psychonauts can tell stories outside of its wonderfully done cutscenes. By creating worlds that are constructing from character’s understanding of themselves and others, Psychonauts is creating case studies of human understanding and mental health.
There is a level where a character has convinced himself that his friends left him because he wasn’t good enough. He is on an island all alone and is too scared to venture into the waters himself, so Raz goes off in search of seeds to help him feel like his old self again. Along the way, Raz finds some of the friends, and they respond to Raz as they are perceived to respond.
Some are angry, some are distant, and another is an image that lacks personality since they never really met in real life. There are a million other examples, but I am trying to avoid too many spoilers for this world. It is just so well executed in environmental storytelling and mental health representation.
The story may be told through the levels and in-game dialogue in some cases, but it also has some really beautiful cutscenes. These cutscenes had me captivated from the word go due to the excellence of the writing and the humor that is always happening in some part of the scene. But you have to be paying attention; it can happen at any moment.
There wasn’t a single character that I didn’t enjoy in some aspect. Even the “evil” ones had somehting interesting about them that kept me wanting them to interact with the rest of the main cast. The amount of empathy that Raz and many of the other Psychonauts practice toward these people is admirable though I can see how some people might not agree.
However, that doesn’t mean they treat everyone with bubble wrap and kisses. Psychonauts is a partial comedy and slapstick is one of the main tool of the trade.
Raz Still has a Lot to Learn
The gameplay will feel familiar to anyone who has ever played a 3D platformer. Raz, as a Psychonaut, has the power of different psychic abilities like Levitation, Psi Punch, Astral Projection, and Clairvoyance. These abilities are all useful, and I found myself using them for very different reasons.
Astral Projection is a late-game ability that gives Raz access to a lot of areas that you may have been wondering how to access, but the little 2D version of Raz (who is played by Richard Horvitz) sounds and acts so much like Gir from Invader Zim, I would often have him following me around as my little buddy.
Clairvoyance was another one that often made me laugh out loud for how people chose to see Raz. Clairvoyance allows Raz to see the world through other organisms’ eyes. Some of my favorites were a “Hello, I’m” note, a piece of bacon, and a gardener. This is one of those mechanics that just breathes so much more life into the world of the game and makes the people that populate it feel more alive.
The levels themselves require Raz to use all of his abilities to navigate the platforms and combat enemies. Luckily, the menus are much more streamlined than they once were and swithcing between abilities on the fly is super easy.The combat is more difficult than I am used to in a 3D platformer, but that doesn’t mean it’s hard.
Psychonauts 2 just requires that you are doing more than the bare minimum to get through its enemies and won’t let you barrel through them like Mario or Banjo can in their respective games.
While the platforming and combat aren’t that challenging, it was always a joy to navigate the levels due to their creativity and strangeness. This game is weird, but it’s weird in all the best possible ways. There is a level where a musician is rediscovering himself and his psyche takes heavy inspiration from the hippy movement and a few nods to big bands like Pink Floyd with a rainbow bridge that is created out of a prism and a beam of light.
Giant tongues will bounce up and down, tasting the air and hurting Raz if he isn’t careful. Portions of the level just have dozens of eyes that follow the player wherever they go. Psychonauts’ platforming is a feast for the senses. And every level is this wild. That is the magic that Psychonauts brings to the table. It captures the creativity of what people’s inner thoughts are while at the same time representing the faults and conflicts inside.
The mechanics can change slightly in every mind too. One minute you might be playing out your own scene straight out of Inception, and the next, you are riding on top of a bowling ball through a pool of mucus. One of my favorites was when Raz would be teleported into books and would have to hop across letters to get to his objective, and it was all done in a stylized way by making Raz look like he is made up of ink too.
It’s a small world afterall
I have been returning to the levels to collect all of the remaining figments, half brains, emotional baggage, and memory vaults, and this is a rare instance where I have not been using a guide to clean up in the post-game. I actually enjoy wandering through these levels a second time and seeing the little details that I might have missed when I was first exploring the world.
For instance, there is a level near the end of the game that takes heavy inspiration from a famous theme park ride, you know the one with the infamous song that grates on everyone’s ears. Turns out you can find record players that are the source of the ear-piercing music and destroy them, Destroy all three record players, and you get an achievement. That is absolutely fantastic.
Another level takes inspiration from books and has several different gimmicks playing off of books, pages, and words. But there is one “blink, and you missed it” moment where a book is carved out like a door. If you step through this door, you will find yourself in another part of the world like you stepped through a portal, which, let’s be honest, that’s what books are for our minds.
Now I have mostly been talking about the levels that take place in people’s minds, but there is a whole overworld to explore that includes several different sections. The overworld has its own set of collectibles to find, quests to accomplish, and places to explore.
The Psychonauts HQ is just the tip of this iceberg as you wander out and find other Psychonaut departments, a rundown tourist attraction where Raz’s family have set up shop, a scary forest, and the original Psychonauts’ hangout. Each of these places have their own histories to tell and people to meet and often have some of the more interesting platforming in the game.
Even though these places aren’t as wild as being in someone else’s psyche, they are still enjoyable as a grounding experience and one that helps to flesh out the world of Raz and his friends. Many of these subworlds won’t take you long to traverse if you are just trying to run through them.
However, that isn’t the point of Psychonauts. Slowing down and really taking in the scenery and characters is where Psychonauts really shines. From the personalized figments that populate people’s minds to the projections of characters, they all help to flesh out people’s inner feelings or the world at large.
If I have one complaint about the game, it’s that I wish there was even more. I didn’t want it to end and I hope we can get a few more places to explore or missions to do with DLC or another sequel. But until that day, I’m really happy with Psychonauts 2’s base game.
I felt like a kid again playing Psychonauts 2. The kid that was so excited to play banjo and Kazooie after school that he didn’t even take his backpack off before turning on the N64. Psychonauts 2 had all the charm and creativity that I crave in my 3D platformers, with the added bonus of having a really smart premise that allows for in-depth character analysis and open conversations about mental wellbeing. It’s a game that can truly be enjoyed by everyone. 10/10