I went into Double Fine’s latest release with no expectations. After all, a game following up a title from over ten years ago has a whole lot to catch up to. But Psychonauts 2 shines brilliantly because it manages to sustain the energy of the PS2 era it hails from and Double Fine's signature humor, while making things feel fresh and real enough to rival current gen debut titles.
To be entirely honest, I don't remember much of Double Fine's iconic 2005 release, Psychonauts. I marathoned what I did play one night in college, and the details are fuzzy at best. But Psychonauts 2's player onboarding is stellar, providing all the info you need to understand anything you may have missed or forgotten about the original, without delving too far into exposition.
This is a sequel in the truest sense of the word, taking place directly after the VR game Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. Truman Zanotto, leader of the Psychonauts and father of our hero Raz's crush, Lili, has been kidnapped. Raz, along with his mentors from the Whispering Rock Summer Camp are set to go rescue him, or at least, that's what Raz thinks is happening. His expectations are shattered though when he reaches Pyschonauts HQ and is told by the fastidious Agent Forsythe that his appointment to the agency in the first game wasn't actually official. She enrolls Raz in the intern course instead, seemingly keeping him on the sidelines of the main adventure that was previously set up.
When the game ended, I was genuinely sad it was over because I was enjoying my time with it so much.
Though it feels a bit jarring to flip from thinking you're about to set off on your first Psychonaut adventure to a more subdued school vibe, ultimately, I think it works. The whole conceit of this game about psychic spies is that things are not what they seem, and everything has layers. Raz's time running around the HQ and learning from his elders not only teaches you the game's mechanics and powers, but also allows Raz to stumble into information he likely wouldn't have found otherwise. This works really well with the fact that Raz is still a kid, and both the game and its characters acknowledge that. He may have a knack for this psychic stuff, but he still has a lot to learn.
Learning is more or less the focus of the whole game, as you don’t complete your psychic power set until the late stages of its story. All together, there are eight powers you’ll eventually get to use, and each is not only handy for specific puzzle mechanics, but can also provide really fun and interesting combat experiences.
I tend to be someone that sticks with whatever build is comfiest for me in battle, but Psychonauts 2 makes it fun to experiment. I learned by accident, for example, that you can steal an enemy’s gigantic weapon and throw it right back at them using telekinesis. Once I stumbled onto that fact, I started playing around more with which powers I was using to fight, which only got more fun as I was able to upgrade my abilities. When the game ended, I was genuinely sad it was over because I was enjoying my time with it so much.
Understanding how to use these powers inside and out becomes critical to navigating the game’s puzzles and environments as well. Like its predecessor, Psychonauts 2 is a puzzle platformer that has you entering people’s minds (importantly, with consent) and using the powers currently at your disposal to help the person you’re inside of figure their issues out, be that compartmentalizing different aspects of their personalities for survival, or learning how to take things slow when overwhelmed.
Each mindscape is specifically crafted around the psyche it’s within, which leads to levels that are often a strangely compelling mix of whimsical, heartfelt, and dark. Traversal can be anything from simple platforming, to speedy rail grinding, sliding down slippery ramps, or zipping through the air with mental connections. An early one takes us into the mind of demented dentist, Dr. Loboto, which eventually becomes a labyrinth of teeth (which the game provides a content warning for), self-aggrandizement, and ultimately, fear.
While the mind sections are generally really fun, memorable series of set pieces, like with Double Fine’s past work, the puzzles can be a bit obtuse. To progress, you’ll need to thoroughly explore each environment and keep tabs on what each of your powers can be used for. If you don’t, you’ll end up banging your head against the inside of someone else’s.
Things progress fairly linearly in the front half of Psychonauts 2, mainly focusing on the HQ and mission buildings, but eventually things do open up. Rather than thrusting you into a bloated and convoluted open world, though, Psychonauts 2 takes more of a Dragon Age: Origins approach, providing different areas that host both key and side missions that you can explore, loot, and collect in. These areas make the world around Psychonauts HQ feel vibrant, alive, but also hand-crafted. The history of the organization Raz admires so much is on display here and ripe for him to explore, for better or for worse.
Double Fine does an elegant job of depicting these characters as compelling, but all flawed in various ways.
The main point of Psychonauts 2 ultimately becomes about reckoning with past mistakes and failures, while trying to move forward in a better direction. For Raz, this means learning hard truths and having to find forgiveness and compassion within himself to extend to the adults around him. For those adults, it’s about getting it together and facing the past together, rather than shirking responsibility and hiding away with their grief, loss, and regret. This is where the game shines brightest.
Double Fine does an elegant job of depicting these characters as compelling, but all flawed in various ways. While acknowledging each character’s drawbacks and weaknesses, the game never looks down on them. Rather, through the lens of Raz, it allows you to offer a hand of support to get them back on their feet again.
While Psychonauts 2 has a lot of overwhelming positives on its side, there are some minor flaws as well. The game, in its review build at least, has some performance issues. It will snag, buffer, or occasionally just kind of freeze while loading a save. Controller sync for PC also seems a bit finicky at times. Luckily these issues weren’t super prevalent for me, and I still had a blast despite them. If you’re playing on PC, I definitely recommend checking and updating your graphics drivers to the latest version before you get started, as it will let you know if they’re out of date regardless.
This was a review I picked up on a whim, looking to try something new, and now I’m walking away with a strong new game of the year contender. Psychonauts 2 is fun, funny, heartfelt, and handles its themes with a deft and gentle hand. Thanks to its great recapping, anyone can play regardless of their history with the series, and I recommend you do!
Disclaimer: A copy of the game was provided by the publisher.