Psychonauts 2 starts with an Inception-like mind heist, brought to life with all the weirdness and quirkiness of a Double Fine production. It picks up right where Psychonauts and Psychonauts: Rhombus of Ruin left off, as the leading agents of the Psychonauts dive into the mind of the antagonist of those two games for answers. Of course, it’s also time for our hero, the psychic child prodigy and circus runaway Razputin is front and centre of the mission.
It’s an excellent opener and sets the stage for what’s to come through the opening hours that we got to preview – take the game’s opening warning about dental phobia triggers seriously, because it is a dive into a world of giant teeth, dental work and more while trying to follow Dr. Loboto and reveal the shadowy master that has pulled his strings.
From that high stakes mission, with Raz having been brought into the fold of the Psychonauts at the end of the first two games, his world is brought crashing back down to the ground. He’s still just a kid, and not a true agent, shovelled into the Psychonauts’ Intern programme with all the other kids and adolescents.
Narratively, that pushes a little bit of a reset button on Raz’s story. As in the first game, he has to prove himself once more, he has to win over his peers, and there’s a slew of new Psychonauts who he needs to convince he has worth. The original Psychonauts had a real ’80s kids save the world’ film vibe, especially as it was set at a remote summer camp, and this tale absolutely feels like the bigger budget follow up. Just because he’s an intern, that won’t stop him and his peers from getting stuck in with this latest adventure!
Thankfully, it’s nowhere near as big a reset for his mental powers. Where the first game dragged you through some drawn-out tutorials as Raz first learnt each of his psychic abilities from the Psychonaut teachers running the summer camp, Psychonauts 2 does a great job of making you feel fairly powerful from the off – there’s no calamity that strips Raz of his powers, so he has the fundamentals of Levitation, Telekinesis, PSI-Blast and Pyrokenesis – and the game very quickly shows you the ropes. New abilities are introduced later, to make Mental Connections or Projections, for example, but the way they’re introduced doesn’t feel quite so tutorial-like or drawn out.
The same overall framework from the original Psychonauts is here. This is a platformer that deals in the broken up and abstract, that twists ideas into surreal dream-like worlds that you have to work out how to navigate and puzzle your way through. Along the way, there’s a collectathon vibe, with a seemingly never-ending string of 2D figments to grab, with tags to reunite with emotional baggage, and more.
There’s also plenty of combat to contend with, as the subconscious world recognises intruders and tries to expel them – the more I think about it, the more I reckon Christopher Nolan is a bit of a Psychonauts fan. The basic enemies of the Censors return, joined by new enemies like the Enabler that shields enemies, the Bad Idea that will throw explosive thought bulbs at you, and so on. 15 years on, the controls and combat feel that much tighter, with more generous auto-aim on Raz’s Telekinesis, PSI-Blast and a Pyrokinesis that no longer needs you to lock onto a target, but can affect an area. The combat can be pretty tough, if you don’t keep enemies at a distance.
There’s also still a heavy narrative thread that draw it all together, with more cutscenes than you can shake a stick at, to the point where Psychonauts 2 commits one of the cardinal sins of video games: having two cutscenes separated by the player walking about 10 metres in one direction.
Still, I can happily forgive that when there’s a clear care and thoughtfulness to the story that Psychonauts 2 is telling. Of course, there’s plenty of humour to be found throughout – I mean, Tim Schafer has written the story, so how could there not be? – but there’s also a tenderness to how it portrays the different personalities of the people whose minds Raz steps into, and the internal demons that they battle with. As Raz has to reunite the Psychic Six, he finds Compton Boole, a man whose acute anxiety has taken over his life and seen him retreat from the outside world, while Cassie’s seclusion comes from her self-control issues.
We were able to put questions to Double Fine, with Tim Schafer explaining, “What we’ve always tried to do is approach this from an angle of humanity and empathy. Even the villains of the game, if you go into their minds, you see a lot of their ‘villainous’ behaviour comes from things they’re wrestling with in their mind. Once you’ve been inside someone’s mind, it’s hard not to have that kind of empathy with them.
“After we joined Xbox, we had access to more testing, more mental health testing with actual clinicians, because we’re not clinically trained ourselves, and they hooked us up with groups like takethis.org who helped us test, consult and identify things in the game that were good representations, but also could be improved, to avoid stigmatising language and representations which is a very common problem in games, where mental health and mental illness is a kind of shortcut to othering a villain.”
In each case, those worlds are rendered in fantastical fashion, Compton’s mind a bizarre cooking gameshow in which Compton is judged by puppet animal renditions of the other Psychonauts, while Cassie’s mind sees the different “aspects” of her personality divided and split apart. As Raz encounters the Teacher, and asks “are you the real Cassie?” she pointedly turns the question back on Raz and the different fronts that he himself and any other person would present in different scenarios and with different people.
Tim Schafer said, “The way that we make Psychonauts games is this really handmade, bespoke process – the most challenging thing, I think, is that we don’t know what a Psychonauts level is until we make it, almost. You might take your first crack at a Psychonauts level and then ask yourself, ‘Is this original? Is this something players have seen before in a game? Is this going anywhere new?’ And then you’ll often go right back to the drawing board.
“It might not be entirely clear what was wrong with that first version, but you just know it’s not right. A Psychonauts level has to be something that makes you go ‘What?’ the first time you see it! It has to display a mental issue that’s going on in someone’s head or just the mental state of somebody and show it, and then also have a unique aesthetic and a unique twist on gameplay.”
All of the game worlds and characters are rendered in a gorgeous art style, the game built on Unreal Engine 4. There’s a huge amount of range to what the game presents you, even from the four levels that I had the opportunity to play, with each mind that Raz steps into feeling unique and showing us more about who the character and what their personal struggle is. Where Compton is terrorised by the puppet-like judges of his game show, Cassie’s mind is filled with paper creations and sketched drawing. For the main character models, they’re clearly higher fidelity, almost looking like they’ve taken fresh inspiration from claymation.
Double Fine Art Director Lisette Titre-Montgomery said, “We really wanted to kind of preserve the original style, which had this very German Expresionist, Burton-esque look, but really work with new shaders, new materials, new visual effects, new cinematic techniques to push it into what could be done right now. I think all of that really comes together to sell these dreamlike environments that we have. When you play the game, you really feel like you’re being transported to somewhere that looks nothing like you’ve seen before, and that was our goal. Every brain looks different, because every human is different, and that’s how we really approached our environments.”
Psychonauts 2 is shaping up to be a worthy sequel to Double Fine’s cult classic original. Many of the fundamentals of that game remain, but there’s a new high-stakes mission for the Psychonauts to undertake (and for Raz to save the day as the kid hero of the story), and it’s being brought together with visuals and refined gameplay that you’d hope for 15 years and 3 generations later.