I was a bit behind when it came to Psychonauts as a franchise. I’d actually played other Double Fine games first, having backed Massive Chalice on Kickstarter. When the first game came out, I was too mired in my obsession with JRPGs and Tactical RPGs to pretty much play anything else. So like so many others, I ignored the first game until much, much later.
That still means that I played the prequel to this game seven years ago (though admittedly I’m coming to the party for Psychonauts 2 quite late; gotta follow those sales). I remember thoroughly enjoying the first game, finding it absolutely charming, with excellent voice acting, and a fun world to explore.
Psychonauts 2 does everything like that, only better. It is perhaps the most joyful game I have had the experience to play, at least recently, and possibly just overall.
There’s something inherently childlike and wonderful about Psychonauts 2 (and arguably its predecessor, but I’m reviewing the sequel here). It almost feels like Tim Schafer and his merry crew were purposefully setting out to make a game that wouldn’t just star a child (though I’ve argued protagonist Rasputin “Raz” Aquato comes off as at least two years older than his stated age of 10), but has a child’s viewpoint. It’s sort of like the works of Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. Children seem fully aware of the world and its darkness, while the adults around them are bumbling bordering on incompetent.
The plot picks off where the previous game left off, throwing the player right into the meat of things with a mission involving Dr. Lobato. It could border on overwhelming, but the game does a pretty good job of helping you to catch up. It doesn’t hurt that you’re actively moving through Lobato’s mind, which is a fun mix of a boring office building that Agent Sasha implanted in his brain and this weird, tooth obsessed world that starts invading it. You’re thrust into controlling Raz as he bounds and fights his way through this world, thrusting you into the main gameplay immediately.
Those familiar with the previous game will have no issues in controlling the psychic acrobat. Raz moves fluidly, with much of his moveset being what he picked up throughout the last game. In a nice touch, he automatically starts with four different abilities that I honestly thought were going to be sealed after that first level. This means that there’s immediately lots of ways to approach the challenges: you can blast an enemy from afar with your Psy-blasts, melee combat them, or attempt to outmaneuver them entirely utilizing levitation and other fun abilities. It also makes it feel like Raz retained information and power from his previous two outings.
Immediately moving through the world feels fun and exciting. It’s not a boring tutorial level: it’s an actual mission with various other character popping in to reintroduce themselves and the mechanics and flow of the game to you. The first mindscape doesn’t lack for imagination either: the fun mashup of the two worlds makes it even more entertaining as Raz struggles his way through.
Your goals in most worlds are twofold. First, you should be picking up pretty much every item you can; this is most definitely a collect-a-thon. Double Fine has made sure that everything builds together well, so you’re constantly rewarded for picking up every little bit. Get 100 figments and Raz goes up a rank, which will allow him to power up his abilities and grant him access to new items and forms. Gather up money and you can buy special patches to enhance abilities or temporary healing items. Find “emotional baggage” and you can rank up. There’s always something to find, and it’s almost always a joy to do so; I ended the game with over 90% of the stuff collected, and that’s mostly because I liked exploring the worlds.
The combat is a bit more finicky. Raz’s attacks have weight, and, again, the game does a great job making sure that you feel powerful right out of the gate. But it does feel a bit floaty, a little like playing an N64 game as opposed to something that came out just a few years ago.
The bosses are incredibly creative for the most part, and usually a lot of fun. I wasn’t a huge fan of the fact that I had to go all the way to the start of a boss if I died, but save for some issues with the first boss, going through the bosses was more fun than trouble. It certainly helps that not every mind you explore ends with a boss. Sometimes the mental worlds are relatively small, with Raz just exploring to find one or two important bits. Sometimes the worlds are pretty big, but it’s more about finding elements to help the person you’re inside as opposed to fighting things off. Sometimes the boss is just a cinematic that feels like a reward for what you did throughout the level.
And gosh, are these worlds amazing to explore. I felt like a kid as I guided Raz through one fun and imaginative landscape after another. When you enter the mind of the “Psy King,” it’s a particular treat, as you’re accompanied by a shining light that just happens to be voiced by Jack Black, as you bound your way through a psychedelic world inspired by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the five basic senses. Most of the images you’ll see on this game show that.
While I could continue to rhapsodize on the enthralling graphics, the great soundtrack that borrows familiar elements from the first game, and/or the fun gameplay, perhaps what I love best of all about this game is the plot (shocker, I know).
Raz starts out helping with a mission and proving himself to be arguably the most competent person there, and that’s including his maybe-girlfriend Lily who grew up with the Psychonauts, and Sasha and Milla, who are supposedly two of Psychonauts’ best agents (again the whole Dahl like idea that the adults border on incompetent is present, though the game will provide some surprises in that regard later on). He finally gets to see Psychonauts headquarters, but the skeptical agents and staff there immediately slap an intern badge on Raz.
It’s almost painful to watch poor Raz try to rebound. He doesn’t complain or grumble (much) about being made an intern: he’s just happy to be where he finally feels he belongs. It makes you pity him all the more when he’s shoved off on the non-psychic mail room clerk and told his first day on the job will involve sorting mail (which you actually have to do for a bit; fortunately Raz uses his psychic powers and it’s actually kinda fun).
Of course, this being a video game, things starts spiraling out of control pretty quickly. Raz finds himself wrapped up in a conspiracy, bouncing around both the headquarters hub world and the various minds to explore. Here’s where the game again stands out: I enjoyed the hub worlds and just exploring as Raz as much as I did the arguably more imaginative mental landscapes.
The plot is quite engaging though, and does a good job wrapping Raz’s goals with the players. He wants to get stronger and explore minds to fix things, and it’s likely that the player will too. There’s this initial warning regarding mental health issues, as you are literally diving into people’s minds throughout the game. There’s an almost warmth to how the game presents the various people and their troubles. It really does feel like it’s presenting everything through metaphor in, again, that sort of childlike way.
This doesn’t belittle what the characters go through, but helps to conceptualize it in very real ways. My favorite and a standout was, again, the Psy King. He was originally a brain in the jar, essentially stuck in a coma, and he lost the use of his senses. When he starts regaining them with Raz’s help, he gets overwhelmed. He starts panicking and hyperventilating, and the game manifests this panic attack as a creature that spazzes and blurs, moving so quickly as to overwhelm. It’s only when Raz picks up a technique to slow down that he starts to gain a handle on the creature.
It all feels like a great metaphor for what it is to actually experience and confront this issue. Each of the worlds seems to do that to some way or another. There’s an excellent discussion regarding the various personas we have to put on in order to get through the world that’s also arguably a discussion and handling of multiple personality disorder. There’s helping someone to work through fractured memories or helping to build someone’s inner confidence in themself.
It really does feel like it’s saying something beautiful about the way we need to approach our minds and the minds of others. Towards the end of the game it starts to focus on how we need to confront and consider our pasts, our previous thoughts and deeds, but how we need to learn to move past them. The enemy feels less like a monster or threat to defeat, and more about learning to control the dark, primal force that’s inside each and every one of us. Raz and his friends learn to win in the end by acknowledging and overcoming these mental obstacles, and doing as much helping and supporting of those suffering from the ill effects as they do literally blasting the bad thoughts away.
All of this is handled with a fun sense of humor that never really seems to come off as too mean or spiteful, with a fun and chaotic world. The voice acting is also top notch here, with returning cast members making old characters vibrant, while new performers, including a-listers like Jack Black and Elijah Wood (both of whom I recognized) make their characters enjoyable. It sounds like everyone was taking the material seriously, even as they were talking about blasting away literal grudges and thoughts within a person’s mind.
I cannot sing enough praises for this game’s narrative and the way it handles itself. I’ve written a lot here, and it feels like I’m barely scratching the game’s surface. This is a game well worth playing, one that feels truly joyful and fun to play while still having something important and heavy to say. I don’t think that I’d call it fully flawless; the plot falls back on a previous construct to just place a whole bunch of people in need of mental help in one kooky area instead of the more fun and organic missions that occurred in the first half. There’s also way too much emphasize on pits, with Raz letting out the exact same scream every time he plummets. And I will dread the mail room level, with its emphasis on those irritating falls and its lack of clarity regarding where to go, with each playthrough.
But I still highly recommend this game, and think that it’s an almost perfect version of what a game should be. It’s joyful with a sense of fun and wonder. It says something cool in an engaging way. It plays smoothly and encourages the player to explore its unique worlds. This game may have taken seven years to come out, but when it did, it came out as something truly magical, an experience well worth having.
10 Excellent gameplay with just enough challenge meets incredibly world building and mostly great mechanics, all in the service of a plot that never ceases to entertain while still saying something important and impressive about how we think and the world(s) around that