A Revival For The Ages
Despite how many developers have made it work in recent years, returning to a beloved series after many years is a big challenge. You have to incorporate what fans loved about the series originally. Otherwise, why bother returning in the first place? At the same time, you have to take into account how expectations have changed over the years. This is the challenge the team at Double Fine faced when making Psychonauts 2, a direct sequel to a game released in 2005.
I’m thrilled to report that they rose to the occasion. Double Fine returns us to the wonderful world of Psychonauts, creating a story that is deeply moving, stands on its own, yet also has deep ties to the original title. They took the platforming gameplay of another era and kept more of it than you might expect in 2021, but cleaned it up so that it holds up to today’s standards. They created an absolute triumph that, while not perfect, is well worth any player’s time.
You’re Not At Camp Anymore
Psychonauts 2 starts only a few days after the events of the original title, directly after the spin-off VR title Rhombus of Ruin (our review). You’re once again Raz, a young circus performer who ran off to join a group of psychic spies. Unfortunately, while you may have saved the day twice now, when you finally arrive at Psychonauts headquarters, you find that still doesn’t get a ten-year-old full membership in the organization. It’s good enough to get you in the door as an intern, however.
Having just rescued the head of the Psychonauts, you’d think things would be getting back to normal. He’s still unconscious, though, and something still seems off. Could there be a mole in the organization? You’ll need all the help you can get to figure this mystery out. Psychonauts 2 is filled with references and connections to the original game, but don’t worry if you haven’t played it. The opening does a great job of recapping things and setting the stage so that even new players will quickly wrap their heads around what is going on. This tale stands well on its own, even if those who played the original may get the most out of it.
Meet The Aquatos
Psychonauts 2 features a wonderful cast of characters, some returning from the original title while others show up for the first time. Old favorites like Sasha and Milla are here to help you make the transition, but new authority figures show up, such as the new acting head of the Psychonauts, Hollis Forsythe. You’ll also spend time with the famed Psychic Six who founded the organization and with your fellow interns. That’s before even getting into the arrival of Raz’s family, eager to support him in his new position. The huge cast features a ton of memorable characters and provides f wonderfully diverse group of characters to root for, though it never spends long making a point of it.
Twists and turns keep the story interesting throughout, and Double Fine’s signature humor kept me consistently entertained. The Psychic Six, in particular, are highlights, leading some of the game’s best levels. Raz’s family is also a great addition, providing an outside perspective that keeps all of the wild goings-on fresh and offering their own brand of humor. If I have any real complaints about the story, I would have loved to see more from your fellow interns. They’re interesting characters, and I loved spending time with them, but we don’t get much development out of them, which feels like a missed opportunity. Perhaps we’ll get more if Double Fine ever gets around to a Psychonauts 3.
Explore The Mind
That Double Fine humor isn’t only for the story; it’s integrated into every aspect of the game. Most of the action in Psychonauts 2 takes place when Raz has to dive into the heads of various characters, using a tiny door he can strap to their heads. This drops him into a wonderful assortment of levels, all created by the character’s minds. You’ll explore a hospital, a casino, a library, the ocean, and many other areas throughout your adventure. Each of these has been twisted into a surrealistic dream world by the characters whose minds you explore. Things can often be hilarious and require you to twist your brain a bit to solve a wide variety of puzzles, but they can also get somewhat dark at times. One late level, in particular, has a deeper meaning hiding in plain sight, perhaps one that might not be noticed unless you’re familiar with its theme. It’s never pushed too hard, but as someone whose family has dealt heavily with it, it left me devastated. That, along with a level set in a psychedelic mental concert, were real highlights for me.
More Powers, More Problems
Raz has a lot of powers to help him explore these levels. Throughout the game, you’ll unlock eight psychic powers which help you solve people’s problems. Some return from the original game, albeit in a somewhat modified form. For example, levitation allows you to float through the air, gliding further after using both your jumps. It also allows you to get around faster by riding on a levitation ball. You can also grab things, shoot psychic bolts, slow time, draw a duplicate of yourself, and much more. These powers are highly useful both in combat and for puzzle solving. Each can be upgraded throughout the game, getting more useful as you go.
One of the biggest issues I had throughout the game was how frequently you have to switch between them, however. You map these to the controller’s four triggers, and while this works, you often need more than four of them in a level or even in quick succession. This means regular remapping becomes a necessity. It just gets a bit old. Allowing the player to map more of these to other buttons, or to button combinations, could have been at least a nice option.
New psychic powers aren’t the only upgrade Raz gets either. You’ll be able to buy a variety of badges throughout the game to boost those powers and to provide Raz with a variety of additional power-ups.
A Variety Of Ways To Play
Psychonauts 2 never stops changing things up either, keeping things fresh throughout the adventure. One area might have you riding around in a bus. Another has you riding a door through the ocean. Navigate through books or even engage in a crazy cooking show. I loved almost everything new the game threw at me. The major exceptions are a few of the game’s bosses. While most of these fights are unique and a few are highly memorable, they have a habit of taking a bit too long to get through their routines. This means that if you miss a chance, you’ll have a long wait for another. They also tend to be damage sponges, often taking a bit longer than feels right. Still, these are minor complaints, and a few of the bosses are among my favorite moments of the game.
While managing these moves can be a minor pain, moving through the worlds of Psychonauts 2 mostly works great. Controls are tight, and the camera is excellent. At times things can get a little floaty for my taste, but it’s never a major problem, and if you do have trouble with a particular section, the game is usually forgiving, offering frequent checkpoints. There are also a wide variety of accessibility options to help different player needs. You can turn off damage if things are too difficult. You can turn your power up significantly if you want to breeze through combat to focus on the story. Subtitles can be adjusted in a variety of ways, from font to size. There’s not only a colorblind mode but even a variety of filters to meet different needs.
After more than fifteen years, Raz’s return is everything fans could have hoped for. It tells a wonderful story about how we have to learn from our mistakes and continue to grow while keeping the humor we expect from any Double Fine production. Now and then, the control scheme can be a minor pain, but most of the time, it plays like a dream with a level of polish few games launch with anymore. Psychonauts 2 is one of the best games of 2021. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another sixteen years to team back up with the Psychonauts.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Xbox Series X (reviewed), Xbox Series S, Xbox One, PS4, PC; Publisher: Xbox Game Studios; Developer: Double Fine; Players: 1; Released: August 25th, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Psychonauts 2.