Psychonauts 2 Review | TechRaptor
We were long overdue for a Psychonauts sequel.16 years ago, Tim Schafer and the developers at Double Fine Productions released the first Psychonauts: a colorful platformer game on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox that was published by Majesco. The game received heaps of critical praise, and despite low initial sales, the game struck a chord with many people and garnered a devoted cult following that would end up waiting a long time for a prospective Psychonauts 2. Since the initial game’s release in 2005, Double Fine Productions would work on several other games like Brutal Legend and Broken Age before ultimately acquiring publishing rights for Psychonauts in 2011. In 2015, Double Fine announced Psychonauts 2 and launched an incredibly successful crowdfunding option to fund the development of the game, and 6 years and a Microsoft Acquisition later, the long-desired sequel is now here. Thankfully, it is quite good.
Psychonauts 2 is a creative triumph with fun gameplay and an engrossing heartfelt story. The game combines old-school-style platforming with more precise controls; the characters and the world are charming; the themes involving grief and trauma will resonate with many players, and the level design is incredibly imaginative. Through all these attributes, Psychonauts 2 is a good gaming experience for anyone wistful over mid-2000s platformers and meaningful narrative-driven games in general. While my experience with the first game is minimal, the new title is an enjoyable (and sometimes even great) game worthy of a following similar to the original.
Understandably, that’s high praise, but Psychonauts 2 earns it.
The story alone is worth experiencing. Starting where the previous game concluded, the plot follows Razputin Aquato: a young boy with psychic powers who aspires to become a Psychonaut. The Psychonauts are essentially paranormal MI6, a spy agency where agents use their psychic powers in the field, and Raz is receiving first-hand experience. At the start of the game, Raz and the Psychonauts infiltrate the mind of Doctor Labato (the antagonist from the previous game) in order to figure out who hired him to kidnap Psychonauts head Truman Zannato.
The mission doesn’t go as planned. Raz’s and the Psychonauts’ acts of psychic espionage fail to discover the culprit behind Zannato’s abduction, but they do learn a motive. The kidnapper desires to resurrect Maligula: a long-believed deceased psychic who used her abilities to murder countless people before being taken down by the original Psychonauts. The reasons as to why the kidnapper wants Maligula are unclear, but with the prospect of a dangerous powerful psychic reentering the realm of the living, the world is in danger. Thus Raz tries to reform the original (and more powerful) Psychonauts so that they can potentially prevent Maligula’s resurrection and defeat the mysterious enemy trying to bring her back.
This story has a lot of heart. Following Raz, the player sees a young boy trying to find his place in the game’s world. Despite his prowess in the field, the Psychonauts underestimate him and designate him as an intern, and due to this (and the fact that his own family abhors psychics), Raz must prove himself. This is relatable because we have all been in Raz’s position. At one point or another, we have all been devalued at school, work, or other social situations despite our capabilities and qualifications. We know what it’s like, and as a result, we can easily identify with Raz as a character. Even though he makes mistakes and stumbles a bit, we understand exactly where he is coming from. Sure, Raz’s journey and arc are fantastical, but his motivation to showcase his notable abilities to peers like the psychonauts, his dismayed family, or his girlfriend Lili is incredibly human. With Raz, we see ourselves.
Psychonauts 2’s sense of humanity extends to the main plot as well. Much of the conflict revolves around reuniting the original Psychonauts team, but this objective runs into a plot-based brick wall: all of the old Psychonauts are in mental disarray. From past events, they are all traumatized and/or grief-stricken for various reasons, and Raz must enter their minds in order to help them overcome their internal demons. Whether they’re grieving the loss of a loved one, battling internal identity issues, or dealing with a guilt complex, all of the former Psychonauts are in some form of distress. They are in pain.
This narrative conceit is incredibly resonant for those of us with our own mental illnesses. As someone with my own mental health struggles and PTSD, I felt represented by characters like Ford Cruller and Bob Zannatto. Similar to my own mental health issues, these characters were in immense distress, and Raz using his abilities to assist the tormented minds of the original Psychonauts is heartwarming. After all, supporting the emotionally anguished is a beautiful thing, and with the compassionate (albeit mischievous) Raz, we see this beauty in motion. By just being present and there to help, Raz extends an emotional olive branch to these plagued minds. It is a very wholesome experience.
The platforming gameplay is quite exemplary. As a platformer, Psychonauts 2 nails the fundamentals all while adding its own unique spin to the proceedings. The very act of executing jumps and various acrobatic maneuvers overall feels good and accurate, and the various abilities like Levitate, Time Bubble (essentially slows time), and Mental Connection (allows you to bridge thoughts together) deliver new ways to interact with the environment, time jumps, and solve puzzles. It’s incredibly satisfying to string together jumps while using these abilities in order to reach those delectable collectibles. It’s a lot of fun.
The combat is solid as well. With more offensive abilities like the explosive Psy Blast, the fiery Pyro, and Telekinesis, the game features a rock-paper-scissors style approach to hostile encounters. Most enemies are negative mental projections that are susceptible to one power over another, essentially requiring the player to mix and match all of their abilities. In some instances, the game even requires the player to use more platformey abilities like Time Bubble in order to slow down faster enemies or utilize Mental Connection as a form of grapple ability. The player can get really experimental at times -especially as they use the collectibles they find to level up their character-, and while the combat does become a bit repetitive towards Psychonaut 2’s concluding chapters, it is overall quite enjoyable.
The imaginative level design is where Psychonauts 2 truly takes off though. As a game, Psychonauts 2 is separated into two types of stages: those that exist in people’s minds and those that exist in the game’s version of the real world. The one’s existing inside people’s minds are particularly noteworthy. Reflecting the neurological makeup of the troubled minds Raz is visiting and attempting to heal, these brain-based levels are incredibly inspired and boast a terrific art style (even if not exactly graphically impressive). Depending on the mind Raz is in, the levels can be giant mailrooms, concert venues, or libraries that play with the player’s sense of virtual direction and generally conclude with a very inventive boss fight. For lack of a better term, these levels are a blast and show off Double Fine Productions’ creativity and always had me chomping at the bit for more. I loved them.
However, the “real world” stages are no slouch either. When outside the mental realms, Raz dwells in the Psychonauts headquarters (dubbed The Mother Lobe) and its respective grounds. Acting as a hub world, The Mother Lobe is quite a large platforming playground with various objectives, complete side quests, solve puzzles, consumables, vendor locations, and collectibles that expand further as you progress through Psychonauts 2’s story. As Raz unlocks more powers, areas (some of which can be accessed via fast travel) that were restricted earlier in the game become accessible, meaning that the game always has some form of tangible progression outside of its narrative, and in that way, the hub world is very satisfying from a game design standpoint as it actively represents the player’s progress in the game. It shows how far Raz has grown.
Sadly, Psychonauts 2 is far from a perfect game. Despite all the great qualities in its favor, the game has some blemishes that undermine the overall experience. For one thing, the loading times are egregious. Almost every area is blocked off by a lengthy loading screen that will test even the most patient players, and to make matters worse, some of these loading screens can happen in quick succession. When these load screens occur, they really grind Psychonauts 2’s gameplay ebb and flow to a screeching halt, and in a platformer (a genre that is all about timing), throwing a player off of their rhythm is a big no-no.
The controls for Raz’s psychic powers are a bit dated as well. In most games, the character’s powers and abilities are mapped to specific buttons, yet Psychonauts 2 is different. The game makes you mix and change out powers with both trigger and bumper buttons, but the problem is that there are more powers than there are buttons, meaning that the player must halt combat and/or a platforming section in order to equip a more relevant power depending on the gameplay situation. Like the lengthy load screens, this can lessen the player’s flow with the game. While swapping out psychic abilities is far from a game-breaking problem (in fact, it becomes second nature as time goes on), it doesn’t feel very intuitive for a modern platformer. In this regard, Psychonauts 2 feels less like 2021 and more like 2005.
The technical issues, however, are far less forgivable. Psychonauts 2 has moments where the framerate stutters, and it crashed semi-frequently. In fact, the game crashed four times during my 16 and a half hours playthrough (not even a completionist playthrough at that). Admittedly, these issues, as well as the long load times, might be better on Xbox Series X/S, but on Xbox One they can be incredibly irritating and take you out of the game’s otherwise immersive story and gameplay. It is unfortunate.
Still, Psychonauts 2 is a game worthy of your time and attention. While it clearly has problems, the game’s story is engrossing and its gameplay is old-school platforming bliss. The characters are charming, it has a witty sense of humor, the platforming feels precise, the psychic powers are entertaining, the boss fights are intense, and the game delivers a nuanced narrative that is relatable to folks with grief, mental illness, and PTSD. In a true testament to its creative vision, Psychonauts 2 is an experience worth embarking on even in spite of the technical issues trying to restrain it. It is truly an imaginative trip worth diving into.
TechRaptor reviewed Psychonauts 2 on Xbox One with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox Series X|S.