By Marty Mulrooney
It’s hard to believe it has been 16 years since gamers first took control of gifted psychic Razputin Aquato as he journeyed to Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. The original Psychonauts became a cult classic despite being considered a commercial failure upon release, and in 2015 a crowdfunding campaign for a sequel was launched on Fig that eventually raised nearly $4 million. Fast forward six years, add a dash of Xbox Game Studios – which purchased Double Fine in 2019 – and Psychonauts 2 has finally arrived. So pull on your goggles, jump into my mind… and let’s get psyched!
Before we begin, let’s address the elephant in the room. Psychonauts 2 is a digital-only game published by Xbox Game Studios that is available right now on Xbox Game Pass. The Xbox Series S and X are the only consoles that can run at 120fps in HDR, with the Series X able to display in native 4K at 60fps. The PlayStation 4 non-HDR version is 30fps at 1080p, jumping to 1440p on PlayStation 4 Pro and increasing to 60fps on PlayStation 5 via backwards compatibility mode (with much faster load times). I split my time playing Psychonauts 2 between the PlayStation 4 Pro in my living room and the PlayStation 5 in my study… and it looked incredible and played great on both.
The art style and colours are so bright, bold and beautiful that I hardly noticed the lack of HDR, and 60fps proved to be plenty smooth. I never felt at any point that I was playing an ‘inferior’ version of the game, and I don’t buy into the complaint that £49.99 is too much for a digital release – especially of this calibre. This will probably be the last Double Fine game ever released on a PlayStation console, so please don’t let it pass you by if you don’t have an Xbox Series X|S. The PlayStation 4 version is excellent – especially when played on a PlayStation 5 – and can easily give any ‘true’ next-gen game a run for its money.
Following a charmingly animated introduction narrated by Raz that succinctly recaps the events of the first game (and the VR interlude Rhombus of Ruin) for both newcomers and returning fans alike, Psychonauts 2 begins with an Inception-esque introductory mission. Raz is joined by his girlfriend Lili Zanotto (!) and their psychic mentors as they delve into the mind of demented dentist and amateur brain surgeon Dr. Loboto to reveal who made him kidnap Lili’s father: Grand Head of the Psychonauts Truman Zanotto.
This opening mission continually drip-feeds the game’s controls and mechanics to the player as they navigate Dr. Loboto’s disturbed – and rather toothy – mind. Raz’s moveset hasn’t changed much since the original Psychonauts, but everything feels so much more responsive and refined. He can still run, jump, punch, climb and grind on rails, with his ‘Levitation’ power allowing him to roll around on a ball of energy at high speed (which never gets old) and float through the air. Old favourites such as ‘Telekenisis’ and ‘PSI Blast’ also return, allowing Raz to lift and throw objects and blast beams of psychic energy respectively. New psychic powers can be unlocked as the game processes, and each power can be upgraded to become even more powerful.
After (somewhat) successfully completing the opening mission and revealing that there is potentially a double agent in their midst, Raz and his colleagues travel to the Motherlobe – the headquarters of the Psychonauts organization – where Hollis Forsythe, Second Head of the Psychonauts, quickly brings Raz back down to earth by slapping an ‘intern’ badge on his chest.
The Motherlobe acts as Psychonauts 2’s central hub and its architectural beauty and zany inhabitants immediately evoke a sense of genuine awe in both Raz and the player. Exploring the Psychonauts headquarters and its surrounding areas is a constant delight. This isn’t an open-world game by any stretch of the imagination, but it does a wonderful job of conveying a true sense of place and scale while remaining intimate enough for players to memorise its every nook and cranny.
For newcomers to the series, at certain points in the story Raz will throw a small door onto someone’s head before being mentally teleported into their mind. Each level reflects the mental state of the person whose mind you’re in and it’s here that the developers have let their imaginations run wild. For example, the mind of an alcoholic manifests itself as a lonely world of foaming sea dotted with sandy desert islands, where giant bottles of memories wash ashore that can be uncorked and entered.
The uniqueness of each level is what makes Psychonauts 2 such a joy to experience. The core mechanics adhere to the third-person platformer playbook, but the levels themselves work tirelessly to ensure that you’re always doing something new, whether it’s rolling through a city on a giant bowling ball or running across the words of a book from page to page. There is so much creativity and imagination on display at any given moment that it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific highlight – this is a game chock-full of them.
Regardless, I’ll try. One level involves Raz trying to help a brain in a jar – voiced by American actor, comedian and musician Jack Black – remember who he once was. At first, this character’s mind is a pitch-black void, with only a small speck of light to illuminate the darkness. Later, as the brain begins to remember its true identity, the world explodes into a psychedelic, cel-shaded landscape that feels like the video game equivalent of taking LSD.
Suddenly finding himself backstage at a kaleidoscopic music festival full of screaming fans, Raz is tasked with getting the old band back together – with each member representing one of the brain in a jar’s senses. However, successfully recruiting each new band member and restoring the accompanying ‘sense’ will trigger a panic attack: a lightning-fast creature that can disappear and reappear at will before striking with deadly force.
This ‘Feast of the Senses’ level – heavily previewed in the gaming press prior to release – is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the sheer variety on offer. There isn’t a single moment during Psychonauts 2’s 20-hour length that feels padded-out, recycled or over-indulgent. New gameplay ideas are continually introduced and enjoyed to their fullest extent, before being jettisoned and replaced by something equally good or even better.
One moment you’re trying to undo a character’s fixation with gambling and money by helping a skeleton couple conceive a baby; the next, you’re cooking a meal on a game show where the audience members are ingredients screaming “Oooh me! PICK ME!” It’s charming and weird and funny in the best possible way. Yet Psychonauts 2’s greatest strength is that it does enough to be considered truly great… then one-ups itself to become something more.
It’s clear from the outset that Psychonauts 2 is a story-driven game. Stylishly directed cutscenes play at regular intervals and Raz can converse with a surprising number of non-player characters. This is some of Tim Schafer’s best writing and world-building since Grim Fandango, which is something I don’t say lightly.
The highly personal nature of each level pays off time and time again, with characters that would otherwise be charming yet two-dimensional becoming fleshed out and real. The story is expertly crafted too, quickly establishing the rules of the world and introducing a vast array of characters both old and new – including Raz’s family and his fellow interns – that you’ll want to spend time with.
The ‘big bad’ antagonist is introduced early on but isn’t quite what she seems, and the mystery of the mole is a compelling one. The humour and drama are perfectly balanced, with laugh-out-loud moments joined by revelations that are surprisingly emotional. Yet late-game developments – which won’t be discussed or spoiled here – take risks with this balance that could have backfired spectacularly but end up paying off beautifully.
The history of the Psychonauts organisation is laid bare, warts and all, with its founding members forced to face a dark past that contrasts starkly with the idealised image Raz has long held in his head. I can’t remember the last time a game made me gasp, but Psychonauts 2 managed to do it in a way that felt true and earned. For a game focused so much on brains, it has a surprising amount of heart.
In short, Psychonauts 2 is hard not to love. Its voice acting is impeccable, from returning talents such as Richard Horvitz (Raz) and Nicki Rapp (Lili) to Hollywood stars Elijah Wood and Jack Black. The eclectic soundtrack is excellent too, with legendary video game composer Peter McConnell one-upping his work on the original game to elevate the sequel to even greater heights.
The combat can admittedly feel a bit loose at times, but that’s almost by design – the focus is on exploration, discovery and storytelling. Oh, and collectables. There are so many collectables, but they’re entirely optional and only serve to make exploring the levels feel even more rewarding.
Following a year and change where many people have been dealing with mental health issues, Psychonauts 2 feels like a timely breath of fresh air – a small speck of light floating in a pitch-black void, waiting to burst into dizzying colour.
It’s a game about family and friends, emotional baggage, guilt, facing your inner demons, forgiveness and redemption. Sure, its beautiful graphics, fun gameplay, top-quality voice acting, memorable music and compelling dramedy storytelling make it easy to recommend.
Yet beneath all the razzmatazz – pun intended – Psychonauts 2 has so much more to offer. It tells a poignant, universally relatable story set in a world where the human brain can be explored like a funhouse.
It’s moving, human to a fault, and makes a strong argument that video games can be – and should be – considered art. The word masterpiece is thrown around far too much nowadays but in the case of Psychonauts 2, it’s entirely apt.
10 OUT OF 10