Psychonauts 2 Review -- Mind Over Matter

  • First Released Aug 25, 2021
  • XBSX

Psychonauts 2 does more than just fill the shoes of its beloved quirky predecessor, it sets itself apart as a classic in its own right.

Sixteen years ago, Psychonauts made a cartoonish, comically lopsided world feel believable and weighted thanks to its loveable characters and earnest storytelling. Now, Psychonauts 2 builds upon this foundation to reach ambitious new heights, while equally deepening its roots to impressive depths. It takes already well-realized characters and makes them more complex, even if that means traveling to the darker corners of their minds.

It's a dazzling display of Double Fine's signature humor and creativity, but underneath the whimsical, action-platformer is a game about choices and forgiveness. Psychonauts 2 does more than just fill the shoes of its beloved predecessor, it sets itself apart as a classic in its own right.

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After a snappy catch-up for newcomers, the story picks up only days after the first game, and moments after the VR sequel-interlude Psychonauts in the Rhombus Of Ruin. 10-year-old psychic-prodigy Razputin Aquato (you) has saved the leader of the Psychonauts, Truman Zanotto, from the grips of dentist/amatuer brain surgeon Dr. Loboto.

In an effort to discover who hired Dr. Loboto to kidnap Truman, Raz and the other Psychonaut agents--Sasha Nein, Milla Vodello, and Coach Oleander--enter Loboto's mind, only to uncover a far more menacing antagonist has been pulling Loboto's strings: Maligula--a great enemy of the Psychonauts. Maligula was assumed dead after a great battle that, tragically, also left one of the Psychonauts' most acclaimed members, Ford Cruller, traumatically scarred and mentally broken. This leads the Psychonauts to believe there is a mole within their operation, and in order to unpack the mysterious return of Maligula, Raz must enter the minds of the Psychic 6, the founders of the Psychonauts, to piece together a dark, hidden truth.

What unravels is an unexpected turn of events, with a story constructed and driven by the misjudged choices of its characters; it's a heady theme that remains constant, and is hammered home through Raz's own mistakes early in the game. Raz learns a few new abilities, one being Mental Connection. This can be used to interconnect a person's thoughts, which creates new forms of traversal for the player, and can even be used to completely change a character's mind. However, when Raz uses it to completely change the view of a mind he inhabits for his own benefit, he is forced to reckon with the consequences and carry the burdens of them.

The narrative events are intertwined with a spectacle of platforming and action. As I jumped, climbed, and punched through the inner mind of this character, I was able to see it from two different perspectives: as it once was, and then how dramatically morphed it had become based on Raz's mistake. The level I was once familiar with was re-contextualized through a completely different lens to reflect the changed mind.

Everything about Psychonauts 2, from its environments, to its history, the Psychonauts themselves, its enemies, and mechanics, all work in tandem and feel wholly realized. It feels rich and dense with detail, and it's all defined by its eclectic cast of characters. It's bewildering to step back and take it all in at times, but thankfully its quirky and colorful world makes it as disarming as it is a joy to ingest.

As you bounce through the minds of characters, each level's concepts and artistic direction is reflective of the mind in which it takes place, often putting mental conditions like addiction, PTSD, and anxiety front-and-center in a lighthearted manner that doesn't demean them, but rather treats them in an approachable and empathetic way.

One level in particular features depressing themes and undertones of excessive drinking as a design motif. The level takes place on a big open sea to sail across, with sandy islands to visit and a beautiful clear sky overhead. The moment I stopped to take it in, however, I realized the trees were shaped like bottles, and platforms were beer cans, and the rails I grinded on were drinking straws. Suddenly, the bright colorful world I gleefully jumped through was instilled with a very different and serious tone--one that could go missed if I didn't stop to take it in.

It was all nuanced, balanced with bizarre and quirky conversations, but bookended with a serious look at someone's inner struggles, with the intent of better understanding who they are as a person, and why. With every twist and turn, the level added a completely new layer to the mystery of Maligula and the past of the Psychic 6, leading to some unpredictable revelations.

[Psychonauts 2 is] a dazzling display of Double Fine's signature humor and creativity, but underneath the whimsical, action-platformer is a game about choices and forgiveness

While its representation of mental conditions may be complex, engaging with the game isn't and Psychonauts 2 is truly a joy to play, with its action and platforming returning from the first game, albeit much more fine-tuned and streamlined. Many abilities from the original will be familiar to returning players: Telekinesis, PSI Blast, Pyrokinesis, and Levitation, all of which have been given a welcome overhaul.

Telekinesis, for example, now operates more closely to how it functions in Remedy Entertainment's Control, where items nearby will automatically come to you, making it easy to launch them at an enemy; Pyrokinesis forms an area-of-attack bubble to better visualize its execution; and PSI Blast has a cooldown rather than having to collect ammo. All of these quality-of-life improvements make Psychonauts 2's combat feel tight and refined, especially with the addition of a dedicated dodge button.

Abilities can be upgraded by ranking up, which itself is done by collecting things: Nuggets Of Wisdom, Figments of Imagination, or PSI Cards. Thankfully, collecting doesn't come off as a chore--it often comes naturally in the exploration of the level, making it feel more like a natural progression. If you opt to seek out 100% of collectibles, it certainly does lean into the menial design philosophy from collect-a-thons of yesteryear, but the optional nature of this meant it was never a bother and didn't stunt my progression in any way.

Psychonauts 2 features mainstay enemies like the Censors (who remain damage sponges), but it also introduces an array of new enemies like Regrets--flying creatures that carry a heavy weight to drop on you. With the introduction of each new enemy, I was conditioned to change my playing style, often switching out abilities to control the onslaught. Out of the eight abilities, you can have four at a time assigned to the shoulder buttons. It was a bit overwhelming at times to occasionally reassign all my abilities to handle certain enemies, but after some time, it became intuitive to assign a rotation of powers. Thankfully, the cadence of learning new abilities is well-paced throughout the game, giving me enough time with each one to fully understand their use.

Most impressive is Double Fine's interlacing of conceptual design with its enemies--like using feelings of regret, doubt, and enabling--as literal interpretations for enemy types, which is an example of how Psychonauts 2 harmonizes serious concepts with whimsical delivery to present a cohesive and impactful whole.

But no matter how good its level design is, or how imaginative its concepts get, some of the level-concluding boss fights fail to reach the same heights. Some are better than others--the vomiting hand puppets from Compton's cooking level are a standout fight--but not all of them stick the landing. More often than not, fights involve a towering enemy throwing projectiles at you while you fend off hordes of enemies, and the formula rarely changes. Mechanically they're fine, but can be rather cliche in comparison to its otherwise inspired levels.

Thankfully, even after some less-than-favorable conclusions to these levels, what then awaits is a welcome degree of freedom and exploration. Between each level, I was given the chance to explore the world, tackle levels at my own pace, talk to its many characters, or do things completely out of order.

Exploring the hub areas, which are broken up into four sections, is a distraction from the main quest but a delightful one. With no waypoints to clutter my screen or lead me, exploring felt organic, and driven by natural intrigue and my constant curiosity to see what was around every corner of the bustling Psychonauts HQ, or to climb to the top of the trees in the woodsy Questionable Area. I was often completely sidetracked finding PSI Cards, scavenger hunt items, or even just hearing Raz's commentary on the environments around him.

Hub areas all felt thoughtfully designed and tailored to incentivize natural exploration, with identifiable characteristics that made it a breeze to navigate. I never once had to use a map through the many sprawling open areas, nor was I ever lost or confused as to where I was--a testament to the game's distinct art direction. Exploring and wandering around is a standout highlight, and a lot of that is owed to characters you meet along the way.

Whether it was one of the other interns, like Sam Boole making questionable pancakes in the Lumberjack Diner, or the lonely obnoxious receptionist at the Psychoisolation chamber, there's never a wasted line or interaction. Psychonauts 2 is bursting with a diverse cast of characters, with representation that deserves to be held on a pedestal.

Every interaction deepened the world, and the introduction to Raz's gypsy circus family, the Aquatos, is the cherry on top. Meeting other members of his family and getting more time to talk to his father gives rewarding context to Raz's past, and the family that was relegated to murmurs in the previous game. Chatting with his family is charmingly relatable--even embarrassing at times (as having your gypsy circus family crash your time at a psychic secret organization should be).

Additionally, each area is given exuberant life thanks to composer Peter McConnell's musical diversity, hitting tones of jazzy mystery in parts of the Motherlobe, while exploring a campfire-fueled bluegrass jig in the Questionable Area. Still, McConnell subtly inserts interlacing melodies throughout, making it all cohesive and whole, despite the many different styles on display.

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The game packs a lot in its 15-hour runtime, but the result is something that feels carefully considered, tailored, and deliberate in everything it gave me, from the story to its gameplay to its exploration to, of course, its writing. No two levels were the same, each bursting with imagination, whether it was climbing a lighthouse entirely made up of strands of hair, or the constant reimagining of level design based on a character's psyche--the variety never ceased to inspire me.

After the credits rolled, I sat satisfied, having gone on a roller coaster of unhinged creativity, emotional storytelling, and unforgettable characters I hope to see again in the future. During my time, I grew attached to every character, and I knew it'd be hard to move on from its world, which is why I was very thankful to see the world remained open to explore, with characters to talk to, and new conversations to be had after the main story had concluded.

On the surface, Psychonauts 2 is an engaging, ambitious, honed-in take on colorful 3D platformers. However, the most rewarding aspect hasn't just been mastering its platforms or combat, but peeling back the layers to see what's beneath it; to take a closer look at its characters, the depth of their struggles, fears, and regrets, all of which serve as the game's foundation. It's an emotional, hilarious, and, at times, devastating story, but a story about forgiveness and second chances. It's an astonishing achievement in nearly every regard and the quintessential display of Double Fine's mastery in story, gameplay, and distinct direction, making it the studio's best game to date.

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The Good

  • Phenomenal character writing that serves as the basis for the world
  • Deliberate, thoughtful, and endearing approach to serious topics of mental conditions
  • Inspiring display conceptual design, writing, and art direction working in tandem
  • Platforming and combat are joy to play

The Bad

  • Some boss fights feel more like a speed bump rather than a satisfying conclusion to a level

About the Author

Kurt is not the Milkman, but he played 20 hours of Psychonauts 2 on his Xbox Series S, and plans to play it many more times in the future. Code was provided by the publisher.