Psychonauts 2 preview: Shaping up to be game of the year material
It's rare in 2021 that a game can come along and show you something truly new.
Psychonauts is a cult classic Xbox exclusive from all the way back in 2005. Made by Tim Schafer and the legendary team at Double Fine Productions, Psychonauts is an action platformer that follows a boy named Razputin on his quest to become a fully-fledged psychic agent.
Set in a government-backed psychic summer camp called Whispering Rock, which is set up to help youngsters train and sharpen their psychic abilities, the ultimate goal is to join an organization charged with defending the population from psy-terrorists, essentially. In this world of psychics, Razputin, or 'Raz' for short, helps the camp's quirky counselors and his fellow telekinetic teens train up and solve mysteries.
The game combined the best of Double Fine's Hollywood-grade writing and world-building with warped mindscapes, thoughtfully inspired by real-world psychological science and theory. In many ways Psychonauts was way ahead of its time, and still holds up today. The original is on Xbox Game Pass, and something I highly recommend you check out before giving Psychonauts 2 a try, which drops on August 25 for Xbox and PC.
I've been lucky enough to try the game out for myself recently, and having not previously played the original, I had no idea what to expect. I would swiftly learn that Psychonauts is all about expecting the unexpected. In just a brief few hours, I'd seen so much unexpected that taking a break from the game almost felt like a comedown, and I mean that in the best possible way. Psychonauts 2 is shaping up very nicely, and I expect it to end up on many game of the year lists if the full game even comes close to as special as what I have experienced so far.
Psychonauts 2: A singularity of pure creativity
You're in a hospital that's also a casino. There are three giant, vomiting goat puppets with murderous intent and a rat that plays chess with startling skill. What do these three things have in common? They're among the most normal occurrences in Psychonauts 2.
As someone who didn't play the original and isn't too familiar with Double Fine's history, Psychonauts 2 is one of the few recent games that I can claim has shown me things I truly haven't seen before. The setting itself is a stroke of genius, giving Double Fine the opportunity to fully explore the limits of absurdity in combinations few games have been able to tread. Imagine if Inception was a Saturday morning kid's show, it might look a little something like Psychonauts 2.
Psychonauts 2 is a narrative-heavy game. I'd expected a pure platformer with collectibles for some reason, but Psychonauts 2 lays on character development and world-building with relentless density. Every NPC has something unique to say, often with deeper dialogue trees with even lore and information. Every line I experienced felt meticulously crafted, paying careful attention to each individual character's direction, with a side order of genuinely hilarious humor and double entendre.
Simply put, Psychonauts 2's script feels like the result of a massive Disney-Pixar budget. Indeed, Double Fine is a comparatively smaller team, but for Psychonauts 2, that intimacy seems to have created cohesion between the narrative and world design that bigger studios often seem to struggle with. Even the most absurdist LSD-inspired visions have a purpose in Psychonauts 2, as you learn more about the psyche of the characters that conjured them. Marrying the story with the dreamscapes of its world is absolutely critical to avoid coming off as random for the sake of it, and Double Fine delivers in a big, big way.
Psychonauts 2's structure is almost dizzying for those unfamiliar with the original. The game tosses you in right at the end of the first game, in a clear love letter to fans. Indeed, Psychonauts 2 began life as a crowd-funded project, and Double Fine spares no expense catering to those who backed the studio all these years. At the same time, Double Fine makes an effort to bring newbies up to speed, with an in-game summary of the previous entry, as well as a history terminal exploring the lore and backstory of the universe.
From the outset, you're exploring the inner workings of Dr. Caligosto Loboto's brain. Therein lies the core function of the Psychonauts, after all. As telepaths, you can explore the minds of targets to gain intel, creating dream-like worlds of seemingly incoherent visual metaphors and grotesque imaginings. Loboto is a dentist, and his mind is filled with gums, teeth, and all manner of dental detritus that'll have dentistphobes cringing. As Raz, you're hunting for intel on who ordered Loboto to kidnap the head of the Psychonauts, Truman Zanotto, following the events of the first game.
Without diving too deep into the story itself, you discover that there may be a spy within the Psychonauts, and that a mysterious cult known as the Deluginists are planning to use necromancy to revive a mass-murdering hydrokinetic telepath known as Maligula. Raz and his fellow Psychonaut interns resolve to discover the truth, which more often than not involves helping different Psychonauts discover personal inner truths.
Psychonauts 2: A layered, interactive world
Psychonauts 2 is an action platformer at its core, calling back to the golden age of Spyro, Banjo Kazooie, and, well, Psychonauts 1. Yet, crucially, it doesn't feel dated, up-leveling every aspect of the genre with heaps of interactivity, a relentless parade of fresh environments, and piles of narrative scenes.
Much like the camp in the first game, Psychonauts 2's main hub is the Psychonauts HQ, complete with several important facilities for any self-respecting psychic spy society. It has rooms for the young interns and offices for the various staff. It has a mailroom, of course. It also has a barbershop... and, a bowling alley? Perhaps Psychonauts HQ was inspired by Microsoft's campus.
From here, you'll launch into various missions that take place both in the real world and inside the minds of various characters, both friend and foe. The first stage takes you into the dental-dreams of Loboto, as noted. Another takes you into the doubt-ridden psychoscape of Psychonauts second-in-command Hollis, which has warped into the aforementioned hospital-casino. It's in here you'll do battle with Lady Lucktopus, who grew from the bad connections Raz made within Hollis' brain.
The original Psychonauts was somewhat ahead of its time, exploring themes of mental health and healing that are talked about more openly in the modern world. Psychonauts doesn't go as far to make commentary on serious psychological issues but touches upon the mental states based on current challenges the different characters might be experiencing, presented as physical entities within their mindscape levels.
Thought censors, which you'll remember from the first game, and doubts appear as actual enemies you can battle with a variety of tight psychic attacks. You'll have to solve puzzles by participating in the wild dreams and mingling with the subconscious demons of the game's characters. One level presents the fear of judgment and failure as a full-blown TV game show, tasking the player to cook various items on command by carrying them around a large obstacle course. It culminates in a truly bewildering boss battle against the TV show's judge panel, who vomit sludge across the arena while you feed them to death. It's incredible. It's absurd. It's Psychonauts. This game shows you things you'd only otherwise experience in a particularly sweaty fever-driven delirium.
Raz has a variety of psychic skills that help you traverse the environment, engage in combat, and in some cases, just explore the world. Clairvoyance lets you peer into the mindset of virtually every NPC in the game, giving you a glimpse of how they view Raz. You can use telekinesis to throw objects at enemies, but you can also use it to pet random critters you find out in the world.
Raz and the other NPCs also seem to have an endless supply of unique dialogue responses to various types of interactions, giving the world a sense of depth that is rare even among some of the bigger "AAA" studios. I admit, I went well out of bounds our preview build was supposed to allow us to access (sorry Microsoft). I spent literal hours just exploring the environment, interacting with the game's features, hunting down collectibles, and perusing the lore objects Double Fine injects to help Psychonewbies catch up.
With epic sights to see, an intriguing story with great writing and characters, and relentless, unbridled creativity, Psychonauts 2 is shaping up to be something truly special.
Psychonauts 2: A new pillar franchise for Xbox
If Psychonauts 2's full adventure comes close to what I experienced in the preview build, I'm confident to suggest Psychonauts 2 could end up nominated for various game of the year awards later this year. Stunning visuals, top-tier writing, a huge variety of gameplay events, set-piece boss fights, a rich and dense world, and a story I find myself truly enamored with make Psychonauts 2 one of my most hotly anticipated upcoming Xbox games for the near future.
The world Double Fine has crafted is as deep as it is vivid, offering newcomers and fans alike something truly new to experience. In a world where Monster Hunter and Cuphead are picking up Netflix shows, I can't help but feel like Psychonauts could be a prime candidate for moving outside of its video game roots, forming another pillar franchise for Microsoft to sit up there alongside Halo and Forza. It would also give Microsoft a family-friendly mascot the Xbox silhouette is lacking.
Even if I never played the full game, I can say the preview build alone has left a lasting impression on me. Psychonauts 2 is targeting an August 25, 2021 launch date, and I can't wait to find out how deep this psychological rabbit hole goes.
15 years in the making
Psychonauts 2 is almost upon us after a decade and a half of waiting. Join Raz and his friends as they battle to save the Psychonauts, and maybe even the entire world.
Get the Windows Central Newsletter
All the latest news, reviews, and guides for Windows and Xbox diehards.
Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!