In April 2005, then-new game developer Double Fine Productions unleashed their first brainchild onto the world — Psychonauts. This platformer told the story of Razputin Aquato, a young runaway acrobat who dreams of joining an organization of psychic secret agents, the titular Psychonauts. It was in many ways ahead of its time with imaginative 3D level design, clever writing, interesting characters, and polished gameplay — with a thoughtful message about mental health — a topic which was rarely discussed so openly back then. What's more, Psychonauts still holds up today.
For over a decade and a half, fans have wished for a sequel to this cult classic, and now their wish has been granted. Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign, and the good graces of Microsoft's backing, Psychonauts 2 has finally been released for the Xbox Series X, Series S, and Windows PC, as part of Xbox Game Pass.
As someone who's only recently become a fan of the first game, I was excited to play Psychonauts 2 and see what new mind-bending adventures were in store for Raz. With over 15 years of expectations to fulfill, does Psychonauts 2 have the mental fortitude to succeed? Well, let's pick the game's brains and find out.
Bottom line: Psychonauts 2 is a wonderful, masterfully crafted platformer exploring complex themes while providing tons of fun gameplay. It retains the movie-quality writing, thoughtful character development, and artistic expression of the original Psychonauts while refining the platforming and combat systems.
- Engaging story that explores themes of mental health.
- Endearing characters.
- The art direction and level design is some of the best in recent times.
- Tight platforming controls and gameplay.
- Vastly improved combat system.
- Dodging can be finicky during the chaotic later levels.
- The map doesn't display your current location making navigation needlessly tough.
Psychonauts 2: Presentation
|Developer||Double Fine Productions|
|Publisher||Xbox Game Studios|
|Xbox Game Pass||Yes|
If there is one defining aspect of Double Fine Productions' games, it's their presentation. The art direction of their games has always been a unique feast for the eyes, even if they were held back by a low budget and limited tech. Psychonauts 2, however, is perhaps the first time that the developers have been able to really push the art of their craft, exploring the scale of their creativity with a beefier budget, and they spared no expense using it.
The stylized character designs of Psychonauts 1 make a return, and they have been given an HD makeover. Seeing these bizarre and yet appealing cartoon characters animate with such rich graphical fidelity was really fun to watch. At times I felt I was watching a big-budget Pixar or DreamWorks movie, given how expressive and detailed the character designs are.
But Double Fine Production's knack for visual creativity really shines when you telepathically tap into a person's mind. The devs go to town on showcasing the inner workings of a person's psyche using all sorts of surreal metaphorical imagery, music cues, and even gameplay mechanics, creating rich dreamscapes that defy the imagination.
On the first level, I was platforming through the twisted mind of a dentist where the walls of a normal office mutated into masses of teeth and gums. And the next level, I was spelunking through the mind of a gambling addict whose memories of a hospital have been warped into a paradoxical casino/hospital hybrid. Those are just the first two levels, and I dare not describe the rest of Psychonauts 2's levels because I don't want to spoil the surprises — they have to be seen to be believed.
The segments where you are exploring the real world are just as impressive. With bright colors, meticulous attention to detail, and memorable landmarks that give the impression that you have entered a futuristic world where psychic powers are the norm.
The audio presentation is also top notch, with superb performances of the voice cast bringing the characters' personalities to life. Psychonauts fans will be pleased to know that the entire voice cast of the original game has returned to reprise their roles and they sound just good as they did back in 2005. The game also features an eclectic soundtrack containing multiple genres of music to compliment the setting of the levels, complete with remixes of Psychonauts 1's soundtrack to tickle a fan's nostalgic funny bones.
The cherry on top of this visual psychic sundae is that Psychonauts 2 runs flawlessly at 60 FPS with HDR and 4K resolution support thanks to the power of the Xbox Series X. It's no slouch on the Xbox Series S either, outputting the same frame rate albeit at a reduced resolution. Double Fine leverages ray-tracing and HDR effortlessly to elevate the game's presentation, adding an extra dimension for players with new-gen hardware. For every sense, Psychonauts 2 is absolutely gorgeous. Although, I'm glad that you can't smell some of the levels.
Psychonauts 2: Story
The story picks up literally moments after the first game, just a day after Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. If you're entirely new to Psychonauts, the game starts with a video recapping all the events that led to Psychonauts 2 to get you caught up.
After helping the Psychonauts rescue their leader, Truman Zanotto, who was kidnapped by Dr. Loboto, Raz is taken to the Psychonauts HQ, the Motherlobe. Raz's dream of finally becoming an official Psychonaut get summarily stalled when the acting CEO, Hollis Forsythe, appoints him to be an intern, not a full agent. Not only that, but Raz also has to contend with other psychic interns looking to become Psychonauts, and these teens are more mean-spirited than the kids back at Whispering Rocks Summer Camp.
But high-school hijinks will have to wait. The Psychonauts deduce that a mole is hiding amongst their organization, feeding information to a dangerous cult called the Deluginists. These cultists are trying to resurrect Maligula, a powerful, murderous, evil psychic who took the combined might of the best Psychonaut agents to defeat. And on top of all that, Truman has been unconscious ever since his kidnapping. Suffice to say, Raz has got a lot to deal with on his first day on the job, but he's going to give it everything he's got.
Psychonauts 2's story retains the movie-quality writing, insightful character development, witty dialogue, and intriguing world-building the first game delivered, albeit elevated to new heights. Trying to piece together the clues to identify the mole and seeing Raz learning what it truly means to be a Psychonaut had me hooked throughout the main storyline.
Conversing with the interns and Psychonauts of the Motherlobe was also engaging. The various characters always have something new and insightful to say after every mission, giving the game's world and characters added depth. Conversations with the various veteran Psychonauts agents will offer a deeper appreciation for the game's world and characters, while also throwing in witty banter and comedic moments that delight at every turn.
The most elegant aspects of the story, once again, tackle themes about mental health and healing. Without going into spoilers, many of the characters you connect with telepathically are blighted with various mental hang-ups and trauma, complete with tons of emotional baggage (and not the cute, collectible kinds, scattered through various levels).
Psychonauts keeps it light-hearted in this regard, but each mindscape tells poignant stories that showcase events that shaped their lives in different ways. One level whose story I relate to personally in particular to is the fear of failure, and constantly being judged by peers and friends. If, like me, you see yourself in some of these emotional sequences, you may end up feeling a little healed too. More than once, Psychonauts 2 treated me to chills, and even occasional tears.
Naturally, the plight of the game's characters will motivate your empathy, driving you forward. Helping these unfortunate souls make peace with their inner demons so they can move on forms some of the game's main obstacles. With troubled histories confronted, seeing the spark of happiness return to burdened characters made me feel happy and rewarded in ways that few other stories have been able to.
Psychonauts 2: Gameplay
The gameplay structure is similar to most 3D platformers. The main hub world is the Motherlobe HQ, and serves as a primary location for downtime, conversing with NPCs, and discovering your next major mission. There are also a few optional side missions to complete in the hubworld, which reward you with Psitanium (the currency of this game) and cosmetics.
Once you find a fresh mind to delve into, you will have to utilize your psychic powers and acrobat skills to explore the level. The levels are generally linear with hidden detours, which house collectibles to upgrade your abilities and health, Psitanium currency to buy items, and memory vaults that contain snippets of backstory. Often, there may be items beyond your reach, requiring Metroidvania-style revisits to access, after obtaining new abilities.
The platforming was one of Psychonauts 1's biggest strengths, and the same goes for Psychonauts 2. Jumping and dodging traps, and searching every nook and cranny for collectibles is really rewarding, mainly thanks to the tight and responsive controls. I had to force myself to stop collectible hunting after realizing I'd lost track of time, and that the sun would soon be rising.
My only complaint with the platforming is that it would have been nice if my map displayed my current location during the hubworld sections. I understand it's meant to emulate a tourist guide map, but when looking for the most elusive collectibles, it can get slightly confusing remembering places I have and haven't been to yet. However, the level design is so good that with enough time, players with a greater sense of direction than me will likely be able to memorize every landmark and know exactly where to look for the collectibles.
Poking around inside a person's noggin is never a walk in the park. You'll do battle with each mind's natural defenses and personal demons.
These include thought "Censors." These common enemy types rush around in suits with a large stamp, ideal for squashing unwanted thoughts — such as Raz. Other enemies include "Bad Ideas," which throw defective lightbulbs that explode upon impact, and "Doubts," which weigh down the player with toxic sludge. Various other painful personifications await our intrepid intern, complete with setpiece boss battles.
Each level culminates in a boss event, which are gigantic monstrous manifestations of each mindscape's biggest mental grievances. These visually stunning, action-packed events put all the skills you have learned so far to the test. I never thought I would be fighting a giant croupier octopus washed in gaudy Las Vegas-style casino neon, but that's Psychonauts for you.
Combat was admittedly the original's weakest aspect — the controls were stiff and clunky, possibly made worse by the hulking OG Xbox Duke controller. Thankfully, Psychonauts 2 has made an effort to improve the combat considerably. Using your psychic powers during combat is now far more intuitive and responsive, and you can use multiple powers simultaneously.
Blasting away bad thoughts with a mixture of mind bullets and pyrokinesis is immensely satisfying. You can even augment your psychic powers by equipping pins bought at shops to optimize the damage output of your favorite powers, tailoring your playstyle. For example, I equipped pins to upgrade my pyrokinesis to burn enemies for much longer and cause "Doubts" to explode when they get burnt.
The biggest flaw with the combat system, and probably my only major complaint about the game, is animation locking. Unlike the first game, you can perform a dodge roll to avoid enemy attacks. It works as intended for the most part, but you can't dodge roll when in the middle of a melee attack combo. You have to wait a couple of seconds after the entire animation plays out before you can do it again. It's not an issue during the first half of the game, but during the second half, where large groups of enemies of varying types come into play, the chaos and randomness make it annoying. Not being able to dodge when I need to feels like you're being punished for using melee combat proactively.
Generally, Psychonauts 2's isn't too punishing thanks to this game's best quality of life improvement. The archaic lives system of the original Psychonauts is gone, meaning if you run out of health, you'll just be sent back to a previous checkpoint to try again instead of the entire level. Also, if you take the time to level up your abilities and buy enough health items, you will quickly vaporize any enemy and have plenty of health to spare. Additionally, a bevy of accessibility features can further help you fine-tune your experience, including your preferred difficulty level.
Overall, Psychonauts 2 was an exciting and heart-warming mind trip of a game. The story and characters were compelling, the platforming and combat system is a massive improvement on the original, and the art design is some of the best in modern gaming.
In my opinion, Psychonauts 2 is one of the best Xbox games I've played so far, particularly in the new gen. And it's quite easily one of the best games on Xbox Game Pass, becoming a hallmark advertisement for the ballooning service.
If you're a fan of the original Psychonauts who has been waiting for over 15 years, then your patience has been well rewarded. And if you're a newcomer, you will be in for an experience you won't soon forget.
Confront inner demons
Bottom line: Psychonauts 2 is a fantastic love letter to fans of the original Psychonauts and 3D platformers. If you're in the mood for a game that offers tons of laughs, thought-provoking storytelling, striking visuals, and fun gameplay, look no further than Psychonauts 2.
This review was conducted primarily on Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, using a code provided by Microsoft.
Alexander Cope is a writer for Windows Central and iMore that has been gaming since the 16-bit era.
The game is a joy to look at. Plays lovely. Not my type of game, and the controls sometimes were finiky, but a joy to look at
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