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Psychonauts 2 shines with its empathetic characters and mental health message | Review

Trippy, empathetic, and unnatural are few ways to describe Psychonauts 2, the long-awaited follow-up to Double Fine’s series. The sequel to the cult 3D platformer has been gestating for many years. For studio head Tim Schafer and his team, Psychonauts 2 offers the chance for fans to gain the proper continuation of the story that first began 16 years ago.

For a lot of contemporary 3D platformers, the intricate balance of nostalgia and modern conventions gets in the way of gameplay and level design. Double Fine has struck a good balance by ensuring Psychonauts 2 feels very much in line with its predecessor, while also adopting modern sensibilities. Each level is thoughtful in its design and feels unique. The game has that recognizable and brilliant design philosophy that only Double Fine can bring.

Psychonauts 2 comes with a little baggage from the world-building and stories of the original and 2017’s VR game Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. However, if you’re a newcomer and you fully commit, you’ll become enamored with Razputin Aquato and his infectious look at life. For eager fans ready to return to the world of the Psychonauts, Double Fine expands the universe while also making sure the characters you care about receive their moment in the spotlight.

After experiencing what Psychonauts 2 has to offer, I’m not confident that it will break the series out of its niche, but it does make it more accessible. Double Fine’s approach to the weird and wacky continues to shine. But make no mistake, Psychonauts 2 has a lot to say on matters of mental health and the human condition.

Welcome to Psychonauts HQ

Psychonauts 2 picks up moments after Rhombus of Ruin. Raz, Sasha Nein, and Milla Vodello have successfully recovered Truman Zanotto from the hands of crazed ex-dentist Dr. Loboto. As the group head to the Motherlobe, Psychonauts HQ, it’s determined that someone much more sinister must have helped Loboto kidnap the head of the Psychonauts.

Image credit: Double Fine Productions

This is the first time both the player and Raz are given a real look at the operations of the Psychonauts. Being inducted into the intern program, Raz meets Hollis Forsythe, who took over for Zanotto during his disappearance. It isn’t long until Raz is thrust into discovering who the puppet master is, and embarks on a mission to save the day once more.

This is all Raz has ever wanted. This plucky character wants to belong and he finally has a chance to prove himself to the newly established cast of characters. You can’t help but root for him in every moment. Richard Horvitz once again voices the character and brings so much charm to him.

Image credit: Double Fine Productions

There is a learning curve, while also the task of becoming acclimated to the game’s unusual world. Many concepts and terms are frontloaded onto the player at this stage. This extends to the menus, which can be a little cumbersome initially. For someone like me who hasn’t invested time into this universe since 2005, it was offputting at first.

Over time, I became way more comfortable with what was unraveling before me. A certain amount of dedication is required to get your bearings, but it’s all worth it in the end.

The mind is a powerful thing

A  lot of Psychonauts 2 takes place in various Mindscapes, worlds made up of a character’s consciousness. We as the player are invited to investigate a deluge of different environments. Each Mindscape is unique in its concept and design. Psychonauts 2 maintains the original’s Tim Burton-inspired look with geological and colorful patterns.

Image credit: Double Fine Productions

Upon entering a Mindscape, I was always eager to see what came next. Whether it was conceptualized as a casino or a 70’s Woodstock acid trip, I wanted to see more. It was a blast solving to get a band back together to perform in the Woodstock-inspired level. Hearing Jack Black’s voice in a cameo role was novel and his character served as a good companion. Though, there was sometimes an odd pacing issue, as the wonder faded after close to an hour in the same Mindscape.

As Raz ventures between Mindscapes solving puzzles and finding collectibles, you’ll also come across many battles. Each enemy is inspired by a literal representation of something from the mind. Censors are returning enemies, with their censoring stamp. Enablers, Doubts, and Judges are all common enemies Raz will fight.

Combat in Psychonauts 2 is exceptionally tight. Each Psi-Power Raz possesses has unique purposes in combat. Pyrokinesis can create an area of effect while PSI Blast is more of a ranged attack. Double Fine incorporates new ones, such as Mental Connection, which serves for traversal as well as for combat.

Image credit: Double Fine Productions

My one nitpick: I wish there was a cleaner way of swapping Psy-Powers, as Raz can only assign four powers at a time. Double Fine has committed to making each power an asset. Being able to swap powers without losing momentum would have added to the combat experience.

Reflecting on the human condition

Each of Psychonauts 2’s Mindscapes tackles a different aspect of mental health and the human condition. Some can be taken more literally, while others snuck up on me and required an introspective analysis. For instance, Hollis’ casino Mindscape can be interpreted as a playground for gambling addiction and the demons that come along with it.

In Compton’s Cookout, another Mindscape level, Raz competes in a cooking game show. Although the messaging is perhaps much more shrouded, I couldn’t help but see it as a magnifying glass on self-judgment and being your own harshest critic.

Image credit: Double Fine Productions

These are just mild examples of what you come across throughout Psychonauts 2. The game broaches other meaningful topics like anxiety, PTSD, depression, and alcoholism. It’s all delivered in a  lighthearted way but that never took away from the game’s poignancy. As someone who often faces anxiety, I felt that Psychonauts 2 illustrated those feelings in a powerful way.

Of course, a game that tackles such issues may not be for everyone. Some moments in the game could be triggering regardless of the tone they’re delivered in, though it’s important to note that none of it comes across as insensitive. It’s all a thoughtful part of the game’s universe, and the commentary Double Fine delivers is a good stepping stone to the ongoing effort to destigmatize mental illness.

The messages behind Psychonauts 2 are strengthened by Raz and his journey. He’s an enormously empathetic character who only wants to help and heal those around him. While navigating each Mindscape, Raz is never judgemental. Even by the time credits roll, it’s hard for me to say there’s an archetypal villain in the game because of how Raz perceives their actions and motivations.

Coming full circle

The original Psychonauts was the very first game developed by the Double Fine team. Now, 16 years later and following an acquisition from Microsoft, Psychonauts 2 is ready to be served. It has to be a bitter-sweet moment for the studio, who at one point felt that crowdfunding the game of Fig was the right approach to making it a reality.

Image credit: Double Fine Productions

Psychonauts 2 almost feels like the next major leg of Double Fine’s journey. While playing, I often felt as though I could see the direct results of the acquisition. The game is broader in scope than a lot of previous games. Although it’s not necessarily more ambitious, there’s a surprising amount of content.

Additionally, when playing on Xbox Series X, the 4K 60FPS was such a nice touch to the game. Graphically, it may not be an eye-popping visual feast, nor should it. Double Fine excels at its style and it never relied on realism. That works on so many levels for the imagery within Psychonauts 2. The game can wow you with its colorful surroundings or haunt you with some uncomfortable depictions. Either way, I found myself consistently using the Otto-Shot camera for its Photo Mode.

Final thoughts

Psychonauts 2 won’t be for everyone and I think that’s okay. Fans who have been following the series since its 2005 inception will be treated to satisfying payoffs that have been in the works for ages. For new players, Psychonauts 2 does its best to lower the barrier of entry. It does take some time, but if you commit to seeing it through, you’ll be satisfied by what you’ll find.

Psychonauts 2 marks a big moment for the studio. Whether or not the series continues imminently or is put on ice once again, Double Fine have made a statement and delivered on its promise.

Beyond its modern 3D platforming and tight combat, Psychonauts 2 excels in its artistry and commentary. You won’t find another game of consequence that commits to an abstract visual design as much as Double Fine. It may not be the most stunning, but there are motifs that will stick with you long after you put down the controller. Without fail Psychonauts 2’s greatest strengths are Raz and the introspective look at this human condition. There’s a lot to take away from the game’s message, and the way it resonates with you may surprise you.

Psychonauts 2 will be available on Linux, Mac, PC, PlayStation 4,  PlayStation5 (via backwards compatibility) Xbox One, and Xbox Series X on Aug 25.

A copy of Psychonauts 2 was provided by Xbox Canada and Double Fine for review purposes. 

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Steve Vegvari

Steve is based in Toronto, Ontario. His adoration for everything gaming began very early on in the SNES-era. He’s gone on to write honest content around the web. While not writing about games, Steve is often looking for the next big narrative-driven title. Something with an impactful story, regardless of genre or platform. Bonus points if it has an appealing achievement/trophy list!
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