With the release of Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart barely in the rearview mirror, it’s difficult to imagine a 3D platformer capable of pushing gameplay boundaries even further. Developer Double Fine’s long-awaited Psychonauts 2, however, manages to do just that.
A sequel to the wildly original 2005 cult hit, Psychonauts 2 once again follows Razputin “Raz” Aquato, a young boy with gifted psychic powers who runs away from the circus to join the titular psychic agency and fend off evil-doers. Though it’s been 16 years since we last saw Raz, writer and game director Tim Schafer does not skip a beat. Not only does the story pick up where the original left off — with Raz and his friends on a mission to rescue Psychonauts leader Truman Zanotto from the clutches of evil ex-dentist Dr. Loboto — but Schafer also effortlessly recaptures Raz’s personality and irresistible charm.
Like Rift Apart, this game largely succeeds due to its stellar technical quality and wit as well as its humorous yet touching storylines. What sets Psychonauts 2 apart, however, is Schafer’s ability to deftly deal with darker, more disturbing subjects without compromising on the light, heartwarming tone and overall messaging.
Experiencing the game through Raz’s perspective, players delve into the minds of other characters to quite literally sort their issues out. Abstract concepts, such as doubt and regret, are literalized into dangerous enemies that Raz must fend off in between collecting anthropomorphic pieces of emotional baggage or breaking open vaults of repressed memories.
Each brain Raz delves into has its own unique mental block to clear or deep-seated trauma to overcome, and each world’s puzzle is crafted with a distinctively captivating spirit, making for a gameplay experience that fearlessly refreshes itself before any element can get old. In one exceptional early stage, Raz must help a man overcome his fear of being judged by guiding him to victory in a high-pressure game show that takes place within his mind.
As with the original game, much of Psychonauts 2 deals directly with mental illness, which is portrayed with great depth and understanding. In a perfect synchrony of gameplay and narrative, as Raz solves platforming and combat puzzles in characters’ minds, players learn more about the characters. Soon, players begin to see former antagonists as rounded, complex individuals driven by relatable, if not particularly admirable motives.
While Rift Apart may still triumph in terms of pure technical detail, Psychonauts 2’s art style is not only far more eye-catching, but its stylized reality is more deeply in tune with its story’s larger themes. Full of vibrant hues and paradoxical, psychedelic imagery, Psychonauts 2 features some of the greatest level design in gaming history, evident both in the excellent mental stages — to which players feel compelled to return even after solving — and in the sprawling, gorgeous open world map that composes the game’s reality. That Psychonauts 2 can make Rift Apart feel dated in comparison is a testament to the strength of its strikingly imaginative platforming gameplay.
The exuberant art style extends to character design and animation as well. Raz’s complex emotions are perfectly conveyed through his heightened facial expressions and cartoon mannerisms. His character quirks become apparent in idle animations and subtle reactions to gameplay permutations, each of which show a laudable attention to detail in world and character building.
Psychonauts 2’s gameplay also benefits from the wild arsenal of psychic abilities it trains players to use. Players can use revamped classics from the first game, such as levitation to rapidly traverse mind-bending obstacle courses, telekinesis to fire bad ideas back at the enemies that generated them and pyrokinesis to burn away doubts. In addition, there are new powers that open strange gameplay possibilities. The first, Mental Connection, allows players to grapple between two unrelated thoughts in a character’s head, thereby potentially changing their opinions on subjects as gravely important as sandals with socks and human mortality.
In a time when many new releases are unnecessarily cynical, Psychonauts 2 is a rare gem — a technical masterpiece bolstered by humorous, warm storytelling that uses its narrative to promote positive discussions of mental health.
This review is based on the PC version of Psychonauts 2.