Over 16 years have passed between Psychonauts games, but not much time has passed for protagonist Razputin “Raz” Aquato. His scratchy, high-pitched voice still screams with youthful inexperience, and his actions almost always show eagerness to learn.
That’s exactly what developer Double Fine Productions has done over the years. Time has allowed this art house studio to hone its platform craft, hone its already hilarious wit, and create a sequel that shows the tremendous complexity of the human brain and the thrill of discovering its wonders. Psychonauts 2 invites players to explore colorful dreamscapes that merge into dangerous nightmares, and quickly makes you think that almost every twist will lead to something unexpected and strange.
With the summer camp behind him, Raz is now a talented intern with the Psychonauts, a psychological espionage organization of super beings who have to deal with a mole in their ranks. Raz wants to help solve this puzzle, but his impulsiveness gets him into trouble early on and he has to quickly undo his mistakes. The story rushes out of the gate with silly tension and never slows down thanks to clever jokes and a wonderfully executed cast of characters. Their banter is fantastic and usually offers deep insights into their motivations and personalities, especially when Raz is diving through their heads. Some thoughts are troubling and preoccupied with serious mental health problems, but Double Fine is careful with them, and often frames them artistically.
Many of the dream landscapes that Raz explores are likely to evoke an audible “wow” thanks to their visualization and dynamic compositions. Colorful, loud, craggy and almost always with a claymation-like aesthetic, these worlds shine with their creativity and are at the same time excellent playgrounds for the platforming experience.
While there is no shortage of animated story sequences to watch, Psychonauts 2 is a platformer at heart. Raz, who happens to be the son of acrobatic parents, follows in their footsteps with a little more grace and skill. Its bounce and controls that bring it to life have been improved, but it still doesn’t move with the precision and fluidity of Mario. A little uncertainty and guesswork come with estimating jump distances and grab points. However, no platform sequence is ever as unfairly challenging as the deadly Meat Circus level of the first game. Psychonauts 2 offers solid platform fun throughout, and encourages players to step off the beaten path to find secret collectibles and upgrades galore. The nicest collectibles to grab are the figments, two-dimensional works of art that are scattered across the levels and often lead the player to ignore caution.
Raz’s newfound acrobatic status also transitions into combat, where dodging and making space are paramount. This distance is important as he doesn’t have to beat every enemy he encounters and can now use a wide range of psychic powers to achieve victory from a distance. He can set them on fire, puncture them with psi-blasts full of holes, or use other skills to bring the censors and other enemies to their knees. Combat has been vastly improved over the original game, but is used sparingly, mostly in brief arena-like conflicts or against bosses.
However, platforming is not the only thing in the spotlight. Even these sequences often seem cut off, considering how often Double Fine transitions to different gameplay sequences or story moments. The flow works because it throws the player off balance and isn’t sure what might happen next. In one moment I was chopping up an adorable bacon figure to fry and feed to a goat doll, and in another moment I was unsteadily balancing on a giant bowling ball. Most of the gameplay sequences are enjoyable and blend well with the platform action. The constant switching of game types creates a problem as the player has to pause frequently to assign certain skills to the action buttons. Some of the powers are pretty awesome; One even brings a completely different version of Raz into play.
Psychonauts 2 is mostly about Raz’s psychological development, but also has an intense focus on the life of Ford Cruller, a character who appeared in the first game and is reborn in really fascinating ways. For spoiler reasons, I won’t go too deeply into Ford’s involvement, but the payouts are satisfactory (and shocking), and the worlds he introduces to Raz are alarming in the best possible way for a gaming experience.
I loved almost every second of Psychonauts 2. It accomplishes something that I don’t see often in games – a continuous sense of awe as each of its worlds unfold. It took 16 years to get released, but Double Fine delivered an incredible sequel. I hope we get a third part that doesn’t take nearly as long to create.