After 16 years and a troubled, lengthy development, Double Fine returns to the world of Psychonauts with a full length title; continuing the story of 10-year-old-psychic-boy-wonder Razputin Aquato. Shameless in its identity as a mid-2000s era action-adventure 3D platformer, the game is a confident and polished expression from the studio that has famously favored doing something new over doing something well. Taking place just a couple of days after the events of the first game, “Psychonauts 2” represents how writer Tim Schafer and the Double Fine team have grown in the past decade and a half. Where the first game is a clever representation of a world driven by the logic of children, the sequel applies that perspective to a setting dominated by adults.
Raz, the pre-teen camper turned member of the Psychonauts intern program, enters a grown-up society where he is mired in bureaucracy and politics; tasked to take on literal representations of anxiety, regret, alcoholism and more. The game does not pretend that a 10 year old boy can solve these issues single-handedly, but rather meditates on the values of listening, forgiving and offering validation to people in distress. If the first “Psychonauts” is about surviving the nightmares of your childhood peers, the sequel is about being an interdimensional therapist for adults dealing with loss and dwelling on failure. The initial premise of a spy-thriller conspiracy and the world hanging in the balance gives way to a tender narrative about love and acceptance.
There is a habit when discussing media that contends with mental health issues to use exaggerated gravitas to overstate the importance of the material. The strength of “Psychonauts 2” is that it does not condescend to the player with its tone. It is always positive and lighthearted, adamant that self-reflection and growth can be fun, even if it’s equally harrowing. The themes at play never feel lost in abstract settings like a hospital that is also a casino – complete with a babymaking roulette wheel – or a city populated by oversized germs – which is also bowling alley themed. Subjects that are tip-toed around in everyday life are celebrated with bombast and confidence, while maintaining their nuance and respect.
Mechanically, “Psychonauts 2” has not grown past its predecessor, but rather, it has aged with it. Combat takes notes from giants like “Doom Eternal” but keeps them entombed to Playstation 2 era constraints, resulting in clumsy menu navigation during hectic moments. Platforming is more “Bubsy 3D” than “Super Mario Odyssey” and players hoping to explore the level’s hidden crevices will have to rely on trial and error to deduce which aspects of the terrain are pathable.
“Psychonauts 2” replaces the campers of the first game with a group of teens who show up at various story beats and populate the overworld. While they aren’t weak characters, they feel only loosely integrated into the plot and their arcs are of secondary interest.
Despite these shortcomings, “Psychonauts 2” astounds with breathtaking setpieces, genuinely emotional moments and a carefully constructed narrative that is engrossing from the first minute to the last.
Long time fans of Tim Schafer’s work will find him for the first time unconstrained by time or budget and finally permitted to tell a story of grandiose scope and ambition. Everyone and everything is brimming with personality. The doddering old man living in a glass bubble has personality, his pet rat has personality, even the talking fruit in his head has personality.
“Psychonauts 2” was released on August 25th, 2021 for Playstation 4, XBOX One and XBOX Series consoles, and PC via Steam and GamePass. While it does not surpass its predecessor, it does live up to its legacy and is one of the most interesting titles of the year so far.