Psychonauts 2 Review: Empathy and Creativity Go Hand in Hand
RRP $ 60.00
“Sensitive storytelling and stunning level design make Psychonauts 2 a worthy continuation of one of the great cult classics of the gaming industry.”
Excellent level design
Narrative motivated platforming
Having fun optimizing skills
Complicated skill juggling
Playing Psychonauts 2 feels like rediscovering a long-lost memory. For those who grew up in the era of mascot-controlled 3D platformer, it’s a familiar return to a time when gaming was about collecting hundreds of items and Nickelodeon was king. It’s a little emotional time travel for those who want to reconnect with their childhood.
There’s a good reason why it feels so nostalgic: Psychonauts 2 has been in the works for a long time. The Double Fine team began developing ideas for sequels during the development of the first Psychonauts game, which was released back in 2005. Several publishers reportedly turned down the idea over the years, which eventually led Double Fine to launch a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2015 to bring it to life. While games have evolved quite a bit since the PlayStation 2 era, fans just weren’t ready to let go of the past. This can be unhealthy behavior in some contexts, but here it is positive.
Psychonauts 2 cleverly comments on mental health issues through an inventive platformer who is always sincere and empathetic. It can feel bloated from 16 years of creative brainstorming, but it’s hard not to be charmed by a game that acts as a cheerleader for players of all ages.
Like its predecessor, Psychonauts 2 stars Raz, a 10-year-old circus performer who has become a clairvoyant and can jump into any mind. The sequel picks up right where Psychonauts (and VR spin-off Rhombus of Ruin) left off, starting with a thorough “before on” segment that runs through every plot beat that you might have forgotten since 2005 Has.
It’s a helpful way to start the adventure because there’s a lot to consider in Psychonauts 2. Raz is now an intern with a respected group of clairvoyants – the Psychonauts – and must help track down a mole in the organization that aims to revive the murderous clairvoyant Maligula. This spy movie setup fits the series perfectly, guiding players through mind-boggling levels where unreliable narrators twist the truth. It’s a kid-friendly inception.
It’s a bit weird that we get such a comprehensive story here because Psychonauts 2 really excels at telling smaller, more intimate stories.
A lot more happens, including a deep dive into the political inner workings of Grulovia, a fictional country in the game. We learn a great deal about Raz’s family in an interlude that stops the momentum of the main story for a few hours. There’s also a whole cast of young interns who just disappear for most of the game and re-integrate into the narrative as if they’d been there all along.
When you consider how long Double Fine has been buzzing around with ideas for the game, it feels like maybe too many were put into the final project. It feels like three games full of history rolled into one, because who knows how long it will be until the third part?
It’s a bit weird that we get such a comprehensive story here because Psychonauts 2 really excels at telling smaller, more intimate stories. Every time Raz comes to someone’s mind, we get a little self-contained arc that carries emotional depth. One level contains a moving love story in which Raz has to help a character overcome the mental blocks holding him back in his relationship (all visualized by Raz finding seeds to help a farmer regrow a withered garden). These are the stories that ultimately help the game accomplish its true mission: to help us better understand each other’s struggles and encourage each other to grow, no matter how hopeless we feel.
In the head
These little stories come to life thanks to imaginative level design that visualizes abstract concepts in a creative way. In an early sequence, Raz tries to convince his teacher Hollis to let him go on more dangerous missions by rewiring her brain. The level starts in a hospital and represents both Hollis’ past as a doctor and her fear of endangering her students. As Raz rewrites her thoughts, the level turns into a casino as Hollis is suddenly ready to take high risks. An area of the platform that was previously centered around X-rays suddenly changes when Raz hops onto playing cards instead.
Nothing in Psychonauts 2 feels like busy work or content for content’s sake; everything is narrative motivated.
Each level is loaded with these kinds of ideas that narrative justify any new platform mechanic. One section sends Raz into the head of a germaphobe who runs a bowling alley. As a result, players will have to ride around on giant bowling balls, glide over piles of green slime, and use ball polishers to activate new paths (or lanes, so to speak). Another section turns the fear of gigs into a cooking game show in which Raz has to chop up sentient foods and place them on a platter for loud-mouthed judges. Even if a level doesn’t quite match what it does, it’s always surprising and fun to see how each spirit palace is set up.
Platforming is standard for the genre, which makes creative visual design even more important. Raz can drag rails, hop on ropes, swing from branch to branch and so on. Various PSI powers add some extra mechanics to the mix that make Raz freeze time or burn wooden objects, but the experience is largely unchanged from 2005. Instead, Double Fine is doubling the construction of more elaborate playgrounds for Raz. It’s a series of therapeutic amusement park rides (literally in one case).
Nothing in Psychonauts 2 feels like busy work or content for content’s sake; everything is narrative motivated. Even collectibles serve a larger purpose. As in the first game, inventions instead of target markers indicate where to go next. Safes can be cracked to get a little slideshow of a character’s backstory. And of course the players can track down emotional baggage again, which is still the best sight gag of the series.
The game doesn’t reinvent the genre because it doesn’t have to. It recognizes that even if the gathering-a-thon platformer is currently out of style, these ideas can help tell a meaningful story. Just as Psychonauts 2 tells players that anyone can grow, it believes that video games can always reach new heights without giving up their story.
The fighting side of Psychonauts 2 has its own clever twists and turns. Every enemy is a manifestation of psychological suffering. Panic attacks, for example, appear as unpredictable monsters that need to be slowed down to better deal with them. It’s always fun to see a new state emerge and how it has been translated into a physical creature.
Raz can do basic punches and dodge throws, both of which feel a little too ineffective, but PSI powers make battles more interesting. The game gives the players different powers that have a function both in and outside of combat. Through mental connections, players can reach small nodes of thought, but they can also attach themselves to an enemy and drag them into it. In many battles, I have made full use of my toolkit instead of sticking to a basic attack loop.
Psychonauts 2 might not be perfect, but it’s always on the lookout for its players. Empathy isn’t just a narrative topic; it is at the heart of game design.
The skills develop over the course of the game, which gives each individual new usefulness. Every time Raz ranks up by collecting various items, he’ll earn a skill point that can unlock a handful of upgrades for each power. Players can also purchase and equip Pins that will further improve their skills. Each tool has surprisingly great potential, giving players a good reason to engage with the “Earn and Rank” loop.
Switching between powers, however, can be painful. Skills are assigned to the triggers and bumpers of a controller so that four can be active at the same time. They can be swapped and reassigned on the fly using a skill wheel, but it can be difficult to navigate in the middle of a battle. I often found that a swap didn’t last, which forced me to go back to the menu to try again. Skill juggling can be a little confusing overall, and I wish a few powers, like a floating ball that is essential for navigation, stayed permanently assigned to a button.
Those who find these battles frustrating can activate “narrative battles” and reduce the enemy’s health. This kind of considerate design shows up in the very first moments of the game, when a splash screen with links to helpful resources encourages players who might be struggling with the game’s mental health issues to take a break. Psychonauts 2 might not be perfect, but it’s always on the lookout for its players. Empathy isn’t just a narrative topic; it is at the heart of game design.
Psychonauts 2 is a cute platform game that wants only the best for its characters and players alike. By visualizing mental health issues through creative level design, Double Fine is able to tell a series of clever stories where gameplay and narration go hand in hand. It has a few personal flaws in its fiddly fight and over-zeal story, but if Psychonauts 2 teaches us anything, it’s that we aren’t defined by our problems.
Is there a better alternative?
It Takes Two takes a similar approach to merging narrative and gameplay, with a more streamlined gameplay. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart offers a better fight that can be combined with its platform spectacle.
How long it will take?
It will take around 10 to 15 hours, depending on how much you collect. A lot of time can be spent snapping up every collectible and reaching the maximum rank after the credit roll.
Should you buy it?
Yes sir. Psychonauts 2 is a friendly platformer for gamers of all ages and those familiar with the series. It’s also available in Xbox Game Pass, which is a big plus.
Psychonauts 2 was verified using an Xbox Series X code provided by Microsoft.