The human mind is a tricky thing. What one person thinks and believes to be normal and natural might be absolutely batshit insane to somebody else. Being able to see things from somebody else’s perspective is often difficult to achieve in the real world. In Psychonauts 2, you actively step foot inside somebody else’s mind and literally get to see the world through their eyes. It’s a neat trick and it makes for some great gameplay fodder, but the exploration of thoughts and feelings in Psychonauts 2 goes beyond window dressing.
On booting up the game a message from the developers explains that Psychonauts 2 deals with mental health issues, confronting material and dental imagery. This trigger warning is important as not everyone is going to view the light-hearted Muppets meets Burton tomfoolery as such.
Developer Double Fine is aware enough to understand some players have the potential to be genuinely affected by the depictions in the game. Much like the notion that each person forms their own unique worldview, players are going to experience and digest Psychonauts 2 differently from one another based on innumerable factors. It’s an important distinction to make and an equally important subject to broach. Experience matters and each person’s lived experience is as valid as the next, it’s how those experiences shape their behaviour that defines who they are.
In Psychonauts 2 this becomes even more important as Raz attempts to solve a mystery, save the world and figure out his place in it all at the same time. Easy, right?
Psychonauts 2 Preview
Set mere moments after the finale of VR midquel Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, Psychonauts 2 treats players to a detailed “Previously on…” animation which helps get them up to speed or refresh their memory. Given it’s been 16 years since the original launched and four years since Rhombus of Ruin, it’s very much required to ensure players are caught up. With the history lesson out of the way, players dive head-first into their very first mind; Dr Cagliosto Loboto.
Starring as the primary antagonist of Rhombus of Ruin, Loboto is the key to the Psychonauts why he kidnapped Truman Zanotto. Fans of the series will recognise these events as having taken place at the end of Psychonauts and as the focus of Rhombus of Ruin. Loboto’s Labirtynth, as this first mind/world is known is a bizarre combination of office space, dental surgery and oral biology. While the Psychonauts frantically pursue Loboto through his own demented and rapidly crumbling mind, Raz is able to learn (or re-learn) some of his abilities and the nature of being a member of the Psychonauts team.
Early on during Loboto’s Labirynth, Psychonauts 2 begins to introduce other mechanics and features including enemies, combat, platforming and collectibles.
Raz begins with access to telekinesis, levitation, pyrokinesis and TK Blasts. These abilities are used for traversal, puzzle-solving and combat to varying degrees though each of them has multiple functions. For example, Raz can use his giant Telekinesis hand to pick up objects and move them around or he can steal weapons from enemies and hurl them back in their face. As I progressed through the preview content, I gained access to a few other abilities which started to make playing the game, somewhat cumbersome.
Four abilities can be assigned at one time, each being mapped to the shoulder button of the player’s choice. After Raz has access to five or more abilities, I found myself spending more time than I’d like in the ability menu, switching them out and changing as I went. By no means does it ultimately ruin the experience but it becomes frustrating at times to realise you need a specific power and need to figure out which other power you’ll do without for a time. If the powers had have been mapped to a shoulder button and a face button combination, this tedious menu hot-swapping could have been avoided. It’s a minor irritant, but an irritant nonetheless.
As Raz levels up he’s able to improve his abilities, augment them and increase his power. Later levels in the preview content showed vastly improved powers which changed the way the game could be played. For example, Raz is able to perform a short melee combo to attack enemies. Once powered up, the melee is extended and damage dealt increases. Additionally, Raz can learn to dodge+attack giving him a strong counter to enemies trying to get up close and personal. Alternatively, one of Raz’s later powers enables him to drag enemies towards him. Combine that with pyrokinesis and slowed time and you’ve got yourself an old fashioned slo-mo BBQ.
Mixing and matching powers opens up a tonne of gameplay potential and lets players go wild with creative solutions to combat. Unfortunately, the issue of having to map abilities hinders the free-form nature of combat a little. You’re more likely to find a couple that you like and stick with them, only swapping out on the occasions you need a specific power to move forward in the game.
Setting the levels inside the minds of characters in the game gives Double Fine license to create anything and have it be representative of a nebulous idea. The enemies are a prime example of this and include Censors (sent to stamp out unwanted ideas); Doubts (sticky dark puddles of goo which slow Raz down); Judges (big baddies with equally big gavels) and Bad Ideas (purple demon rabbits who throw exploding lightbulbs). While the design aesthetic in Psychonauts 2 is pure genius across the board, the enemies and bringing to life of concepts as a physical entity deserve special mention.
It’s easy to look at each of the enemies and say “well of course that’s what that is” but it’s only because of the excellent design work by Double Fine that it is so obvious. What’s more, creating these things in the “wonk” art style (as Double Fine calls it) means creating something players can instantly recognise while staying true to the aesthetics and established look of the game. There’s no doubt it must have been a difficult feat.
Each of the levels I was able to play in the preview content has a distinct look but one which still adheres to the overall style of Psychonauts 2. Loboto’s Labirynth is all medical and dental, while Hollis’ classroom (which takes place in her mind) is ethereal and more of a dreamscape. Compton’s Cookoff is a straight-up Iron Chef nightmare with demonic puppets and finally, Cassie’s Collection is a warped, overflowing library filled with half-finished thoughts and plans. Exploring these bizarre and disparate worlds gives you a sense of each characters’ personalities, who they are without any mask or societal performance. And even though the settings and themes are wildly different, they all feel part of the same overarching world.
Kudos really does need to go to Double Fine’s artists. They’ve done a marvellous job.
For all of the accolades I’ve given to Psychonauts 2’s art, it wouldn’t mean much without a plot to back it up. Thankfully, so far, it delivers. After Loboto’s Labirynth, Raz and the Psychonauts arrive at the Motherlobe, the group’s headquarters and a place Raz has dreamed of visiting. However, on arrival, things don’t exactly go our hero’s way. Right off the bat, Hollis, acting head of the Psychonauts treats Raz as little more than an annoyance and only grudgingly admits him to the intern program. Where previously, Raz had been acting as a fully-fledged member of the team, now he’s relegated to the mailroom. What’s more, the other interns take an instant dislike to Raz and set about hazing him.
It’s an experience I’m certain with resonate with many players. Having the rug pulled out from underneath you and suddenly being forced to prove yourself to a whole new group of people for no other reason but politics. At the end of the day, the Psychonauts appears to be a rather bureaucratic organisation and for Raz, this means disillusionment and reevaluation. He keeps his spirits though and remains a positive and uplifting presence throughout, so far as I’ve seen. It’ll be interesting to see where Double Fine takes Raz in Psychonauts 2 as he works to prove himself, figure out who he is and what he wants and stop a world-ending threat.
All in a day’s work for a psychic 10-year-old right?
Psychonauts 2 is shaping up as one of 2021’s most important releases. On the surface, it’s a goofy Terry Gilliam-cum-Nightmare Before Christmas cartoon but it runs far deeper. The preview content was packed with subtext and an exploration of heavy themes including mental illness, the nature of the human mind and what the power to change means.
However, Psychonauts 2 manages to walk a fine line and for those who’re uninterested or unaware, the game can play and feel like a cartoon without added depth. And that’s fine. As I said in the beginning, people view things differently from one another and these views are shaped by our experiences. Psychonauts 2 can act as a digital Rorschach test with players seeing and taking from it what they will.
I, for one, couldn’t be more excited to dive in deep and explore everything on offer.
Psychonauts 2 was previewed on Xbox Series X using a digital code through the Xbox Insider Program provided by Xbox ANZ.