The quality of Psychonauts’ writing is a rare thing in video games. Too often games, worried players might miss something, spell everything out far more than necessary. Sometimes, they rely on heavy exposition to ‘help’ players understand the plot. Worst of all, concepts and ideas are broken down piece by piece and force-fed to players as if they’re not clever enough to work them out.
Not so in Psychonauts 2. It’s a game heavy on subtext and allusion and light on explanation. It’s balanced in such a way that players certainly are able to grasp the concepts Double Fine is dealing with. Thankfully, without bashing players over the head with them.
Double Fine cleverly uses imagery, audio and even gameplay mechanics to get the message across in subtle yet effective ways. For a game with as heavy and dark subject matter as Psychonauts 2, the experience remains remarkably light and enjoyable. It’s a real testament to the superb storytelling skills of Double Fine and the undeniable care that’s gone into making this sequel.
Psychonauts 2 Review
Taking place directly after the events of the original Psychonauts and the VR sequel, Rhombus of Ruin, Psychonauts 2 sees Raz finally arrive at the headquarters of the titular heroes. Once at the Motherlobe, things don’t go as Raz has expected. Instead of becoming a fully-fledged member of the team, he’s relegated to Intern status. What’s more, Truman Zanotto, now rescued, seems to be rapidly detriorating, there’s a mole in the Psychonauts and Maligula, the Deluge of Grelovia may be returning from the dead.
These events drive the plot forward and keep the story moving at a decent pace. It could have been easy for Psychonauts 2 to fall victim to a slower section here or there. There could have been moments where the story lost focus and shifted to the ancillary but these things don’t happen. Psychonauts 2’s story is what drives the player and Double Fine has ensured it’s always front and centre.
It’s helped by the fact that Raz, and the supporting cast, are likeable, interesting and well-rounded. Even the smallest of background actors has a personality and their own motives. They’re not there just to deliver some exposition and fill a space. It’s clear a lot of thought has gone into creating and fleshing out the characters who inhabit Psychonauts 2 and the experience is far richer for it. The superb voice acting is the cherry on top when it comes to the characters. Without the voice acting, they’d still be wonderfully written and relatable but having such wonderfully performed VO puts Psychonauts 2 in the top tier of characterisations.
Playing Psychonauts 2 took me back to my earlier gaming days. I was reminded of the likes of Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 when Rare was in its heyday. Psychonauts 2 is a platformer at its core but it’s evolved beyond that genre somewhat. You still spend the majority of your playtime exploring open(ish) worlds, collecting various doodads, learning new abilities and using them to unlock previously inaccessible areas. However, Psychonauts 2 ‘feels’ different. It may be a combination of the “wonk” art style, the psychic abilities or that there are lots of different gameplay mechanics which keeps things feeling fresh as you play. I’m not 100% sure, but whatever it is, it makes Psychonauts 2 a joy to play.
It feels like a game from my childhood has been brought into the present-day and taken advantage of everything developers have learned and changed in the past (gulp) 20 or so years.
What also helps sell Psychonauts 2 is the platforming. It’s a huge part of the game and it is absolutely spot-on. Controlling Raz is (just about) flawless and his movement through the world makes you want to keep playing and exploring “just one more level.” There are some occasionally wonky moments when the camera and controls conspire to cause you to die and they’re a shame but not so frequent as to detract from the experience. Similarly, just when you think you might be getting tired of exploration, or combat, or platforming or…whatever, it’s like the game knows and you’re given something new and/or different to try. It’s very difficult to get bored in Psychonauts 2 which should be a requirement of all games. It’s certainly true of the classics.
The one gripe I had from my preview remains. Abilities are mapped to the four shoulder buttons meaning you can have four equipped at one time. Once Raz has access to more than four, it becomes burdensome to open the quick-change menu and choose your powers. I would love to have seen a different control scheme implemented but sadly, it’s the one and the only thing about the game that really got me down. Aside from that, I can’t say enough about how enjoyable Psychonauts 2 is to play.
Psychonauts 2 deals with heavy themes involving mental health, mental illness, addiction and more. But it does so in a respectful, tactful and all-around wholesome way. There’s no preaching in Psychonauts 2 and similarly, there’s no easy fixes. The damaged characters in Psychonauts 2 are only made whole and brought back together when they face their demons, often with help from a friend.
In fact, the underlying message in Psychonauts 2 is about how relying on others is a show of strength and not a weakness. How asking for help is not only sensible but more often than not, required. Like a wise primate once said, “Apes together strong.” Coming together is how the characters in Psychonauts 2 overcome their demons and their trauma.
Interestingly, very few of the characters in the game seem wholly well or well-adjusted. Especially Raz’s heroes. The founders of the Psychonauts have suffered their own terrible calamities and seem to be far worse for wear. On meeting each of them Raz is shocked and saddened by what they’ve become but has enough empathy and respect to want to help them overcome. The game really makes a point of emphasising that heroes and the people we idolise are also human, each with their own flaws and baggage. Just because we look up to them doesn’t mean they’re infallible. It’s a hard lesson to learn but an important one.
Finally, while Psychonauts 2 deals with these heavy themes, as mentioned earlier, it does so without shoving it in the player’s face. It’s subtle. An image here. Some dialogue there. Funnily enough, one of the game’s collectibles, Figments, do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to the deeper parts of the narrative. As you play, take note of the forms the figments takes and you’ll learn far more about the characters than you otherwise would.
Psychonauts 2 is a masterpiece of game design, narrative and subtle, yet powerful storytelling. It is a must-play and one of the greatest experiences I’ve had with video games in my 32-years playing.
Psychonauts 2 was reviewed on Xbox Series X using a digital copy provided by Xbox Australia.