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Psychonauts 2 Review

Psychonauts 2 Review

No beating around the bush for this review. Psychonauts 2 is one of the best games I’ve played in a while and I implore you to play it any way you can. It’s the kind of game that is rarely made anymore, a game so full of creativity and originality, unafraid to take design risks, focused and polished to an impressive degree in all aspects from the mechanics to the visuals to the music, and no “monetization” features that make people squirm. The game is truly a modern-day anomaly.

Psychonauts 2 is a follow-up to the cult hit action-adventure platformer Psychonauts and is developed by Double Fine Productions and published jointly through Microsoft and a small army of crowdfunders. The original Psychonauts was largely considered a commercial failure when it launched in 2005 on the original Xbox, but over the years the game grew a strong and devoted following. In 2015, Psychonauts 2 was officially announced and was looking for support from fans to aid in the development of the game via the crowdfunding website Fig. In 2019, Microsoft acquired Double Fine Productions and offered additional support to get the project to the finish line. Now in 2021, the game is finally released and it has been very much worth the wait.

In Psychonauts and Psychonauts 2, the player controls Razputin, a 10-year-old circus gymnast and aspiring psychic. Both games revolve around a group of psychic spies known as the psychonauts who enter people's minds in order to assist them in fighting their mental demons. Picking up only a few short days after the original game ended, Psychonauts 2 finds Raz working with the psychonauts (as a lowly intern) as they attempt to halt the return of one of the greatest foes the psychonauts ever faced, Maligula. Not only did Maligula nearly end the founding members of the psychonauts, but she also shares an interesting connection to Raz and his home country of Grulovia that players will unearth as they experience the story.

Psychonauts 2 Story

The story is a rollercoaster of emotions, primarily being delivered via cutscenes and exceptional environmental storytelling in the game’s fantastic mental worlds (more on those later). For the most part, the story is engaging and enjoyable from start to finish. A few aspects may be a little predictable to some, but there are several big revelations in the game that do manage to come as a surprise. The story isn’t too complicated to follow either. Some players may find that the number of cutscenes in the game (of which there are a good bit) will pull them out of actively playing the game but it was never something that got under my skin. The cutscenes are beautifully animated and composed and I had the same amount of enjoyment watching the cutscenes as I did playing the game. 

On the topic of animation, the visual presentation in Psychonauts 2 receives high marks. The game has a twisted cartoonish art style, reminiscent of a blend of a Tim Burton film and a Cartoon Network show. This wacky art style is enhanced by some truly great texture work, stark and vibrant lighting, and great reflection technology powered by Unreal Engine. The most satisfying part about the art style is how true it stays to the original game’s artistic vision while offering up all the nice bells and whistles that are expected of modern game releases. All the animations in the game from movement to the awesome psychic effects that emanate from the special moves are of extremely high quality which is impressive considering that Double Fine isn’t exactly a massive AAA studio.

The voice acting also deserves special mention. Many of the original cast return to reprise their roles in Psychonauts 2, notably Richard Horvitz, the voice of Raz, as well as some recurring Double Fine guests like Jack Black (Brutal Legend) and Elijah Wood (Broken Age). The performances really draw the player in and you are able to form connections with these characters on an intimate level, despite how odd some of them look visually. Both the old members of the cast and the new characters that are introduced are likable in their own ways and it often becomes hard to pick favorites when they are all so interesting and unique.

Psychonauts 2 Gameplay

Psychonauts 2, as was mentioned above, is an action-adventure platformer game. That is to say it blends a number of different gameplay styles into one game. Players run, jump, slide, grind, and float through levels, solving light puzzles from time to time, fighting groups of enemies, and rounding up different collectible items. The first Psychonauts game had many of these features as well, but at times the original could show its age and feel very stiff and rigid to control. It is with pleasure that I can say Psychonauts 2 improves on these aspects of the original in nearly every way.

The platforming mechanics feel tight and responsive with the perfect amount of float. New 3D platformers are fairly uncommon to see these days, and quality 3D platformers even less so. But Psychonauts 2 manages to feel reminiscent of games like Super Mario or Banjo-Kazooie. The player has a fine degree of control over how Raz jumps and moves around the environment, rarely if at all do instances of failure feel out of the player’s control. You will do a lot of running and jumping during the game’s roughly 15-hour playtime, and not once did it get bland or boring. The platforming isn’t entirely challenging, but oftentimes collectibles will be tucked away in harder-to-reach areas that will test your abilities a little more than getting to the next objective will.

The combat is the other area of gameplay that saw significant improvements. Raz has a number of abilities from basic punches to special psychic abilities he can use to dispatch his mental adversaries. Everything is animated beautifully and feels impactful. The punches feel weighty, enhanced by how enemies fly back after successful combos. The psychic abilities have their own uses from a precise ranged shot, to a levitation ability that increases Raz’s maneuverability and many others. Enemies have specific weaknesses that players will have to balance by attacking foes and swapping abilities to address others in order to come out on top. Swapping between abilities can become a little cumbersome. Players have to halt the combat in real-time by pulling up a radial wheel to select abilities on the fly. It would have been nice to have a more active quick-swap feature so that the flow of combat wouldn’t be quite so start and stop but ultimately it only causes minor annoyance at best. Similar to the platforming, the combat isn’t all that difficult, but the game requires the player to pay attention to their surroundings. Mindless actions will lead to failure, and as more enemies are introduced into the game, the fights do start to ramp up in complexity in a satisfying and natural way.

Psychonauts 2 also features a number of fantastic boss fights that reflect the creativity of the worlds they reside in. Each boss fight acts as a sort of puzzle, players need to figure out how to expose weaknesses and keep enemies at bay while dodging attacks from all directions. Spoiling these fights would ruin their impact, so I will leave it there, just know that the fights act as great capstones that close off each level.

Psychonauts 2 Visuals

And it wouldn’t be an action-adventure platformer without items to collect and abilities to upgrade. There are many items to collect in the game’s hub world and each of its levels. Figments are the main collectible, think Mario’s golden coins, except in Psychonauts, each figment reflects parts of the person’s mind that you are exploring. Each level has its own set of unique figments, like a barber-themed level having hairdresser items like hairspray and scissors. In each level, there are also pieces of emotional baggage, crying pieces of luggage that can be made happy again by reuniting them with their missing tags. There are half-a-minds that act like Zelda heart pieces that serve to increase Raz’s health bar and memory vaults that give a little more backstory for the character you are investigating in a given level. 

There are also nuggets of wisdom, PSI cards, and PSI challenge markers that if found can be used to level Raz up. Once leveled up, Raz gains more intern credit through which he can spend on upgrading any of his psychic abilities. All of the upgrades feel important and in some cases really expand your options when it comes to using abilities during combat. Raz can also spend Psitanium, the in-game currency, on pins that can augment different aspects of gameplay. Some change the colors of different ability effects, some grant additional moves in combat, some aid Raz in finding collectibles, and some are purely for fun like seeing Raz dance when the player sits still for too long or petting wildlife with the telekinesis skill. The player is constantly buying and upgrading things throughout the game and it never feels overwhelming or that you are making a wrong choice about what to upgrade. 

Due to the game being set in the minds of its many unique characters, the level designs are incredibly interesting in terms of their construction and presentation when compared to nearly any other game. Environments reflect an individual character's personality or their outlook on life. This will be incredibly hard to articulate without spoiling because much of the enjoyment of discovering and exploring these worlds come from the desire to see what incredible thing awaits the player in the next mind. A cell-shaded 1970’s psychedelic music festival, a twisted office building of teeth and gums, and a massive maelstrom of a mailroom with a giant mail sorting robot in the center are just some of the environments you will come across (all of which have been shown in pre-release trailers for the game). Each level is well-paced with exploration, platforming, combat sections, secrets,  and occasionally implementing unique mechanics (such as sailing in one level). 

 Every world has its own stories, characters, and themes to experience, and it goes a long way in making the game feel extremely varied. It seems like nearly every idea a developer had was given the green light to get added into the game, yet the entire game still feels thematically consistent. Despite how crazy things may get, they never feel out of place, which takes a tremendous amount of skill in order to pull off when the game splits off into so many different directions.

Psychonauts 2 Level Design

In addition to the game’s many worlds is a surprisingly in-depth hub world with multiple areas to explore with items to find and characters to interact with. There are side quests the player can tackle in between missions, light environmental puzzles to solve or return to later with new abilities, and some incredibly funny character interactions the player can get into. But like many aspects of the game, it never feels like too much. It feels like a lot to sink your teeth into but never becomes dull or bloated. And each area of the hub world is visually distinct which helps set each one apart and feel like a mini level in their own right. 

At this time I should bring up the technical performance of the game. For this review, I played Psychonauts 2 on a high-end PC via Xbox Game Pass. As a result, my experience was extremely fluid. Load times were extremely fast, the frame rate would rarely dip except for a few instances when interacting with items which was a known issue that is supposed to be remedied by updating graphics drivers. There are a few instances where texture pop-in was present but it was never enough to fully pull me out of the experience. If you are playing on consoles, your experience may differ in these regards but as far as the PC version is concerned, the game is extremely well optimized. 

Psychonauts 2 emotionally hits just about every cord. Like the first game, the writing in Psychonauts 2 is incredibly witty and will make you laugh out loud at numerous points. But as might be expected in a game that deals with mental issues and thought, the game can go to deeper, more intimate, and sad or dark places. The game deals with themes like regret, guilt, loss, and failure, but always in a beautiful and tasteful way. You will feel joy from the game’s childlike whimsy, and when it brings things back down to earth, you feel it just as much. The game has a wide variety of accessibility options and content warnings at the very start of the experience which really demonstrates the amount of care the developers are putting into not only handling the themes of the game with care but also making sure that people everywhere no matter the background and what things they may be grappling within their lives, can enjoy the game as well.

An extremely important part of the emotional resonance of the game comes from its astounding soundtrack. The music like the gameplay blends genres, themes, and instruments in a glorious soundscape. The music feels very cinematic, similar to Disney animated films like The Incredibles or even soundtracks from the likes of John Williams. It’s jazzy, melancholic, joyous, introspective, nostalgic, regal, sad… I could go on and on. Every level has its theme, many story beats are punctuated with music and it’s tough to find anything to complain about on the music front.

Psychonauts 2 Bugs

For all the game does so immaculately, there are the smallest of things that I have to point out that hold the game back from being a perfect interactive piece of art. On very rare instances the game will hitch or skip when interacting with certain objects or engaging with enemies, of which I mentioned above. I had two instances of audio lines overlapping each other in a cutscene. And personally, I had a weird issue with my controller for half the game. I was using a wired Xbox One controller, and for the first half of the game, when pushing forward on the movement stick, the game would register that as moving forward and to the left, causing Raz to just run in a small circle. I tested the controller with other games and it didn’t have this issue, and around the halfway point of the game, the issue disappeared. So it could be up to user error, but I think it goes a long way in that despite an annoying control input issue like that, I still couldn’t put the game down. 

The other thing to point out is the difficulty. I’ve mentioned it at a number of points in this review but Psychonauts 2 is not a difficult game. Depending on who you are, this may be a positive or a negative. Not every game needs to be incredibly challenging and in the case of Psychonauts 2, I don’t find it to be much of an issue, but I think it is something worth noting for people that are exclusively interested in playing games that test their mettle. Those minor downsides are the only things I could come up with during my playtime that would knock the game. The game is polished to such a high degree in every other facet that these truly small hiccups are only just that, hiccups. 

Psychonauts 2 is a truly special game. It was highly anticipated by not only myself but many other fans and it delivered more than was expected in many areas. Not to discount the work of any other Xbox Game Studios, but this feels like the first major win under Microsoft’s belt after a long run of average ranking exclusives (despite Psychonauts 2 being released on PlayStation 4 as well out of contractual obligation to crowdfunding backers).  It’s fun to play, a joy to experience, and it’s the easiest game I could recommend to anyone. Play this game and I promise you will not regret it. Psychonauts 2 is available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, and PC via Steam. The game is also available via Xbox Game Pass on console and PC.

Psychonauts 2 | 9 | Excellent

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