Psychonauts feels like the early access version of Psychonauts 2. The original became a cult classic thanks to its lovable characters, creative art design, and impeccable sense of comedic timing, but the gameplay was never much fun, even in 2005. Psychonauts 2 – which you can pre-order here, coincidentally – doesn't make any fundamental changes to the formula, but it refines every aspect of the platforming and combat, tightens the level design into a constant showcase of new ideas, and gets more serious about treating mental health issues with respect. After spending six hours with a preview build, it feels like this is the game Psychonauts should've been all along.
The story picks up immediately following the events of the VR-exclusive Rhombus of Ruin, which itself was just moments removed from the cliffhanger at the end of the first Psychonauts. If you missed the VR game, the gist is that the Psychonauts – an elite group of psychic secret agents – have rescued their leader Truman Zanotto and captured the nefarious dentist-turned-mad-scientist Dr. Loboto. As Razputin Aquato, your mission is to help the Psychonauts find out who Loboto has been working for and uncover a mole inside the psychic spy organisation.
At least, that's what Raz wants to do. While Raz technically became a Psychonaut in the first game, the rest of the organisation isn't keen on recognising some kid as a full psychic secret agent. So Raz must work his way up as a psychic intern, dealing with some surprisingly mean hazing rituals from fellow students while aiming to (literally) change a few minds about his mission-readiness.
As in the original, the bulk of the action takes place inside of people’s minds, where their personalities and mental hang-ups manifest as platformer levels. You fight a lot of new monsters, as well as some returning enemies like censors, which are there to stamp out thoughts that don’t belong – like you. There are flying enemies, enablers that generate shields, tiny bits of fodder, and big bruisers that act as minibosses.
Just running up and hitting these enemies with your basic melee attack and dodging out of the way of their strikes still feels a little mushy, but Psychonauts 2 greatly improves on the combat of the first game by integrating Raz’s psychic powers into battle in a more organic way. Your pyrokinesis is now an area-of-effect attack that can easily set multiple enemies aflame at once. Telekinesis now lets you quickly grab clutter around the environment to fling at enemies. While it’s not quite as malleable, bits of Psychonauts 2 feel like Remedy’s Control, letting you throw the environment at the bad guys as part of a suite of powerful abilities.
Psychonauts 2 greatly improves on the combat of the first game
Making enemies that “play off of each other and play off of your powers in new and strategic ways” was a concentrated effort for the team at Double Fine, senior systems designer Lauren Scott tells us in a Q&A session.
“I remember feeling that in the first game, we had some really powerful psychic abilities, like invisibility, that sometimes players would forget about in the second half of the game and not use,” studio head Tim Schafer adds. “That’s not the case in this game. Different enemies will make you pull out different psychic powers. They have strengths and weaknesses, and you can really think about how to chain powers together when you’re attacking different combinations of enemies.”
Shield-generating enablers are initially very frustrating to deal with – they prevent their allies from taking damage, they dodge your ranged psi-blasts, and they can quickly push you away in melee. But as soon as you set one on fire it drops its shields to run around in a heat-induced panic, which lets you chip away at other enemies for a minute – that sets a satisfying rhythm of fire and punching for the rest of the battle. The new emphasis on versatile powers helps the combat click in a way it never did in the original.
That's a very common problem in games, using mental illness as a shortcut to othering the villain
The new levels are just as wild and creative as you’d hope, and they’re improved dramatically by Psychonauts 2’s breakneck pacing. The biggest strength of the original Psychonauts is how varied its environments are, and the levels I’ve seen in the sequel build on that strength by introducing more variety within each stage. Each of the four brain levels I got to play through were divided up into little bite-sized chunks that never stuck around long enough to get tiresome.
There’s a book-themed level populated by paper cutouts, with library shelves and floating books serving as platforms. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself pressed in the pages of said books, which flips the perspective from 3D to 2D as you hop across the words on the page. Then you’re in an open-ended papercraft city, with multiple objectives to complete and a series of criss-crossing paths to get to them.
Then there’s the cooking game show level, where you’re racing against the clock to prepare some basic ingredients like eggs and bread, which are anthropomorphic audience members, for a panel of giant, ravenous goat puppet judges. So you’ll have to telekinetically grab a talking egg and throw it into boiling water to prepare it (you monster), then rush across the stage while the egg boils to get some bread toasted or some bacon sliced. It’s basically Overcooked, except with little commercial breaks that double as comedy bits for fake products and small combat encounters.
Psychonauts 2 opens with a message describing some of the mental illnesses depicted in the game – along with a warning for those with dental phobia, which yes, there’s a level with a lot of tooth stuff – and points players toward the gaming-focused mental health charity, Take This. The original game certainly built empathy for its characters who suffer from mental illness – a natural side effect of spending so much time inside people’s minds – but the sequel is taking a more proactive approach to dealing with those topics sensitively.
“I think there’s a lot more awareness in culture in general – and for me personally – about mental health depictions,” Schafer says. “I think there’s a lot of stuff we got right in the first game just because of good intentions and a lot of stuff that we would do differently. Now in the second game, we’re doing it with actual intent.”
Convinced? You can pre-order Psychonauts 2 here
Schafer adds that “After we joined Xbox, we had access to more research, more mental health testing with actual clinicians, because we’re not clinically trained ourselves. They hooked us up with groups like Take This, who helped us test, consult, and identify things in the game that were good representations, but also things that could be improved. How to avoid stigmatising language and representations. That’s a very common problem in games, using mental health or mental illness as a shortcut to othering the villain.”
There’s a line in the game where one of the heads of the Psychonauts suggests that the group isn’t here to “fix” people – a trope that the original game occasionally fell into – but rather to help them fight their own demons. And that plays out in the levels. The varied segments of the book level represent different aspects of yourself coming into conflict with each other, and the cooking show, in turn, reflects anxieties around how you feel others perceive and judge you.
So far, it seems that Psychonauts 2 is building on its predecessor not just in terms of combat and level design, but in terms of empathy. This is exactly the sort of sequel I’ve been hoping for out of Double Fine – one that recognises the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor and builds or improves upon them in equal measure.