Caution: The following preview contains key plot points for the first Psychonauts as well as mild story spoilers for the first few hours of Psychonauts 2
It’s been an agonising, nearly six-year-long wait, but it’s finally happened. Thanks to the good folks at Double Fine and Xbox, I’ve had my soft, supple hands around the sequel to one of my favourite games of all time, going hands-on with the upcoming Psychonauts 2, and to say that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since would be an enormous understatement.
Our time with the game, spanning a meaty five-to-six hours of the final product, begins at the beginning. If you’ve not played either the original Psychonauts or the gap-bridging PSVR title Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, or like me you struggle to remember what you had for breakfast let alone what happened in a game from 15 years ago, you’ll be happy to know that the whole thing kicks off with a look back at past events.
The gist, without giving away too much (seriously just go play Psychonauts – it’s on Game Pass!), is that protagonist and gifted psychic pre-teen, Razputin Aquato, runs away from his family’s circus to sneak into the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. It’s here that Raz (for short) uncovers a grisly brain-stealing plot conducted at the camp by an evil ex-dentist named Dr Loboto. After foiling Loboto’s plans and saving the day, Raz is made an official member of the Psychonauts by the famous, and aging, Agent Ford Cruller. Following this, in Rhombus of Ruin, Raz and the Psychonauts agents undertake one more mission to rescue the organisation’s leader, Truman Zanotto, before finally setting off to Psychonauts HQ.
Psychonauts 2’s opening moments pick up right after the events of Rhombus of Ruin with Raz, his now-girlfriend Lili Zanotto, and agents Sasha Nein, Milla Vodello and Coach Oleander attempting to uncover the true culprits behind the captive Loboto’s plot by entering his mind. Like the original game, Psychonauts 2 takes place across a series of ‘Mental Worlds’, environments borne of the minds of its characters that reveal their inner selves and contain manifestations of their thoughts and fears. Loboto’s is the first of these, acting as both an introduction and tutorial that quickly transitions from a benign office location to a disgusting, teeth-filled nightmare-scape that immediately justifies a warning in the game’s boot sequence to any dental phobes hoping to play. It’s gross:
As an onboarding experience, Loboto’s Labyrinth does a good job of acclimatising both old and new players to Psychonauts 2’s expanded platforming and combat encounters. That’s important given this is a direct continuation of events, meaning Raz enters the sequel with a packed suite of psychic and acrobatic abilities. Crucially, it sets the tone for the antics to come with its absurdist, abstract Mental World pulled (literally and figuratively) from the effulgent enamel and fleshy gums of its owner. Despite a sufficient chunk of time passing since I last played all the way through the original Psychonauts, I felt instantly at home here. Double Fine has seemingly mastered that wonderful trick of making everything feel just like it used to, when the reality is that it actually plays much, much better. Raz’s high-flying acrobatics are a perfect fit for modern platforming sensibilities, so I was quickly jumping, swinging and bouncing off walls like I was born to do it.
Following this escapade, the group finally touches down at Psychonauts HQ, the appropriately-named Motherlobe. It’s here we first meet Hollis Forsythe, the organisation’s Second Head and the unfortunate soul burdened with delivering Raz the bad news – his status as a bonafide member of the Psychonauts? That concluded alongside the last mission. Now, the best title available to him in an official capacity is that of Intern. In the limited amount of narrative content we were able to see during our preview, the greater overall plot points are still something of a mystery, but Raz’s journey through internship is certainly one of the core pillars. It’s here at the Motherlobe that we’re first introduced to the Psychonauts’ other interns – a ragtag group of youths that, at least initially, aren’t overly enthused about Raz’s joining their ranks. It’s a sentiment that only grows when Raz attends his first official class as a Psychonauts intern and promptly messes up. Badly.
In the limited amount of narrative content we were able to see during our preview, the greater overall plot points are still something of a mystery, but Raz’s journey through internship is certainly one of the core pillars
Raz’s first class sees the intern group enter Forsythe’s mind to be introduced to Mental Connections – one of Psychonauts 2’s brand-new psychic powers. No sooner has the agent-cum-teacher introduced the concept of connecting to individual ideas inside a person’s mind than the psychically-gifted Raz manages to find a way to take it a step too far. By connecting two separate ideas together (in this case, thoughts of ‘cilantro’ and ‘delight’), he sparks a reaction from Forsythe’s psyche that now equates the idea of cilantro with that of delight. Thus the Mental Connection power is born, and with it a raft of new possibilities for both platforming, puzzles and narrative.
This is immediately put to work in the ensuing trip deeper into Forsythe’s mind, after her struggles with financial pressure are accidentally connected to the idea of risk, causing the Second Head of the Psychonauts to see gambling as the best course of action to raising crucial operating funds. Yeah, with great psychic power comes great responsibility and all that. The Lady Luctopus Casino level then combines casino motifs with glimpses into Forsythe’s traumatic past as a medical research intern (let the foreshadowing begin), giving us a very confronting combination of the two where punters gamble on a patient’s EKG screen, or spin a giant Maternity Ward roulette wheel in the hopes of getting a baby. So far, so very Double Fine.
The Mental Connection mechanic comes into play in the level’s open-ended structure, as Raz engages with the hospital-casino’s various games to raise enough chips to enter the “High Roller’s Club”. Doing so requires using Mental Connections to ‘rewire’ the thoughts of patrons and croupiers alike to rig the games in Raz’s favour, or simply to use the connection trails to reach new areas. The level also features quite a bit of the game’s souped-up combat, pitting Raz against new enemies like Bad Ideas and Heavy Censors, both of which can interact with the Mental Connection power in different ways. Using it on large enemies like the Heavy Censors would pull me towards them for a follow-up combo, whereas small enemies can be reeled in the same way. The whole thing culminates in a fantastic boss battle, one that doesn’t necessarily play with the new abilities all that much but still has 100% of the Psychonauts flavour and excitement. I’m excited to see where this new power goes in later portions of the game, and how it plays into the overall narrative given the vast implications of messing with someone’s Mental Connections. Persona, anyone?
With the first three or four hours of the game wrapped up, I was able to skip ahead and check out a couple more of the brain levels, starting with Compton’s Cookoff. Compton Boole, another founding member of the Psychic Six, is seemingly fighting a battle with anxiety when we meet him in the preview. On entering his mind, we discover that this anxiety is manifesting as a high-pressure cooking show starring giant, goat-puppet versions of his colleagues as the host and judges with Boole as the sole contestant. Of all of the sections available in the preview this is probably the one that stood out to me the most as a prime example of everything that Psychonauts does well: tangible, relatable depictions of issues of mental health, relentlessly creative level design, surrealist presentation and impeccable comedic timing. Also, given the studio audience for this particular cooking show is made up of sentient food ingredients, it’s pretty messed up.
Compton’s Cookoff changes up the typical brain structure somewhat, reducing the level to a single area where Raz needs to complete a gauntlet of objectives against a timer, usually involving plucking an unlucky audience member and putting them through horrific culinary sacrifices at the hands of giant, sentient utensils. The less said about the huge, chopping machine shaped like a pig being forced to chop an actual pig the better. The idea of course, based on Boole’s crippling anxiety, is that the pressure is on to complete the tasks in time before being judged by a panel whose highest form of praise is generally something like “Surprisingly Adequate!” It’s so accurate it’s painful. Ending in another boss battle, this section also makes use of a new time-slow psychic power that’s integral in fighting larger, faster enemies like the enormous-gavel-wielding Judges.
The final level in our preview, Cassie’s Collection, takes place inside the mind of yet another member of the Psychic Six – Cassie O’Pia. While we weren’t able to see the events leading up to this level, inside O’Pia’s mind is a grand and sprawling library, one where her history of varied personality archetypes are trapped inside books and locked away. Acting as the librarian in her own mental library, Cassie O’Pia carefully catalogues and confines her former selves out of some combination of shame and fear, and it’s up to Raz to rescue them. Like the Lady Luctopus Casino level, Cassie’s Collection affords Raz some room to explore, and also introduces another brand-new power in Projection. Projection lets Raz summon his own paper-y, archetypal clone to access areas he can’t otherwise reach or fight enemies alongside him.
There’s a lot of history and Psychonauts lore to unpack in Cassie’s Collection as well, so we won’t dive too deep into it, save to say that this is by far one of the largest Psychonauts levels we’ve seen and is packed full of just about everything you could want – puzzles, platforming, combat, hidden secrets, narrative reveals and some fantastic gags and dialogue. We were also lucky enough to chat privately with Schafer himself, alongside the game’s Art Director, Lisette Titre-Montgomery, and got some great insight into how the studio approached bringing these deep cuts of Psychonauts lore to life – give that a read right here.
It’s been a long wait, but it’s beyond exciting to finally get to sit down and experience what the studio has been toiling away at all this time
Because I was so wrapped up in exploring all of these new spaces while I had the chance, something I didn’t spend too much time on in my preview (and preferred to save for the full release, anyway) is Psychonauts 2’s new character progression systems. Much like the original, Raz is able to climb through the ranks (this time as an intern) and earn buffs along the way. This time around, he’s able to spend his rank points on upgrading his psy-powers, as well as spend currency on equippable pins to give him specific boosts. There’s a fair amount of flexibility there, which should give players a good go at tweaking their play experience to their own personal style.
Giving players a bespoke and customisable experience is important to the studio as well, and I had a chance to check out some of the accessibility options in the preview that’ve been the subject of attention online as of late. In the game’s Assist Features menu are toggles for things like fall damage, global invincibility and simplified combat, as well as plenty of ways to tweak the user experience to be more comfortable or to suit various types of colour blindness. As someone with limited time to check out the preview and, admittedly, got my bum kicked by one of the bosses, toggling on a quick assist was absolutely a welcome way over a roadblock that might otherwise have frustrated me. More importantly though, it’s a way for those more interested in the narrative or less able to play games in the traditional way to still experience what Psychonauts 2 has to offer.
Though I could already glean that levels will be replayable, given the presence of objects and areas that weren’t unlocked or accessible with the powers I had at the time, it’s unclear just how many levels or hours of gameplay we can expect from Psychonauts 2 in total. Talking with Schafer and Titre-Montgomery, it’s clear that this is a much bigger project than the original, however. What we do know is what to expect from the game’s performance on consoles, with resolution and framerate starting at 1080p30 on base, last-gen consoles and going all the way up to 4K60 on the Xbox Series X. You can read about that in more detail right here.
There’s so much more I’m still keen to do in Psychonauts 2 – fully exploring The Motherlobe and its surrounds, plumbing brain levels for their innermost secrets, better getting to know the other interns and agents and building Raz up from intern to full-fledged Psychonaut. One thing is clear though throughout all of the content we were able to check out in Psychonauts 2, and that’s Double Fine’s commitment to making this a bigger, denser and deeper Psychonauts game that’ll transport series fans back into its fantastic world while giving platforming and adventure enthusiasts plenty of reason to dive in for the first time.
It’s been a long wait, but it’s beyond exciting to finally get to sit down and experience what the studio has been toiling away at all this time, and especially to see the fruits of their Xbox Game Studios backing. This is absolutely the sequel we’ve been waiting for.
Psychonauts 2 releases for Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PS4 and PC on August 25, 2021.