'Psychonauts' Is a Surreal Trip Into Psychic Secret Agency

Time to give everyone a piece of my mind

Key Takeaways

  • Sixteen years later, the world of Psychonauts is still one of the most inventive and surreal video games.
  • Psychonauts 2's gameplay has a distinct sixth-generation feel, like it'd fit in just fine on the PlayStation 2, but gets more 'modern' later on.
  • Due to some uncommonly lenient accessibility options, almost anyone will be able to complete this game.
A screenshot from 'Psychonauts 2'

Double FIne

Like it or hate it, I have to give Psychonauts 2 one thing: it uses its medium better than almost any other video game in the last decade or so.

You spend much of the game on psychic deep dives into people's minds, where you fight their own intrusive thoughts and doubts inside their unique mental landscapes. Gravity, perspective, and physics are all up for grabs, so you never know what's coming next.

I've played more painstakingly realistic shooters than I can count, but this kind of unrestrained creativity is always much more engaging. It's a real highlight of what a video game can actually be in 2021.

The irony of that statement is that the first couple of hours of Psychonauts 2 play like they're from 2005. It's the sort of 3D action-platformer that's been out of style for years, full of tricky jumps, crazy powers, hidden secrets, and collectible widgets. As a result, Psychonauts 2 is, effectively, its own HD remaster.

"It's the sort of fast, fluid 3D platformer that nobody besides Nintendo seems to make anymore..."

Brain Games

It's only been a few days since the events of the original Psychonauts. After an attempt to wrap up some old business from the first game, Rasputin "Raz" Aquato—child circus performer turned psychic secret agent—finally reports for his first day of duty as an official member of the Psychonauts organization.

Reality promptly crushes him like a fist, as he's informed that there is a process for becoming a full-fledged Psychonaut. He has not gone through it, and also, he's 10 years old. Raz is given an internship and consigned to mailroom duty.

However, just because Raz isn't in the field doesn't mean he's out of trouble. Soon, he's wrapped up in a mystery that involves a dead monster, a double agent, and his supervisor's missing brain.

It is, admittedly, a lot, which leads to one of my handful of complaints. I usually have a high tolerance for plot in my video games, but Psychonauts 2 quickly exceeds my tolerance. You can barely go three steps without Raz getting dragged into yet another conversation with his eccentric supporting cast.

A screenshot from 'Psychonauts 2'

I wouldn't mind that if there were just a few of them, but by the time you've hit the second level or so, there have got to be a couple of dozen characters vying for screen time in Psychonauts 2, maybe a third of whom are necessary. None are poorly written, but it's really butting up against the dividing line between a video game narrative and an interactive film.

Working Without a Net

The original Psychonauts is one of those games that shows up on Internet clickbait lists like "You Should Have Bought This, You Ingrates." Despite rave reviews and a cult audience, it sold so poorly on its initial release in 2005 that it almost put its publisher out of business.

Its developer, Double Fine, later regained the rights and rereleased Psychonauts for digital storefronts like Steam. After seven years of cult-classic hype, it belatedly became a hit, which eventually led to the sequel.

This might explain why Psychonauts 2 feels like it's more of the same. My first impression of it was that it was made 16 minutes after the first Psychonauts, not 16 years, because it feels almost exactly the same to play.

It's the sort of fast, fluid 3D platformer that nobody besides Nintendo seems to make anymore, with most of the extra horsepower on a modern console going towards bigger, more elaborate level design. Psychonauts 2 is infinitely more forgiving than the average modern Mario game, but they're cut from the same cloth.

A screenshot from 'Psychonauts 2'

Part of that forgiveness comes from Psychonauts 2's accessibility options, which can be used to turn Raz invincible or raise his damage output to the point where all fights become trivial. Even if you rarely play video games, or you plan to hand the controller off to a little kid, you should be able to get through Psychonauts 2 with no problems.

It's worth the trip overall. Psychonauts 2 is a weird jaunt through a creatively twisted world, and while it's got its flaws—please stop talking, Raz—it's the best PlayStation 2 game ever made.

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