Review – Psychonauts 2 doesn’t have great gameplay, but is one of the best explorations of mental illness
Double Fine Studios
Xbox Game Studios
Psychonauts, a brilliant little PS2-era game by Double Fine, is largely regarded as one of the last great platformers of its generation. It blew our minds at the time, combining Double Fine’s quirky comedic writing, a bizarre, exaggerated, and somewhat grotesque animation style, and incredibly creative level design. It puts you in the shoes of a psychic circus performer, Raz, and exploring the inner psyches of a delightful cast of cartoony characters. There was nothing quite like it at the time.
But it wasn’t perfect. While we might look back on Psychonauts with rose-colored glasses these days, it’s easy to forget that it had a lot of jank. Its platforming was only OK. Its combat was kind of linear. Its psychic powers were clunky to switch between. There were even platforming segments that were positively rage-inducing, including the final Meat Circus. It was a flawed game. It’s just that we didn’t care about the flaws. We were willing to put up with just about anything to hear the next joke and explore the next mental world.
It’s been 16 years since then and its sequel, Psychonauts 2, has finally been released. Lots of people have a lot invested in this game, literally since it partially raised funds for development via Kickstarter. Double Fine is a much bigger studio now, having worked with celebrities like Jack Black, launching several successful crowdfunding campaigns, and while they still solidly land in the increasingly small circle that is AA development, they are big enough to have made some of the more memorable quirky titles of gaming history. The Psychonauts fan base, including myself, was delighted to see them apply all their design experience to a new, modern-day iteration of the franchise.
And yet, now that it’s all over I can say I’m of two minds about Psychonauts 2. Did I enjoy it? Yes! Quite a lot. Its writing was laugh-out-loud funny. Its stage design was incredibly creative. Its cast of characters was as delightfully bizarre as ever. I binged it in a little over a day, which is certainly enough to call it a quality game.
Still… my mind is thoroughly unblown. It did not ignite the same sparks of wonder that the original did, because times have changed. Quirky games are a dime a dozen now. Indie developers love delving into the psyche, grappling with mental illness, focusing on comedy, and creating bizarre non-Euclidian mindscape levels; all the things that the original was known for. It’s not as unique as it once was, which admittedly is its own fault. Surely many of these developers were inspired by the original Psychonauts.
But more importantly, the prevalence of similar games in the indie-sphere has also made me less charitable to Psychonauts 2’s flaws. Yes, even after 16 years, Double Fine couldn’t quite seem to shake the jank off. While I might call Psychonauts 2 a good game, I would call it a fairly bad action-platformer. Why? Because the two worst parts of the game are the action and the platforming.
As before, you’ll have to combat all manner of psychic manifestations in the mindscapes you travel. From censors trying to stamp out bad thoughts, regrets trying to literally weigh you down by dropping weights on you doubts holding you back by getting you stuck in puddles of goo, terrifying panic attacks that move too fast and overwhelm you, and much more. The enemy design, much like the character design, is brilliant.
But actually fighting them is really dry. All you do is mash the attack button… that’s it. Nearly every enemy in the game can be handled this way with the exception of bosses and the “bad mood” which requires the use of your clairvoyance ability.
Sure, you can jump, dodge, and use a bunch of different psychic abilities, but there’s no need. The spamming attack will get you through every normal encounter, making them feel more like time-wasting roadblocks than an integral part of the game. The fact that most of these encounters are staged horde battles, where you have to defeat wave after wave of enemies in a locked room, and not organic encounters with enemies strewn about a level naturally, only makes it worse. Plus, it’s hard to judge your melee attack’s range and equally hard to tell when you are making contact with an enemy, making it all feel kind of lose and chaotic. It’s B-grade combat at best.
Unfortunately, the platforming also doesn’t get high scores. Once again, the levels themselves are genius. It’s just traversing them is supposed to be fun and, to be honest, it isn’t. Raz moves too slow, even when using his levitation ability to speed along on a thought bubble. His jump feels loose and his double jump just doesn’t feel like it traverses enough distance.
In fact, the double jump is really used as a crutch here. Since you can’t really judge your distance well you’ll always be using your double-jump to reposition yourself before you land. That doesn’t really make platforming feel any better. It just makes it serviceable, and in a market with great platformers like Crash 4 and Super Mario Odyssey, I’m looking for a lot more than serviceable.
The best parts of each stage are the puzzle elements. Raz will have to zip along thought lines with his new mental connection ability, control a remote avatar to hit switches with projection, slow down hazards with time dilation, and more. There are also plenty of puzzle elements that exist outside the realm of your psychic abilities, like carrying plants that part waters allowing you to platform as normal, finding missing keys on a giant typewriter to correctly address a love letter, or even rolling around in a giant pachinko machine in order to force someone to have a serious self-revelation. These are easily where the game is at its best.
So it’s disappointing that it abandons its good ideas far too easily. For example, when you first unlock a mental connection you are told that you can use it to connect two ideas in order to change the mind of the person you are in, thus changing the world around you. This is used to magnificent effect in the dungeon you discover the ability in… and then never again. Every other mental connection node in the rest of the game is basically just a grapple point.
In fact, I’d say that’s one of Psychonauts 2’s biggest problems. It isn’t comfortable enough to let you play around with its good ideas. It will open up an area of the map for you to explore, and then immediately lock it away after you make only the smallest bit of story progress. It will give you a cool new upgrade to your powers, and then immediately invalidate it with a new one only a few minutes later.
You have to make a willing effort to avoid important story areas in order to do sidequests because you might just stumble into something that will lock them all away. Sure, the game warns you when you are about to enter a point of no return, but they come up so frequently, and since the game is only a little over 10 hours long, that means you are only spending at most 2-3 hours in every part of the game if you play through it casually. That’s not a lot of time to really enjoy the level design.
Of course, there’s plenty of collectibles to search for, if you are that sort of completionist. Every level has hundreds of figments to find, and you’ll still have to locate baggage tags to retrieve emotional baggage. If you can find half a mind and reunite it with its other half, your health will increase. Plus there are psi challenge cards to find, rare golden relics, hidden scavenger hunt tokens, and sidequests galore. Nearly everything you do increases your psi rank and gets you psitanium which allows you to purchase new abilities and upgrades.
Unfortunately, the collectibles didn’t really motivate me this time around. I found that I got every useful upgrade about halfway through the game. With nothing else to entice me, no new items showing up in the shop, and nothing else I had to rank up except for the absurd level 100 completion bonus which is a good 50+ levels away from literally everything else in the game, I simply started playing each level through linearly, start to finish. I stopped revisiting old levels, stopped picking up figments, and pushed my way forward to the next big set-piece.
I’ve done a lot of complaining, but I want to reassure you, this is not a bad game. There is a lot in Psychonauts 2 to love. The aforementioned set-pieces are fantastic. Fighting a giant neon gambling octopus, for example, is something I’ll remember simply for its absurdity, as is riding around a giant bowling ball through a city of germs inside a bowling shoe, terrified that the end of days will come when the attendant sprays the shoes with disinfectant.
The best set-pieces, however, all deal with mental health. As I said before, many indie games have grappled with mental health before, but Psychonauts 2 knows how to do it with style. It deals with PTSD, depression, anxiety, trauma, dementia, addiction, and so many other heavy topics with a levity that makes them easier to understand yet never punches down toward victims. It has fantastic messages about being willing to ask for help when you can’t deal with things yourself, with accepting yourself and others, flaws and all, and with the incredible toll loss, violence, and war takes on us and our brains.
There’s one area of the game that I really resonate with. You are exploring the mind of someone who is prone to panic attacks and overstimulation. It shows this through a 60’s pastiche of technicolor sights and sounds that gets so fast and intense that eventually you can’t see or hear anything. It becomes too much. You literally can’t function. So… the mind dissociates. It blocks everything out and leaves you in an empty mindscape. It pushes everyone it knows, everything it knows, away and withdraws. It finds peace from the panic attacks, but it’s left with nothing. No friends. No memories. Just emptiness.
Psychonauts 2 is very, very, smart when it comes to portraying mental illness. I’ve never seen a better description of what it’s like to have a panic attack in games or any other media.
In the end, that’s what kept me playing. It’s very rare to see a game with so much to say about mental health that one can say it in such an accurate yet humorous way. That’s what sets Psychonauts 2 apart from all the other indie games that have delved into mental illness. It keeps topics light while still giving them a sense of gravity.
It has a whole section about compartmentalizing aspects of your personality and getting lost in not understanding your own identity, and it does so through the imagery of exploring a library. So on one hand, you get to feel the deep anguish one feels when they have to constantly reinvent themselves just to survive difficult situations. On the other hand, you’ll meet a dragon who orders his pizza with half pineapple and ham, half maidens and cheese.
This was what caused me to binge the game so quickly. Yes, the platforming was frustrating. Yes, the combat was shallow. Yes, the controls were clunky and the psi powers were still a chore to switch between. But much like the original, I didn’t care. I put up with all the flaws just to see what else Psychonauts 2 had to say.
Earlier, I said my mind wasn’t blown, and upon reflection that’s probably a good thing. The original Psychonauts was truly different. It was one of the first games to tackle mental illness, one of the first games to use the mind as a setting. Psychonauts 2 was made in an age where countless developers have tried to do the same, so it didn’t surprise me like before. But it didn’t have to. Instead, it focused on telling the best story it could and addressing its topics intelligently and responsibly. It even gives the player access to mental health resources if they, too, need a little help. That’s not just impressive, it’s something to be admired.
All of this boils down to the core question of any game review: “should you play Psychonauts 2?” and that is a complicated question.
First of all, I wouldn’t even bother if you hadn’t played the original (and possibly even its VR follow-up). So much of the plot is tied into knowledge from prior games and the recap at the beginning doesn’t really do enough to introduce you to the cast.
If you have played the original, and you enjoyed it, then you’ll enjoy this one. Just know that the jank is still there, preserved after 16 years. You’ll be bored in combat and frustrated in platforming segments, but it won’t matter, because you’ll also step inside a fridge that leads to a vast field made of quilted flowers and participate in a cooking show to break someone of their anxiety and co-dependence.
You’ll even put on a rock concert with Jack Black. He’s in every Double Fine game these days.
If the flaws I mentioned aren’t deal breakers for you, then Psychonauts 2 is absolutely a must-buy. It’s a short-lived flawed experience, but it’s one that I’m very happy I played.
- Stage Design - Honestly, there’s nothing like the wacky mindscapes of the Psychonauts series
- Writing - Psychonauts 2 is filled with genuine laugh out loud funny moments and introspective looks at mental illness and minds in crisis.
- Combat is a mashy slog, despite your cool psychic powers. You’ll always get locked in a room and have to defeat enemies in order to progress, making them little more than time wasters and roadblocks.
- The platforming is very middle of the road. It’s loose and clunky and you are never really given enough new abilities to change the platforming action in meaningful ways