‘Psychonauts 2’ preview: Double Fine’s best game yet

As a critic, it’s your duty to thoroughly cross-examine the things you love the most, to gain an understanding of why they’ve had such a profound effect on you. Over the years, I’ve exhumed and examined my relationship with Double Fine’s 2005 3D platformer Psychonauts with this express purpose. And each time I go back, I find new things to love and some aspects that cloy, like molasses going uphill in January… with crutches.

Regardless, I still recommend the game to people whenever they ask for something fresh. Psychonauts is a really ambitious concept, a game about exploring the unfathomable interiors of people’s minds and using empathy to try and mitigate their problems. It’s also about a psychically gifted circus castaway who joins a network of secret agents to unravel a brain-stealing mystery. Absurd and singular, this is why I’m just as surprised as anyone that it’s getting a full-fat sequel on August 25. Somehow, 16 long years after the release of the first game, I’ve played several hours of Psychonauts 2, and I’m here to help you figure out whether it’s been worth the wait.

The first thing that struck me about Psychonauts 2 is that it feels like a blockbuster. Maybe it’s the influence of the LucasArts alumni developing it, but the way the game starts — in media res and ready to quip its heart out — reminded me most of an Indiana Jones flick. From the jump, you know you’re going on an adventure, and this foundation is cemented by the high production values.

Double Fine’s unique Psychonauts art style sings with the help of the Unreal Engine, which breathes life into Raz’s dorky animations and convincingly realises its high-concept mental environments. One of the more lacklustre components of the original was how the platforming felt, but Psychonauts 2 approaches this problem carefully, retaining the gameplay framework but sanding down all of its edges. Dodging, jumping and rolling around on your psychic thought bubble feels far more precise this time around, as you cross gaps, evade enemies and come to terms with your mission.

Psychonauts 2 Credit: Double Fine

To really drill into what Double Fine is best at, let’s break down the seemingly never-ending nuance of the first level. One of the Psychonauts implants a mental construct of a boring office inside the mind of Dr Loboto, a dangerous dentist and the antagonist of the original game. They’re using the construct as a front while they investigate his brain to find some critical information buried in his subconscious. Alas, we soon find out the construct isn’t strong enough, and the mental world is corrupted by Loboto’s own thoughts.

The office walls burst to reveal platforms made of dead teeth and zippers covered in molars. Soon enough, you’ll be rolling along a porcelain track of chompers, your ball of mental energy lying in the indentation of each toothy peg. It’s not just for show either — the foley when you’re ripping open a column of teeth with your telekinesis is as shudder-worthy as you might expect.

Not satisfied with two warring worlds inside one high-concept level, posters appear — “loose lips sink drips” — hinting that Loboto’s mind is being warped by another sinister force, one that is stopping him from revealing the whole truth to the Psychonauts. The influence of all three of these factions inside one brain ensures that the opening level collapses into a mission that feels fresh at every turn. The unbridled chaos of its environments also speaks to the unknown, constantly shifting quantities of our subconscious. It sounds like it could be a level from Silent Hill, but while the floating gum flaps may have scarred me, the trademark Double Fine charm smothers the experience like a warm hug.

Legendary Monkey Island and Sly Cooper composer Peter McConnell returns for the sequel in fine form. I noticed some motifs from the original game’s score reused in The Motherlobe, Psychonauts 2’s bustling hub area. In the original, it was Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, but this time around it’s the actual Psychonaut headquarters, which is full of interns, veterans and mystic clerks. Here is where you’ll take a load off, have revealing conversations with the supporting cast and purchase upgrades and skill-tweaking pins with the Psitanium you collect in missions. You can now specialise Raz’s powers to make combat easier or reach new areas inside of missions, depending on your playstyle.

Psychonauts 2 Credit: Double Fine

A lot of cool ideas from the original have been brought forward in interesting ways. The imagination figments you collect in each mental world (still a genius collectable idea, by the way) have a gorgeous watercolour coating on them, the 2D sketch sprites standing out against the textured 3D backdrops. They adapt to where you are during a level too — when you find yourself in a location from the original game within Loboto’s mind, all of the figments are references to characters from classic scenes. There’s so much to love if you’re a fan of the original, but it never bows at the altar of fan service, at least not so far. Its new worlds felt inspired, and have clearly been developed and iterated upon over some time to incubate your imagination.

As well as some old school mobs like the suit-toting censors that block select thoughts, Psychonauts 2 employs some new malicious mental manifestations. Regrets are flying creatures weighed down by looming steel projectiles. Doubts are purple gloop monsters that hold you down and pull you back. Bad Ideas are immediate and explosive. They’re all consistent with the game’s ambitions to realise certain aspects of mental health in charming ways. The combat isn’t exactly Devil May Cry-riveting, but for a 3D platformer where the world is the star, it’s appropriately challenging and fun. Each enemy is hurt the most by a certain psychic skill, so you’ve got to be creating combos to survive. I definitely died more often in the sequel!

Beyond Loboto’s toothy brain, another level I tried was even more ambitious and based on a fascinating new mechanic called Mental Connections. These are idea nodes within a person’s brain that Raz can zip between in order to reach new heights. But in doing so, Raz is connecting concepts and forming thoughts in their grey matter, which invariably changes how they see the world. The whole point of the mission is that Raz is trying to alter his teacher Hollis Forsythe’s Mental Connections. This will convince her to allow Raz and the Psychonaut interns to go on a dangerous mission in a casino, which she had previously barred them from.

At the start of the mission, the world inside her head is a hospital, and Raz must platform across skeleton scans in order to unravel her backstory – she struggled for money as a stressed-out doctor. But after Raz muddles her connections and warps her risk tolerance, the doctors are suddenly playing stick or twist with someone’s life, and inverted playing cards are thrown in amongst the brain scans. This develops into a level that offers sharp, humour-tipped commentary on for-profit healthcare, gambling addiction and the stigma around asking for help. To reclaim Forsythe’s mind you create healthy links between concepts like ‘Judgment’ and ‘Quitting’ to win a game of ‘Pillinko’ being played inside of a patient’s gastrointestinal tract.

Conversations around mental health have matured dramatically since the release of the first game, but so far, Psychonauts 2 is leading with empathy. Sure, the set dressing is absurd, but by trying to make worlds out of the impossible realms in our brains, it finds a unique way to cut through the fog and have some meaningful discussions. I really admired how the game isn’t just shrugging off the tricky concepts it wants to tackle either, which is what made the original so special. Every player will likely have their own interpretations of how well it has been portrayed, but as a person with mental health struggles, I felt like it was always nudging in the right direction. It often made me feel validated, and brought some well-needed light to my own difficulties without overstepping the line. It’s so easy to be funny and mean, but Psychonauts 2 goes to great lengths to be funny and nice, which is one hell of an achievement given the subject matter. Hats off to Schafer!

The levels I played were technically linear, but they also contained a slew of optional areas, collectables and secret sections to revisit when you’ve got more powers and upgrades. In your scrapbook menu, a jigsaw slowly builds to completion as you collect everything, which will no doubt result in some kind of reward for completionists. It feels like you’d want to replay these levels too, to catch the narrative design nuance of a stray poster or a well-placed figment. There’s a lot going on, so it would be easy to miss at least a clever joke or two.

In trying to find faults, I really struggled. I thought the dialogue was a little overpowering in the mix sometimes, which betrayed a few of its cutscenes, but that’s me really scraping the barrel. This is the most ambitious and cohesive game Double Fine has made so far, with so many dotted i’s and crossed t’s. I didn’t experience any glitches, and it ran really well on my gaming PC and my Xbox Series X. It has good accessibility options, a content warning and even a recap video, so you don’t have to worry about playing the sequel first. It’s also an innovative 3D platformer launching in 2021, which fills me with hope for the future. I simply cannot wait to see if it sticks the landing!

Psychonauts 2 will release on August 25.