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Psychonauts 2 - Review



I’m really excited right now guys. I’m truly excited with what I’m about to bring to you all at this very moment. My most and only anticipated game of this year not only lived up to the great expectations that surrounded it, but also exceeded them by a long shot. It’s a game so brilliant that giving a simple description of what it is will not do it justice. It’s my Game of The Year for 2021 and it’s another pure example of how to do a video game sequel especially for games that go outside of the medium. We don’t play games like this that often, but when we do we cherish every moment of it. The game I’m talking about is Psychonauts 2, which spent almost one and a half decades in the makings. Now, why did it take this long to develop the sequel? Well let’s pick the story up where it ended last time back in 2005.


Schafer and his studio, Double Fine Productions, had a rocky time developing the original Psychonauts. Budget fell short, they were struggling to figure out what direction to go, and the team was trying to find a publisher willing to get their game out onto the market. Microsoft was willing to publish Psychonauts for them as an Xbox exclusive for a short period of time, but the game was a financial flop and even when the game was ported to the PlayStation 2 it still failed to sell more than 100,000 physical copies. This disappointed the team at Double Fine at first, but as time passed people began to figure out about Psychonauts. They revisited the game to see what they missed out on and what they found was something truly genius. Psychonauts was a game ahead of its time and it was thanks to Schafer and his creativity that Psychonauts reached into the hearts of dozens. The humorous writing, memorable characters and universe, quirky animation and personality, level design with unique themes and elements, and most importantly how the game handled serious topics that we would often see in the real world. Psychonauts was a wondrous adventure to unravel, but gameplay wise it didn’t age well. People were able to see why so many critics and gamers back then passed on the game. It wasn’t particularly fun to play, the control and physics were finicky, and a good chunk of the levels while unique felt underdeveloped. Psychonauts is still a fantastic experience though and it’s a shame so many people passed out originally.


The game began picking up sales around the time it was brought to the Steam store and around the early 2010s the game finally sold one million copies. Something that Double Fine Productions weren’t expecting, especially with the bombastic launch in 2005. Now that Psychonauts was doing incredibly well, Schafer was reconsidering whether to step back into the franchise he helped create. Should he make the sequel the cult he formed was highly demanding? He walked in circles for a bit and during that time Double Fine Productions made Broken Age, a click and point story driven adventure homage to the old click and point games Schafer used to make back when he worked for Lucasfilm Games. The game did receive some criticism for a drop in quality in the second portion, which we’ll touch upon in a few minutes, but Broken Age as a whole was received generously well. I think reception is then what drove Schafer to start working on the sequel to Psychonauts. The problem was that his team didn’t have the budget to do so, again, and they didn’t want the game to be a financial flop like the original. So, they went to where they knew they had to go. A place to harvest the money for Psychonauts 2. Kickstarter. That’s right they announced a crowdfunding campaign back in late 2015 and the funding campaign went better than the team expected.


Psychonauts 2 would take a long period of time to develop, because you need to remember that unlike a majority of Triple A games like God of War or Uncharted, the team didn’t have a major publisher or company to help back the project. They had to be extremely careful with each element of the game and make sure each piece of the puzzle fit together perfectly. They took the criticism they received from the first Psychonauts and crafted gameplay that actually worked. Eventually in 2019, Double Fine Productions was acquired by Microsoft who were willing to support development this time around. Now Psychonauts 2 had both the budget and the publisher, and with the cult following the sequel was shaping up to be one of the most highly anticipated games in recent memory. Not as much as let’s say Cyberpunk 2077 or Red Dead Redemption 2, but you get what I mean when I say a game is highly anticipated. It means the people who were interested or fell within a specific niece were hyped beyond belief for Psychonauts 2. Well, that was a useless statement to cram it, but f*ck it you get the point.


Psychonauts 2 looked fantastic especially with the small reveals released every so often, but Double Fine Productions was not doing so great as a fair bit of controversy was met during the development process. Remember Broken Age from earlier and how I stated the second portion of the game dropped in quality? That game had a Kickstarter campaign as well, but not all the money made during the campaign went towards the game. Some of that money was directed towards projects Schafer wanted to make alongside and when it came to the second half, they had to delay it as a separate release for the next year. There was a dip down in quality and design, and people who bought and backed the game were wondering if they were scammed. Schafer himself stirred up some controversy as well during a live award ceremony when he went up stage to perform a humorous act, he thought would be excellent. The subject matter he was joking about wasn’t excellent as he was making fun of Gamergate, an online harassment campaign trying to bring down bullying and sexism aimed towards women in online gaming and gaming in general. Schafer even had a sock puppet during the performance and joked around saying people who supported Gamergate were mindless puppets who didn’t know what they were talking about. I brought this up in the last review and I’ll say it again. “I believe no matter what gender, race, or preferences you have; everyone should be treated as equal individuals.”


So, Schafer and his crew were receiving some backlash for what they did in the past, and some people were skeptical whether Psychonauts 2 would be a scam as well since the game was spending a long time in development. I do want to bring up that Psychonauts 2 spent almost as much time in development as the original, and that video games in general are hard to make so why would you want to rush them out sooner than later? I think it’s because back then games were just released whenever they wanted, and hype culture wasn’t as big as now. Now that there's the internet and social media it’s easier to keep track of development and the latest news updates for a game. Oh well, how did Psychonauts 2 turn out? Really f*cking good.


Psychonauts 2 was officially released in August of this year and when it came to critical reception expectations were matched. The sequel was a drastic improvement from the first game in all the right ways and the time spent in the works was definitely worth it. The detailing and animation were slicker than ever, the gameplay was tighter and more well designed, there was a grander scope, and the game answered several questions the original left behind. Psychonauts 2 lived up to the hype and it’s understandable why a lot of critics and award ceremonies are choosing it as one of the releases of the year, because it really is one of the best games of 2021.


I just so happened to pick this game up recently and play it over my Thanksgiving break, and man the public was right about this one. Psychonauts 2 is an astonishing experience, and I can’t believe it took me this long to get to playing this masterpiece. There is so much to love about Psychonauts 2, and I want to share with you all why this is one of the best games I’ve played in recent memory. Today we’ll be talking about why I loved Psychonauts 2 and why it utterly deserves your attention. So, let’s get psyched yet again and prepare for another mind trip.


Story

Psychonauts 2 picks right up after the events of the first game and what happened in that VR spinoff set in between both games. If you need a quick recollection, then allow me to present it to you. Razputin Aquato, the middle child of the Aquato family who are a traveling group of acrobatics. His father loathes fortune tellers, otherwise psychics, human beings born with the ability to harness psychic energy, for cursing their family to forcefully drown in any body of water. Psychics are dangerous in his eyes, but Raz is a Psychic himself and dreams of being part of this big professional government group known as the Psychonauts. Agents given the task to handle any phenomenon or terrorist threat that deals with psychic activity. Raz ran away from his family during the night and attended a summer camp designed to recruit young psychics hosted at Whispering Rock. There met the three attending agents Sasha Nein, Milla Vodello, and Coach Oleander who gave the students the basics of what a Psychonaut can do. At first the summer program was going great until the brains of the children were being stolen by Coach Oleander, who was planning to use them to build an army of brain-controlled death tanks. Raz soon battled Oleander and journeyed deep into his mind only to discover he wasn’t really a bad person. He just had a rough childhood. Raz also encountered his own father during the fight who told him he wasn’t upset with Raz wanting to be a Psychonaut. He just wanted to protect him. After that Raz became an official Psychonaut and was immediately sent on a mission to rescue Lili’s father. The grand head of the Psychonauts, Truman Zanotto. Raz then flew to the Rhombus of Ruin to rescue Zonatto while also dealing with a psychotic dentist who had been troubling him since the first game, Doctor Loboto. The crew then began to make their way back to Psychonauts HQ where the sequel now picks off.


Raz, Lilli, and the rest of the Psychonauts aboard the plane are wondering how a mad dentist with not many wits or skills whatsoever is capable of kidnapping one of the most highly protected men amongst the Psychonauts. They decide to form a mental construct within his brain and trick him into revealing the truth. Someone must have been pulling the strings. Someone had placed a mole within the Psychonauts. When inside Loboto's brain the construct begins to break down, but Raz manages to navigate through the dangerous shifting environments and catch up with Doctor Loboto. He then sees Loboto interact with a shadowy figure who threatens to hurt him if he reveals the truth. Loboto then has a breakdown, but Raz manages to recognize the figure whom he was talking to. A shadowy woman who stood above a drowning city and was filled with utter rage. The group makes it back to the real world with Loboto strapped down onto a chair. Raz describes the figure he saw within Loboto’s mind and Sasha Nein, the smartest Psychonaut alive, identifies her as Maligula. A devious woman with the power to manipulate water. She drowned the entire nation of Grulovia in a gigantic storm, but the original Psychonauts named the Psychic 6 were sent in to deal with her. They succeeded, but each of them was damaged or fractured by the end of the battle. Maligula was said to have died in that battle, but somehow, she survived, and her possible followers are trying to bring her back to life.


Raz and the Psychonauts aboard the plane finally make it back to Psychonauts HQ where they are greeted by Hollis Forsythe, the current head of the Psychonauts after Truman was kidnapped. She will be in charge for a little longer since Truman is knocked unconscious, but she learns about Maligula and prepares to send top agents Sasha Nein and Milla Vodello to look further into the situation. Raz wants to help them both out as well, but Hollis doesn’t think he is capable, because even though he was approved as a Psychonaut agent by legendary Ford Cruller that doesn’t mean he is a full professional. He still has a lot of learning and training to do. Hollis then makes him part of the intern program, basically a classroom designed to train the newly recruited children through slow lessons. A bunch of stuff then happens which sends Raz and the interns on a dangerous casino mission which nearly kills them, but Raz manages to quickly fix the problem and help out with the mission. Afterwards Raz walks up to the main office to check up on Lili and her father. When Lili walks away, Truman wakes up and tells Raz that he is not actually in a coma. He knows that Maligula is alive and no one with Psychonauts HQ is strong enough to beat her when she finally arrives. Truman tells Raz the only way to beat Maligula is to reform the Psychic 6 who were led by Ford Cruller, the man who led this group to fight in the epic battle. Truman wants Raz to bring Ford back and have him fight Maligula, but Raz knows that Ford’s mind was fractured after the battle and that he was split into multiple versions of himself. Raz does bring Ford back to headquarters, but he has to find a way to bring all the fragments of Ford together to form a functional Ford. To do this he must travel deep into the mind of Ford Cruller.


That’s not the only problem though. While Raz is trying to gain access to the three locations Ford is at, a group of visitors come to headquarters to support his new job. Raz’s father appears and with him is the entire family waiting outside the front doors. Hollis sends them away to locate a highly classified area and she becomes more suspicious of Raz since his family originated from Grulovia, the home country of Maligula. Not every member of Raz’s family is happy with him running away to become a Psychonaut, but his father wants to repair the damages Raz caused by getting him to help out by setting up a circus tent in the Questionable Area. Not only does Raz have to repair Ford Cruller’s mind to fight Maligula, but also deal with the damage he created with his dysfunctional family. Sucking up the embarrassment they are causing and figuring out how to handle the stress being pushed onto his shoulders by the unknown approaching throat. The truth shall soon be revealed, and the origins of the truth may not be enough for Raz to handle.


Gameplay

The gameplay element of Psychonauts 2 is a drastic improvement from the original game, and the developers at Double Fine Productions have managed to perfect a lot of areas that not only the original Psychonauts messed up in but also a lot of other areas 3D platformers don’t quite seem to know how to handle. It’s actually functional this time around, and yes of course the game is fun you dumb f*ck. Sorry.


Raz has a wide arsenal of moves to navigate his surroundings and out maneuver every obstacle thrown at him. He can jump, double jump when in midair, swing off of monkey bars, balance on tightropes, and grind on railing when there are rails. He does have some new moves this time around that make traversal less frustrating. Stuff that the original probably should have had. Like a wall jump that only works on solid surfaces, and a dive which propels Raz forward but makes him plummet to the ground much faster. The levels this time around are more well designed this time around, so that you have enough space to work with and make full of every ability Raz. The team probably hired play testers to go through each level and tell them what did and did not work. What had to be removed and what could be there to not make the levels feel awkward.


Speaking of the levels, the one aspect that makes Psychonauts stand out from a majority of platformers is the level variety and how they fit along with the story. Level themes and ideas are made to match up with the person that goes along with it. You slap a magical door onto some person’s head and are transported to their cognitive world. If you’re a Persona fan typing away at the comments telling me this sounds exactly like your game, then please shut up and listen. The levels of Psychonauts are total mind twisters and they find a way to represent a person’s personality and thoughts in the weirdest way possible. For example, one of the earliest stages in the game is navigating your way through a hospital casino because Raz messed with the thought process of Hollis’ mind and now she has a gambling addiction. The stage shows how Hollis thinks by gambling and winning enough money she can save the entirety of Psychonauts HQ and fund bigger more ambitious projects that she has always anticipated. Risking lives and taking chances for a big reward that will hopefully pay off.


The combat in Psychonauts 2 has seen major changes all for the better. In fact, Double Fine has managed to make 3D platformer combat that actually works and doesn’t feel terrible to control. Raz’s attacks are much faster, fluid, and he can perform a swift flurry of punches on a single enemy. He still has his ground pound from the first game which can be used to damage multiple enemies at once. He still maintained his powers from the first game and thankfully the developers didn’t pull a stupid trick off like "Oh his powers were stolen” or “He forgot about them”. Five original powers are introduced in the opening hours of the game, and they have been reworked to not only be more conventional but more fun to use.


PSI Blast shoots out powerful projectiles, but they are shot much faster and rather than having a high numbered amount of them you instead have a limited cool down rate. So now you can’t just spam these over and over. Levitation is a major traversal power which allows you to move quickly and hover in the air, but it could sequence a lot of sections for how much airtime you were offered. Now the airtime you have is limited, forcing you to rely more on the basic abilities you have as well as analyze the environment for navigable surfaces. Pyrokinesis is no longer an awkward ability where you stand still and charge it up, but rather a ball of fire you prepare while on the move and explodes when ready. Telekinesis is no longer an arched throw, but a simple grab and throw like it should have been from the beginning. Finally, the last original power is Clairvoyance which has more purpose this time around. It can be used to locate hidden digging spots and a late game enemy requires you to use this ability to be beaten.


Some new abilities are introduced this time around and they also serve multiple purposes in and out of combat. Mental Connection can be used to pull yourself up to stray thought bubbles and zip around to places you normally wouldn’t be able to reach, but it can also be used to pull enemies towards you like a grapple. Time Bubble can be used to slow down enemies to a crawl, but also slow down surfaces and platforms that may be moving too quickly for you to grab onto. Finally, there is Projection which summons a doodle version of Raz to fight enemies and open up doors with narrow slots. He has a limited amount of health but can be resummoned when ready.


Some basic enemies like the Censors and Bad Ideas can be eliminated using basic means, but there are certain enemy types that are best eliminated using specific powers and weaknesses. This gets the player to swap their arsenal often and make full use of the powers on hand. A Doubt for instance is a blobby little guy who is resistant to all physical damage but is highly weak to fire damage, so use Pyrokinesis to set him ablaze and watch him melt down. A Regret is a flying little bugger who is hard to reach but using PSI Blast knocks them down quickly or using Telekinesis to pick up the objects they drop and throw it back at them. Mini-boss enemies like Judgements and Panic Attacks may want to be taken down immediately even if they have a large health pool due to how they can do hefty damage from far away and up close. So, keep on your toes and fight diligently.


There are a multitude of collectibles at every level and some of them are hidden in unknown locations you wouldn't expect. There are the basic Figments scattered about like gold coins in a Super Mario game, Emotional Baggage which requires specific-colored tags to send away, Memory Vaults which can be smacked open to reveal dark moments of a person’s life, and these gold nuggets which allow you to rank up quickly. In the real world there are PSI Cards littered about, which can be collected and combined together with PSI Cores to form PSI Challenge Markers which rank you up faster. How come there is ranking and leveling in a 3D platformer?


Every time you rank up in Psychonauts 2 you gain an ability point. These points can be put towards your psychic powers to improve their capabilities and open up new options to combat. They're not mandatory to beat the game, but it means dedicating yourself to specific powers is highly rewarded and you can do more besides the basic traits these powers have. There are also pins you can unlock from dispensing machines which grant unique perks that you can’t normally earn from your skill tree. Stuff like exploding enemies with Pyrokinesis can cause a chain reaction or throwing an item using Telekinesis can stun an enemy for a longer period of time. Creativity is highly encouraged in Psychonauts 2 and since the core combat is more well-rounded it means you won't get punished as often for experimenting with different playstyles outside of punch and run away or jumping towards spots of an area you thought were navigable but were just slopes that dump you into bottomless pits or hazards. One minor aspect to mention is that they got rid of the life system entirely, which I didn’t even understand why the original Psychonauseauts had because it crea