Psychonauts 2 – A Mind-bending Masterpiece
PC, PS4/5, Xbox One/Series
Before we get started, full disclosure and a bit of background – I have a psychology degree. That means that the concept of Psychonauts both thrills and concerns me in equal measure, because games don’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to dealing with and representing mental illness, often relying on dangerous stereotypes or downright misinformation. The original Psychonauts, a cult classic, did a hell of a lot better than most. It recognised how freakin’ cool the human mind can be, taking a lighthearted approach towards representing some of the very real concepts that can wreak havoc on our brains like maladaptive thoughts and doubt by turning them into cartoon enemies. The original game, for me, did still rely on some of those tired mental illness tropes (like the inclusion of an asylum) and while good, it still had a way to go before it hit the right note. Psychonauts 2 hits that note. Psychonauts 2 is the game Psychonauts was trying to be, but with a few extra years to mature, and honestly, it feels damn near perfect.
For those unfamiliar with the original game (or those who just need a refresher), the Psychonauts are basically a group of secret agents who have psychic abilities that allow them to manipulate the world around them, and go inside the minds of others. Razputin Aquato, the ten-year-old psychic protagonist, has been a long-time fan of the Psychonauts, despite growing up in a family who were against all things psychic (because of a curse, it was a whole thing). The beginning of the game gives an overview of the story so far, but the tale basically picks up where the last instalment left off. Raz, who joined up with the Psychonauts and has been honing his psychic abilities during a traumatic time at a summer camp for “Psycadets” has helped them to recover their leader, who post-kidnapping is a little worse for wear. After helping them with such an important mission (mostly due to necessity and proximity), Raz is admitted to the Psychonauts internship program through sheer persistence (and, yes, a little bit of natural psychic skill). His dreams are coming true, but he has little time to celebrate as it soon becomes clear that there’s a mole within the ranks of the Psychonauts, filling everyone with doubt, a whole ton of questions, and a new mission – find the mole, save their recently returned leader, and fight an evil genius who they thought to be long dead.
During the first game, Raz had a lot to learn. He showed up at camp with a lot of raw talent but zero finesse, acquiring new skills over time. Now that he’s had some practise, Raz begins the sequel with a handful of them under his belt, ready to be used even in the earliest levels of the game. It makes sense narratively, but it also just feels better to jump into – you get some cool new powers to play with right from the get-go. Familiar powers like Pyrokinesis, which allows Raz to set objects and enemies on fire, Psi Blast which can be used to attack, and Telekinesis, which is used to lift and maneuver objects with your mind are quickly thrown into the mix. Some other powers make a comeback from the first game, but my favourite was one of the new ones – Mental Connection – which allows the user to latch onto and create links between thoughts in an individual’s mind. Discovering the powers and their uses is part of the fun here, so I won’t spoil them all, but they can be used in different combinations to attack enemies and solve puzzles, and they all felt incredibly smooth to switch between. Using them to navigate the levels became second nature after a while, and even switching between which ones I had mapped onto the buttons to be used quickly was incredibly easy to do. Many of the mechanics are similar to those in the first game, but they felt smoother here.
Some things have definitely been given a noticeable polish. The dowsing mechanic, for example, which I found fiddly and frustrating to use in the first game, has been replaced by a contraption you receive partway through the game that allows you to locate stray thoughts in the world, which you can latch onto to access new areas. Fragments, which allow you to level up Raz and his abilities, are buried in the world but are no longer hard to find, and you’ll come across plenty in your travels. The levelling up in this game felt perfectly paced, and even though you’re in control of which of your powers you focus on improving, I never reached a point where I felt even my more neglected powers weren’t strong enough for what I needed. You’ll need to use all the powers, but how you use them is up to you – particularly when it comes to combat. Fragments can be spent on your abilities, but they can also be used to buy Pins that add special perks to Raz or his powers. My favourite, of course, was ‘Rainblows’, which had no practical benefit but added a rainbow streak to all my punches. You can use them to change up aesthetics or to make abilities stronger, or just to switch up the gameplay, but all of them are fun to explore.
While the powers and the combat are great, the real hero of Psychonauts 2 is the level design. Though you’ll do some quests in the overworld, the headquarters of the Psychonauts, the levels themselves are located within the minds of the characters. Each level is themed to the psyche of that individual, with enemies, obstacles and environmental design tailored to the things that make them tick, or the particular things that are holding them back. I’ve never seen levels as unique and exciting as the ones in this game – and yes, part of that is because the psych nerd in me thinks the human mind is just ridiculously cool, and this game has a true appreciation for the fact that every person thinks differently. But each one feels so complete, with every element adding to the story it’s trying to tell. The story tackles themes of addiction, complex trauma, anxiety and PTSD, and most of the time it barely uses actual dialogue to do it. A character’s drinking problem, for example, is never really explicitly mentioned, but his mind is filled with bottles. There’s a warning at the beginning of the game that mentions that people with a dental phobia might be distressed, and you should absolutely take that seriously – there’s one level that just has… a lot of teeth, and it’s very early in the game. But everything feels so completely thought out, and so respectful. In that same warning is a note that says these themes are being tackled in a light-hearted way, and that the message of the game is one of healing. That feels so incredibly true.
Any lingering doubt I had from the first game that people with mental illness weren’t being made the butt of the jokes is utterly gone here. This game feels more diverse, more mature, and more serious in many ways – even though it’s also hilarious, whimsical, and clearly light-hearted. There are levels of diversity I wasn’t expecting – super cool representations of disabled characters using psychic abilities in awesome ways, and a prominent queer couple that is treated the same way as any of the game’s straight couples, even getting their own chunk of a level focused on their relationship. It elevates the game to new heights and celebrates the diversity of living and diversity of thinking. A lot of the game revolves around what could be described as mental illness and trauma, but some of it is just about the things that hold us all back. The emotional baggage that we all have (represented in this game as literal baggage), the bad moods we all experience (that can’t be dealt with head-on, instead forcing you to tackle them from their source), or the enabling thoughts that make all our doubts and fears stronger. They’re shown as collectibles and fun enemies to be dealt with here, but they’re all very things that everyone deals with. This game is truly able to celebrate and analyze the human mind in a way that feels fun but is very, very real and serious. As someone with a background in psychology, I’m aware of how hard that is to do, and of just how much the devs clearly cared about telling this story the right way. They made a good start with Psychonauts 1, but Psychonauts 2 is something truly special.
Even if the subject matter isn’t of interest to you, Psychonauts 2 is a very solid platforming adventure. But the subject matter should be of interest to everyone. This game is real, witty, absurd, and told with an abundance of heart. The controls are smooth, and any mistake I made in the levels very much felt like my fault for not noticing an element in the world, or by repeatedly trying to solve the puzzle in a way that was much harder than it needed to be. The levels are all exciting to be in and are an incredible way to approach the diversity of human psychology and the diversity of our life experiences. We all think differently because we’ve lived different lives, and that changes the way we approach problems – this game knows that, and celebrates that. I want to keep waxing lyrical about it forever because it’s achieved in a way I didn’t expect. Maybe I should have, and I kept my expectations too low, but this industry’s approach to mental health, in general, has such a long way to go, and this was an absolute breath of fresh air. It sees the humour in psychology without making fun of those who think differently, and I think that’s an incredible achievement.
It might be the fact that I’m a psychology nerd that made this game feel so amazing to me, but the more I reflect on what makes it great, the more I’m convinced that this game is actually just amazing. It has such a colourful cast of characters, a fun spy plot, smooth mechanics and a whole lot of heart, and I personally couldn’t ask for anything more. I do have to wonder why so much responsibility is given to a ten-year-old, but… in a game that allows you to open literal doors into the minds of others, maybe there are more important things to be focusing on.
Psychonauts 2 was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by Xbox Australia
Jess is a writer and researcher who loves games with good puzzles, good stories, and a tendency to punch you straight in your feelings. She is one of the directors of not-for-profit organisation Queerly Represent Me and is particularly interested in games told from unique perspectives that highlight themes or characters from groups that are often underrepresented. She also just really loves coffee, hot chips, and terrible superhero TV shows, and is always secretly hoping that one day the world will give her a good Sherlock Holmes game.