Nature abhors a straight line. So does Psychonauts 2. In the figuratively and literally twisted settings of the sequel to Psychonauts, every hallway is warped. Every ladder looks like a helix. Every plant needs a trim, and every human a haircut. No structures seem up to code, except for the computer code that created them. Nor would one want them to conform to familiar designs or stick to symmetrical layouts. After spending time in a world where every character and corner is at least slightly askew, obedient buildings are boring.
I’m not normally a screenshot person when I play games, because fumbling for a capture button or being ambushed by a pop-up breaks the spell of the scenery. But I compulsively snapped stills of Psychonauts 2 like a tourist on his first trip away from his hometown. Not because of how lifelike it looks, but because of how much less lively real life looks by comparison. The environments of Psychonauts 2 are as full of folds, wrinkles, and contradictions as the addled in-game brains that contain them. Yet even though every level looks different, they all unquestionably belong inside Psychonauts, a singular series that follows few rules except to stay resolutely and exquisitely true to itself.
Psychonauts 2 doubles as an interactive art exhibit, but in some respects it’s also a semiconventional video game, so here’s a more mundane description. Like its celebrated predecessor, which arrived in 2005, Psychonauts 2 is a third-person platformer developed by Double Fine, the Microsoft-owned but independently operated studio started by Tim Schafer, the legendary LucasArts auteur. The first Psychonauts didn’t sell well initially, but its distinctive visuals, off-kilter characters, and endearing tonal mix of comedy and empathy made it a critical and cult favorite. Subsequent re-releases raised its profile and expanded its player pool, which made it possible for the sequel to attract almost $4 million in crowdfunding. Psychonauts 2 was announced almost six years ago after years of fan campaigning and professional flirtations between Double Fine and potential publishers. A few delays later, fans finally got their hands on the long-awaited title, which came out on Wednesday for Windows, PlayStation 4, and every recent Xbox system.
Psychonauts 2 is mostly the same Psychonauts, but bigger, better-looking, and more deeply considered and steeped in Psychonauts lore. Even though 16 years have passed since Psychonauts, the story of Psychonauts 2 begins almost immediately after the events of the first game, with 2017’s Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin—an engaging but brief and static VR-only release—bridging the hours-long gap between games. Ten-year-old protagonist Razputin Aquato (a.k.a. Raz) is a psychic and superfan of the Psychonauts, a secretive government group of psychic spies. In the original, he runs away from his family of circus performers to sneak into the Psychonauts’ training facility, where he proves his psychic mettle, has his first kiss, and earns his entry into the Psychonauts (or so he thinks).
At the start of Psychonauts 2, Raz discovers that he’s only been admitted to the intern program, but his junior status doesn’t hold him back for long. Lowly rank aside, he has weighty problems to tackle: a mole in the Psychonauts, the Voldemort-esque rumored return of a formerly defeated adversary whose origins are closely tied to those of the Psychonauts themselves, and persistent uncertainty about whether he has a girlfriend.
Psychonauts gameplay largely takes place in two types of settings: sprawling hub areas that Raz can traverse and explore, and themed levels set inside the psyches he enters to help allies and enemies alike clear away cobwebs, face facts, and confront traumas—crucially, without taking advantage of their sensitive states to impose his will or deprive them of their agency. Weird, whimsical, and surreal as it is thanks to a script cowritten (as Psychonauts was) by Schafer and Valve veteran Erik Wolpaw, Psychonauts 2 is conscientious and understanding in its depictions of mental health disorders and therapy, though the constraints of the game dictate that catharsis comes faster than it typically can in actual treatment.
Unlike the intriguing but troubling Twelve Minutes, whose tortured protagonist is desperately in need of a Psychonaut’s assistance, Psychonauts 2 is a feel-good game about asking for and finding help, both from others and from inside oneself. (In another departure from Twelve Minutes, it includes a detailed content warning.) Its protagonists have their foibles and failings, and its villains are relatable and, perhaps, redeemable. Within the brains he spelunks, Raz views his vulnerable friends and foes as they see themselves, burdened by depression, rejection, and negative self-talk. In these mind palaces (and prisons), doubts take intimidating, tangible form, embodied both via common enemies and through towering or labyrinthine level designs that turn teardrops into waterfalls or a sense of isolation into physical confinement on a tiny island in a vast sea.
That range of mental plights lends itself to varied environments, from Nolan-like melting metropolises …
… to a world built out of books and letters and populated by paper people …
… to a pastel explosion stitched together like a quilt. I could keep listing playgrounds—a cel-shaded psychedelic concert!—but it’s probably better to be surprised by some of the visual inventiveness.
Almost every inch of each Tim Burton–meets–Klasky Csupo stage is festooned with tiny touches—a sight gag here, a snippet of text there—that speak to the care and attention to detail lavished on Psychonauts 2 during its extended gestation. The music is composed by frequent Schafer collaborator Peter McConnell, whose playful, genre-hopping score evokes the atmosphere of each setting and hearkens back to the sounds he supplied for a library of LucasArts classics, Psychonauts, and Sly Cooper. The game pairs its indie aesthetics and eccentricities with Triple-A length, depth, and (for the most part) polish: For its genre, Psychonauts 2 is on the meaty side, packing plenty of optional side quests and scavenger hunts for completists and a few false endings that give way to additional, unsuspected sequences.
Like the previous Psychonauts, the sequel is more thematically and visually adventurous than mechanically complex. The Psychonauts series essentially skipped two console generations, and some of its dated Xbox/PS2-era roots remain. There’s a limited skill tree, a mostly extraneous system of complementary “pins” that allow additional ability upgrades, and a lot of collecting of the tedious-but-compelling kind that I wish a Psychonaut could cure me of the desire to do. The most common collectibles are “Figments,” colorful, floating projections that are almost too pretty to remove from the maps.
Combat in Psychonauts 2 is improved but still kind of clunky: Although the camera cooperates and there’s much more variety in enemy types and psychic skills—time alteration, pyrokinesis, telekinesis, self-replication, and so on—than there was the last time around, fighting still feels more like a means to an end than the main event. This is a game where you beat bosses not just by depleting their life bars, but by understanding the delusions that give them their power (although, yeah, you punch them too). It’s more of a challenge for Raz to unravel the conflicting, self-interested stories that the characters he encounters tell others and themselves than it is for him not to lose his own life.
If you’re looking for fast-twitch fun, Psychonauts 2 can’t quite compete with more action-oriented alternatives like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, another new(ish) platformer whose lineage dates back close to 20 years. Psychonauts 2 isn’t a technological showcase in the class of Rift Apart, a PS5-only title specifically constructed to give last-gen-only owners FOMO. Psychonauts 2 tries to straddle console generations, and sometimes slips: On Xbox One the loading times are lengthy, and the frame rate regularly stutters and in certain sections slows to slide-show speed. My weary Microsoft console, a white war-horse still sitting side by side with a sleeker PS5 until someone, anyone, points me toward a Series X, suffered occasional crashes, too, including a couple during boss fights. (Do not recommend.)
Insomniac has refined Ratchet & Clank’s run-and-gun foundation over many more installments than Psychonauts’ short list of titles. From a gameplay perspective, though, Rift Apart’s rifts and dimensions are mostly window dressing grafted onto the bones of a time-tested formula. The game harnesses the horsepower of the PS5, but not in a way that’s integral to any novel, core mechanic. Ratchet & Clank concerns itself to an extent with its protagonists’ bond, but its characters’ whereabouts, goals, and tactics are easily reskinned from game to game, because bullets and bolts will travel.
The best compliment one can pay Psychonauts is that nothing about its two major entries is dispensable or interchangeable. Even with the backing of a deep-pocketed publisher, these aren’t games that could be pumped out every year or two to suit a holiday-driven release schedule. (Though it would be nice if it took less than another 16 years to complete the presumptive trilogy.) Psychonauts never strays far from its essence. Its story and writing, its music, voice work, and visuals, and the ways it permits players to interact with its world all reinforce each other and the series’ central conceit of a league of extraordinary psychics who help those who can’t help themselves.
I may have had more mindless fun from moment to moment playing Ratchet & Clank, but Psychonauts 2’s ramshackle splendor and characters I cared about will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten what Rift Apart’s pretty-but-not-nearly-as-striking levels looked like. The world of Psychonauts is one I wanted to get lost in. It’s tough to get lost for long, because Raz reminds you where to go and what to do the second you get stuck; accessibility is the selling point here, not being stumped or stymied. But emotions and memories linger long after the experiences that inspire them, as any good Psychonaut knows.