Replaying the first Psychonauts this year felt as though we'd slipped back into our younger selves, sat in front of the TV on a Saturday morning watching cartoons. It has such a wonderful atmosphere, with characters we love, a world that's a delight to explore, and a beautiful insight into mental health that's portrayed with ease. With it being such a cult classic, a sequel was always a daring move. Could it live up to the lofty expectations for fans of the original? By comparison, Psychonauts 2 feels like the big-screen adaptation of a Saturday morning cartoon, but one that never loses the heart and spirit of the original. Simply put, it's a masterpiece.
The story of Psychonauts 2 takes place literal days after the first game and moments after its lesser-known VR game, Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. While an introductory video brings you up to speed, anyone who hasn't dived into the first two games may feel a little out of sorts. The larger than life characters, the tone and the narrative may take a while to adjust to, but once you know your Sasha Nein from your Caligosto Loboto, you'll feel right at home. For fans of the original, it will feel as though you've met up with old friends that never left.
It wouldn't be fair to divulge any story beats that the trailers haven't already, but just know Psychonauts 2 feels like it has a place. From the get-go, it confirms it's a story that has a purpose and knows exactly when to take itself seriously. It's quite surprising how heartfelt the game is in some moments, plucking those heartstrings with warming character interactions. While its world is most certainly larger than life, it respects the fans and knows how attached they've grown to the characters over the years.
But by far, its most incredible achievement is through its representation of mental health. While the original did a mighty good job with this, the sequel perfectly balances several spinning plates. Heavy themes such as anxiety, addiction and depression are all dealt with in such an accessible way, as you work your way through the minds of various people in the world. From the level design to the intimate encounters, the team at Double Fine have finely tuned every interaction to be respectful, meaningful and above all else, relatable. An opening message warns players of the content in the game, but rest assured, it's in safe hands.
As for the gameplay itself, it doesn't deviate too far from the original. Instead, it builds upon everything fans know and love about the first game and fine-tunes it to the point of near-perfection. The emphasis is clearly on platforming and game director Tim Schafer's signature adventure game format of investigating the various areas, talking to NPCs and completing puzzles. When you're not making your way through increasingly absurd levels, you'll be exploring the game's hub world - The Motherlobe. Initially, the area seems quite small and disappointing compared to the size of the Campgrounds from the first game, but after the first 3-4 hours, it opens up dramatically.
The Motherlobe is somewhere you'll be spending a lot of time and there's always an abundance of things to do. You can catch up with all your favourite characters through dialogue choices, explore the area for secrets to level up your skills or even partake in a game of telekinetic bowling. You can honestly get suckered in for hours, admiring the world's architecture and character models, all of which are beautifully designed. If you can remember what the Men in Black headquarters looks like, you're in the right ballpark. But as mentioned, it's not long before you can venture into the surrounding areas outside, where fans of the original Campgrounds will feel right at home.
Of course, the main drawing point for Psychonauts 2 is the promise of entering the minds of many damaged people. It's here where it excels beyond the original by cranking up the absurdity and perfectly demonstrating each character's inner demons. From a neon-lit casino in the mind of someone who is tackling a gambling addiction, to a visceral dental journey into the brain of a dentist who fears his superior, it's always best to expect the unexpected.
The platforming gauntlets in these levels are filled with mini-games, puzzles and incredible set pieces which far outdo the original. One early mission has you performing a casino heist in an action-packed sequence filled with thrills and excitement. It's exhilarating stuff, but never once sacrifices the message of the game in its exploration of mental health.
There's also some combat thrown in for good measure, but it's admittedly the weakest element of the game. It's fairly challenging - especially early on - and if you go in all-guns-blazing, you'll most likely wind up dead. Instead, you'll have to use your abilities such as firing PSI-Blasts or using Telekinesis to throw objects to even the odds. Unfortunately, it never quite packs the punch you wish it would and could have benefited from feeling a bit more weighty. We would have loved to have felt the feedback on the attacks a little bit more, for example. It's not terrible by any means, but if we had to choose a negative, we would ultimately pick it out as the weakest part.
Speaking of the powers, they feel much more refined than the original. The signature moves from the first game are all here, such as Pyrokinesis and Levitation, but there are also a few new moves such as Mental Connection, which is not only used as a grappling hook but also doubles as a way to pull you towards enemies. No single power feels as though it's taken a back seat, each grabbing a moment in the spotlight to shine and show you what they can do.
As you progress, you can also level up these abilities through your journal. You'll rank up as you find collectables throughout the world, and in exchange, earn perk points to increase your skills. The journal also keeps track of all your items, objectives, side quests and ranking. Anyone who's played the first game will know what to expect, but it's accessible enough that newcomers can keep on top of everything. If you want to upgrade your skills even further, there are also pins you can buy from the shop. Three can be equipped at one time and range from increasing the time in which enemies remain alight after setting them on fire, all the way to being able to pet animals with telekinesis. It adds a degree of experimentation, as you work to see which build best suits you.
Finally, it's worth noting we played the Xbox Series X version of the game, and it is a visual treat. It may not pack in many of the fancy graphical features owners of next-gen consoles may have come to love, but its art style absolute shines through. The 60fps is a definite highlight, making the platforming and action feel more fluid, especially in those fast-paced set pieces. It's also extremely colourful, giving the impression of a Pixar movie come to life, sprinkled in with a dash of Tim Burton visuals for good measure.
It's honestly astounding how incredible Psychonauts 2 is. After 16 years, the expectations for the sequel were so high it felt as though they were impossible to meet. We don't know how they did it, but the wizards at Double Fine not only met them but smashed through them with ease. Psychonauts 2 is an extraordinary achievement in both its gameplay and storytelling, balancing heavy themes of mental health with its whimsical world. In lesser hands, it could have been a disaster, but the team has taken every aspect of the original game, built upon it and respected the fanbase in the process. Psychonauts 2 is the best game of 2021 so far and one of the greatest sequels ever made.