Okay, this place has gotten weird. Or should I say weirder. So far, I’ve been attacked by dentures, encountered two flying molars with an obsession about gold and talking like gangsters about ‘the mooks’, and even contended with the floors becoming the walls. Now, rising out of a seemingly endless void are a huge pair of dentist’s mirrors and air hoses. One of the mirrors slowly rotates, offering a platform and way forward, while the air hoses give my levitation ability (which creats a thought bubble out of happy thoughts to lift me up) a boost which allows me to reach a platform a bit too far away to make the jump. And this isn’t, not by a long shot, the strangest world I’ll have encountered by the end of the game. I’ll have flown on giant flying letters in a huge post-office. Talked to bookworms eating their way through a library (as well as tried to solve a fight between a dragon and a knight). Run through a psychedelic garden, traversing bridges made of rainbows while dodging huge, flailing moustaches. And even gone through one of the strangest theme-park rides of all time. Welcome to Psychonauts 2.
In Psychonauts 2 players take on the role of 10 year old Razputin (Raz, for short), a young psychic determined to join the Psychonauts – an organisation of psychic spies who use their ability to project themselves into the minds of others to both heal damaged minds and hunt for hidden information. If you’ve not played the original Pyschonauts which was released 16 years ago, don’t worry. While Psychonauts 2 is a direct sequel with the story taking place literally the day after the first game finished, a short and snappy introduction video quickly brings everyone up to speed.
A 3D platformer (where players run, jump, flip and use their skills to explore and navigate the world – rare for PCs nowadays), gameplay is split between two very distinct environments. The first is the real world. This acts as both a huge open hub where players can select what levels they want to do next (within limits), but also a huge playground filled with strange characters to interact with, and collectible items for players to discover, ranging from Psitanium (used as currency) to cards and markers which can be used to level up Raz’ abilities and powers.
The second set of environments in which the game takes place is within the minds of the variouss eccentric characters that Raz encounters. This is because the central conceit of Psychonauts 2 is the ability of psychics to project themsleves into the minds of others. These are mind-bending levels, where metaphors take literal form, themed around a particular mood or obsession such as the aforementioned dentistry, hairdressing, narcissism, worrying about being judged (taking the form of a hilarious cooking competition) or even isolation (where the person is trapped on a small island in the middle of the sea, where his memories have been literally bottled up). Aside from being fascinating in and of themselves, the environments also always tell you more about the characters and the story.
Within these worlds, players will get to collect Figment of Imagination, find Nuggets of Wisdom, sort Emotional Baggage (literally crying suitcases and handbags) and heal whatever issues are besetting that mind. Players may also get the chance to talk to whatever strange imaginings inhabit this world (well worth doing, especially in the library level). These levels range from short, single-goal affairs, to vast multi-objective mind-scapes. In these larger levels, an obsession with three is evident. Large levels have an intro, a middle section with 3 distinct goals (some of which have 3 sub-goals), and a boss fight which has, you guessed it, 3 phases. It stands out a bit when you first notice it, but it does let you feel just how far you have to go.
What is common between all the levels is the sheer level of imagination brought to realising them. Worlds loop and fold back in on themselves, so you may suddenly find yourself literally climbing walls. Huge spaces are stored inside tiny buildings. Corridors impossibly loop back on themselves, with each turning of the corner revealing a new location. Or the world may, in fact, be a small ball, which you only discover as you head towards the horizon. In short, the laws of reality and the rules of Euclidean geometry do not apply, and it’s absolutely brilliant.
Along with the ability to project oneself into another’s mind, players have a range of psychic abilities to help them on their quest. These include the ability to levitate, shoot energy projectiles, set items on fire, latch onto stray thoughts and even slow time.
Players will unlock these abilities as they progress, as well as getting the chance to upgrade them, which is an absolute must. They can also be pretty amusing: using clairvoyance allows you to see the world as others do, with results ranging from amusing to disturbing, while one of my favourite powers allows you to summon an Archetype – in this case a hyperactive 2D paper cutout version of Raz which runs all over the place speaking in a high-pitched voice (exsqueeze me!) or turns into a paper plane and flys about making ‘bbbrrruummm-bbbrruumm’ noises. Each and every power is necessary for navigating the game’s worlds. Also, every power has a combat application, and some are absolutely necessary, for defeating the less-than-friendly parts of people’s minds.
In a game when metaphors get interpreted literally, negative emotions also take literal form. Censors run around with big ‘no’ stamps, determined to stamp out anything in the mind which doesn’t belong. Bad Thoughts fire red lightbulbs which can blow up in your face, while Regrets fly around with heavy weights and attempt to weigh you down. Each foe is distinct, and requires specific tactics and psychic powers to dispatch efficiently (Doubts, for example, are especially flammable).
Combat is simple but satisfying, especially when you get the handle on how the powers work and integrate them into your fighting. It’s particularly enjoyable to use your Telekinesis to pluck incoming bad thoughts out of the air and hurl them back at their source, or slow time and then latch onto a speedy Panic Attack (which comes out of nowhere) in order to deliver a knuckle-sandwich. You can also augment your abilities with pins you can purchase using the in-game collectible currency of Psitanium. These augments range from the purely cosmetic, all the way to boosting combat damage and modifying abilities – such as making Doubts you’ve just flambéed explode and damage surrounding enemies.
Presentation-wise, the game absolutely nails it. It’s off-kilter visuals, with characters that look like a strange mix between The Muppets, Wallace and Gromit, and Tim Burton, work perfectly with the eccentric levels (more on those in a moment), and kookie sense of humour. This is reinforced by exceptional voice-acting, a surprisingly good story (which I won’t spoil), and thematically spot-on music. Actually, with regard to the music, be warned that there is at least one brain-worm in there that you will find running around for a long time.
Once you’ve finished the story, you can still explore the world and complete optional quests – one of which you won’t be able to finish in any event until the main story has been completed. It also gives you the chance to go back and find every collectible lurking in the mind-scapes (accessible via the ‘Brain Tumbler’ which gives access to every mind you’ve visited). While this can be fun for a bit, it does, after a while, feel a bit bland, and that you’re cleaning up. While this will appeal to completionists, personally, I found it more enjoyable to start a new game.
Psychonauts 2 is equally enjoyable, if not more so, on a second playthrough. Not only was I finding conversations and missions I had missed my first time around, I also had the satisfying experience of discovering just how much more precise and fast I had become at navigating my way through the worlds. It also let me replay some of the hilarious conversations Raz has with the strange cast that inhabits the world, from Otto with his brain storage, to the receptionist in the PsychoIsolation unit, to Sam Boole (a fellow psychic intern with the ability to talk to animals, and summon psychic whales) as she attempts to whip up a batch of pancakes using ‘locally sourced substitutes’. Trust me, you don’t want to skip over that last coversation.
Interestingly, while what was fun on the first playthrough was still fun (or more fun), it did also reinforce a pacing issue that occurs towards the end of the game. This happens because players are made to play through two of the vast, multi-objective levels back-to-back. This does cause the game to feel like it’s dragging a bit, but, fortunately, this is followed by some pretty engaging revelations and the grand finale, all of which picks the pace back up again.
It’s also worth mentioning, to allay whatever concerns people may have, that while Psychonauts 2 can deal with what could be some fairly dark subject matter (such as depression, isolation, and anxiety), because of it’s sense of humour (weaving in references to Red Dwarf, Godzilla, and even Shrek) and lits ight touch, these never becomes distressing to the player. It knows it’s there to entertain and give players a good time, not a lecture. Also, as a particularly nice (and somewhat unusual touch today), the player’s character actually leaves just about everyone in a better state than they were at the start of the game. As such, it’s suitable for just about any age.
All up, I really, really enjoyed Psychonauts 2. It’s simply a lot of fun, set in some of the most outlandish and imaginative environments I’ve ever come across. This is one of the best platformers around, and should definitely find a place in everyone’s collection. ■