The beauty of the original Psychonauts isn’t something that immediately jumps out at you. It was made in an era when platform-adventures were losing popularity. Despite critical success and selling 400,000 copies at the start, it didn’t initially make money. And publishers were reluctant to fund a sequel.
In a way, it’s kind of wild that I’m playing Psychonauts 2 at all.
It’s taken a long time for Double Fine’s latest adventure with Raz to get into the hands of regular folk. There’s old stories on this site about Tim Schafer lobbying publishers back in 2011 about how he wanted to make Psychonauts 2. For a while, Schafer was even using a fan mash-up trailer called Inceptionauts when pitching. “It’s better than any trailer we ever had for the game,” Schafer told Kotaku at the time.
But what Schafer and Double Fine didn’t have then was Xbox Game Pass.
I kept thinking about this as I played the first four levels of Psychonauts 2, a preview ahead of the game’s PC, PS4/PS5 and Xbox launch on August 25. On a purely functional level, it is a perfectly competent platformer. Raz learns a range of different powers that you’ll unfurl when prompted, almost like slotting puzzle pieces into the perfect slot. It’s exceptionally accessible if you need: buttons can be rebound, camera controls inverted, colour blindness toggles, invincibility mode toggled, fall damage disabled.
But Psychonauts was never about the platforming or the difficulty. What made it special was the special level design, unlocked through the creative foil of diving into people’s minds and psyche. It allowed for an approach you see with a lot of Mario games, where the joy is in exploring lots of levels, each with their own ideas.
Psychonauts 2 starts off a similar way. You’ve finally entered the headquarters of the Psychonauts, only to be trapped with the reality of a boring, mundane office job nowhere near a window. There’s a company all-hands meeting where an award is handed out to Employee of the Month: it has the kind of tone and slightly forced optimism you’d hear in a million workplaces.
Except it’s not really a normal office gig; nothing about Psychonauts 2 is really normal.
The first level is an elaborate psychic interrogation that ties directly into the original and Psychonauts: In the Roumbus of Ruin, the 2017 VR tie-in. Gleefully, there’s nothing especially frightening about the dental journey involved — although the game does give an elaborate trigger warning at the start, which includes a note for those with dental phobia.
Fortunately, the teeth don’t really clamp down too hard here. Falling in Psychonauts 2 isn’t like, say, a Tomb Raider-esque impalement.
You’re trying to uncover how exactly Dr. Loboto — a very amateur dentist — was able to kidnap Truman Zanotto in the first place, and who exactly helped him. That revelation and journey eventually uncovers a much greater threat pulling the strings from behind. Zanotto’s departure has also left a massive void within the Psychonauts, impacting the organisation’s mission and structure.
What’s neat about Psychonauts, and its sequel, is the wholly unusual justifications Double Fine makes for each of its levels. The second mission starts out as a basic tutorial inside the head of the Psychonauts’ second in charge, Hollis Forsythe. Raz takes things a step too far, and ends up making so many new mental connections that Forsythe’s memory of medical school has been replaced with a casino hospital.
It’s crazy, vibrant, and a great showcase for why Psychonauts 2 should exist. It’s always been a game sold best by the combination of its visuals, shifts in setting and the execution of its writing. But those things can be difficult to sell in trailers, which is why I’m so glad Psychonauts 2 has Game Pass.
What made the original Psychonauts tick so well, and this applies to the first few hours of Psychonauts 2, is the discovery of the execution. A similar example might be A Way Out – I could mechanically describe the various beats of the mini-games you encounter, but it’d also ruin some of the fun of finding those in the moment.
But that’s also the challenge of anything that wants to be witty and funny: you don’t want to spoil the joke. And that’s why I’m glad a game like Psychonauts 2 has Game Pass, because it’s the perfect carrier for a title that’s a little more off-beat. Psychonauts didn’t make money initially — it was only after it launched on other platforms like Steam, where players picked it up en masse when the game enjoyed huge discounts. And that’s the problem games like Psychonauts sometimes have: their magic doesn’t translate especially well to a store page, so people give it a pass at full price.
Game Pass, at least, ensures Psychonauts 2 won’t have that problem. (It’s another matter entirely for PlayStation users. Preorder links aren’t live on the PS Store yet, but it’s expected to be listed at a full AAA price, much like the $99.95 listed on Steam.) The service has already proved a boon for tons of smaller, experimental titles that players ordinarily might not buy, but will happily try because it’s available.
Hopefully, plenty of people give Psychonauts 2 a go. It does everything you expect from such a long-awaited sequel, and it plays perfectly competently as an accessible action-platformer in 2021. I just hope it achieves everything Tim Schafer and company have hoped for after all these years.