Psychonauts 2 Hands-On Preview: An Ambitious Return To A Classic
Double Fine’s studio head, Tim Schafer, has been noticing a trend with games recently. He feels like games have to have a certain look: a darkness, grittiness, or adultness to them. He’s glad those games exist, he admitted, but he longs for a time where he played games with brightly colored characters, running and jumping on vibrant platforms that didn’t feel so dark and serious.
It’s an interesting sentiment considering Psychonauts 2’s serious themes of mental health; contradictory even. But it’s that same contradiction that also illustrates the game’s distinct and inspiring identity, combining Tim’s desire for a brightly colorful world to jump around in, while tackling a certain kind of adultness. It’s a clashing of concepts and, for Psychonauts 2, it works very well. During my five hours of hands-on time with a preview version of the game, the theme of clashing concepts was persistent throughout, with laugh-out-loud humor and imaginative level design contrasted with weighty themes of mental conditions like addiction, PTSD, and anxiety. These topics are handled in Psychonauts 2 in a light-hearted manner without demeaning them–they are treated in an approachable and empathetic way.
None of this is new when the sequel is held up next to its cult classic predecessor, which came out 16 years ago and featured similar themes as the basis of its inspiration and story. Psychonauts 2, however, feels more deliberate, thoughtful, and considerate in its approach, bringing these themes of mental health front-and-center. This intentionality is signalled early, by way of a mental health advisory shown the moment I booted up the game. “Ultimately, Psychonauts 2 is a game about empathy and healing” the statement reads.
What followed was a dazzling display of Double Fine’s signature humor and unhinged creativity, complimented by an ambitious scope of level design, tight gameplay, and a careful handling of serious topics. It feels honed-in and streamlined while staying true to what made Psychonauts so special 16 years ago.
The story picks up only hours after the first game, and moments after the VR sequel-interlude Psychonauts in the Rhombus Of Ruin. With the help of Psychonauts special agents Sasha Nein, Milla Vodello, and girlfriend Lili Zanotto, 10 year old psychic-prodigy Razputin has saved the leader of the Psychonauts, Truman Zanotto, from the grips of antagonist and maniacal dentist/ametuer brain surgeon Dr. Loboto. In order to find out who hired Dr. Loboto to kidnap Truman, Raz (you) and his team enter Loboto’s mind in hopes to uncover the mystery. What follows is a seamless transition as the camera zooms in, panning over the lobes of a brain as though they were a sprawling landscape, only for them to slowly transform into a sea of office cubicles where Raz is undercover working within Loboto’s mind–that is until Loboto becomes aware of his mental intruders.
Quickly the mundane mud-toned walls of an office space begin to shift, extend, and contort. Giant teeth start to protrude through the floors, as the walls become flesh-covered, and the ground becomes squishy and moist. As Loboto takes back control of his own mind, his dentistry background collides with the faux office facade. It’s quirky and fantastical, yet dire and eerie all at the same time, and it’s that surreal medley that makes the Psychonauts 2’s opening level a spectacle of Double Fine’s over-the-top creativity.
Psychonaut 2’s art director Lisette Titre-Montgomery explained the game’s art direction as “an acid trip with a really great story.” Lisette’s goal was to push the sense of surrealism the furthest she could by making things feel psychonautical (the methodology of exploring one’s altered state of consciousness), and equally wonky (the core style of the first game).The result is on full display during the first level, which also acts as a refresher for many abilities players from the original will be familiar with: telekinesis, PSI Blast, Pyrokinesis, and Levitation, all of which have been given a welcomed overhaul.
Telekinesis, for example, now operates more closely to the how it functions in Remedy Entertainment’s Control, where items nearby will automatically come to you, making it easy to launch it at an an enemy; Pyrokinesis forms an area-of-attack bubble to better visualize its execution; and PSI Blast has a cooldown rather than having to collect aggression ammo. Al thesel quality of life improvements make Psychonauts 2’s combat feel tight and refined, especially with the addition of a dodge button.
Through Loboto’s mind, I encountered mainstay enemies from the first game like the damage spongie Censors (business suit dressed men meant to attack harmful thoughts within one’s brain), but also an array of new enemies like Regrets–flying creatures that carry a heavy weight to drop on you. Unlike Censors, Regrets could only be damaged using PSI Blast, which is a long range ability. Additionally, after defeating one, I intuitively picked up a Regret’s weight using Telekinesis and hurled it at another enemy. It was very satisfying.
With the introduction of each new enemy, I was conditioned to change my playing style, often switching out abilities to control the onslaught. New enemies like Doubt (sludge-like creatures that can slow you down) are highly flammable, making Pyrokensis come in clutch. While Enablers (support enemies that make foes invincible) were fast and agile, requiring the use of Time Bubble, a new ability that temporarily slows an enemy in place, giving you a window to lay in on the beatdown.
The constant introduction of different enemy types, learning their weaknesses, and understanding the abilities on-hand, offered consistent variety with multiple methods to tackle the situation. Most impressive is Double Fine’s interlacing of conceptual design with its enemies–like using feelings of regret, doubt, and enabling–as literal interpretations for enemy types is another example of the clashing of serious concepts, that are spun into something as whimsical as it is cohesive. But, like the first game, it’s not all about the action, but moments of exploration too. The Psychonauts headquarters, known as the Motherlobe, is akin to Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp from the first game: a wide and open connective hub-like area.
Upon entering the HQ, you’re greeted with a towering mural of the organization’s leaders, known as the Psychic 6; the room is alive with agents talking to each other, bustling around, reading books or having lunch. You can hear the thoughts of some agents, while others use their abilities to tend to watering plants, or levitate to other platforms. A brain in a hamster ball is rolling around, there’s a rat in a leather jacket, and voices reverberate from the PA system. It felt believable, holistic, and entrancing in the way that it had felt familiar though I knew I had never seen it before.
“The real goal was making sure that the player had a feeling that the psychonauts organization was so much more than what they initially understood it to be,” Lisette told me. She wanted to evoke a sense of history surrounding the player with the Psychonauts, to make it feel like a fully operating organization. The feeling is emphasized with returning composer Peter Mcconell’s soundtrack that flourishes on a grand and ambitious scale, evoking a swelling sense of awe when Raz first steps into the lobby.
Psychonaut 2’s art director Lisette Titre-Montgomery explained the game’s art direction as “an acid trip with a really great story.”
It’s also the introduction to the many new characters of Psychonauts 2, including Hollis Forsythe, the no-nonsense second head of Psychonauts, and now Raz’s new teacher. When entering Forsythe’s mind for class, Raz learns the new ability Mental Connection, which can be used to interconnect a person’s thoughts, or even completely change their mind. When Raz uses Mental Connection to accidentally change Forsythe’s mind to associate risk with delight, her mental state begins to unravel as elements of her past as a doctor start to transfuse with gambling. Themes of guilt, fear, and risk are intertwined with old-style Vegas and hospitals, resulting in Raz having to gamble with literal concepts of life and death as a puzzle element to proceed, and in the process, learns more about Forsythe’s character beyond her stern and hard exterior. This is where Psychonauts 2’s depth of writing and characterization is firing on all cylinders.
The most shining example of level design, writing, themes, and gameplay working symbiotically together is Compton’s Cookoff: a chaotic, stressful, and hilarious take on performance anxiety. For Tim Schafer, orchresting a balance of humor and these conditions is what made the process fun for him. “How can you represent something like anxiety? What would that look like? If you were having an anxiety dream, and you had just been to cooking class, what might you make in your dreams that would represent that feeling?” he said. The result is an intense race against the clock to gather animated talking ingredients like eggs, fruits, and meats to boil in water, blend in a blender, or get sliced by a giant hatchet.
It was the sorta thing that made me feel horrible, wincing as I brought an excited talking egg to boil alive in a pot, while laughing hysterically as I watched a piece of ham gleefully get fried in a pan. All the while, using the environment to grind between cooking stations, and avoid obstacles like giant cheese grinders or hot plates, all of which was peppered with comical, tongue-in-cheek commercial breaks. The entire time I was smiling, stressed out, and mournful all at once, and I loved it. In the end, it’s a heartfelt and considerate take on a character struggling with eternal judgment, and a sense of unworthiness amongst his peers. It was only after I played the level when I reinterpreted the chaotic and stressful nature of its design. It’s during this level that all the game’s mechanics, from using abilities, to platforming, and battling various enemy types felt heavily focused and working in harmony.
The last level of the preview was Cassie’s Collection, which was complete 180 from the anxiety-induced nightmare of Compton’s Cookoff, and instead featured a level wide in scope, and ambitious in its display of a fantasy reflective of the character’s mind that it took place in. Cassie is a teacher who loves big worlds, storytelling, and literature, and therefore the level itself is big, adventurous, and made up of literal books.
“It was important to make you feel like you were going into a story world. But what we really wanted to sell was Cassie’s issue, and it’s that she can’t let go. And so she’s made multiple versions of herself,” Lisette said.
In her mind, Cassie’s alternate versions of herself are hidden away in the pages of books throughout the world. In order to help face Cassie’s biggest foe, herself, I had to navigate a fantastical world made of paper castles, sail on paper-made boats, hop through literal pages, and use written sentences as my platforms to find the other versions of herself. Typing the very concept is making me giddy just thinking about it. This was also the introduction of the new ability called Projection, which gives Raz the power to illustrate a paper-thin archetype of himself that you can order to slip through hard to fit areas, to unlock gates, doors, and distract enemies.
Each level I had played, including the time I had to explore the Motherlobe, was bolstered by an unrelenting sense of imagination and creativity that never let up during my five hours with it. When I asked Tim about the pressure of returning to the cult classic he helped create 16 years ago, he said, “I don’t think any fan expectation could be harder than our own. We’re a team full of perfectionists that just really want to get things right.” He elaborated by saying, “If we didn’t have an inspiration to make Psychonauts 2, then we wouldn’t have done it.”
On the surface, Psychonauts 2 is shaping up to be an engaging, ambitious, honed-in take on colorful 3D platformers. However, the most promising aspect hasn’t just been returning to its world, mastering its platforms or combat, but peeling back the layers to see what’s beneath it to take a closer look at its characters, the depth of their struggles, fears, and regrets, all of which serve as the foundation and inspiration for the worlds you traverse.
In a post-mortem for the first game written by its executive producer Caroline Esmurdoc she said that an oft-muttered mantra of the game’s development was, “God is in the details.” This saying rings true now more than ever when returning to the wacky, complex, and whimsical world of Psychonauts 16 years later, and it left me very eager to see what it means for the sequel when it launches on August 25.
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