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The most important thing I can say about Psychonauts 2 is that it’s better than the original, which itself was far from a bad game.
The original Psychonauts came out in 2005. It was a charming and creative 3D platformer. Those strengths helped cover up some of its flaws, including some awkward pacing and a color palette that can sometimes look a bit … pukey. Psychonauts 2 — which releases on August 25 for Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC — is a sleeker and prettier experience. I played it on Xbox Series X, and it colorful worlds and smooth performance often impressed me.
Psychonauts 2 still retains all of that charm of the original, too, thanks to a funny script and a large amount of memorable characters.
Most 3D platformers focus on mechanics, with story making up a minimal part of the equation. Narrative is much more important in Psychonauts 2. It’s the story of a young psychic named Raz and his attempt to join an agency of telepathic agents. The game takes place right after the events of the VR experience Rhombus of Ruin, which itself took place right after the events of the original game. Don’t worry, a video at the start of Psychonauts 2 catches you up if it’s been too long for you to remember what happened in those other titles (or if you never got play the VR exclusive Rhombus of Ruin).
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The emphasis on story means that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to talk to characters, giving you an chance to learn more about your fellow Psychonauts interns and your mentors. It also means you’ll watch a lot of cutscenes. Sometimes, I wished I was watching fewer of them and having more opportunities to get back to playing, but the cutscenes are usually funny or interesting enough that I enjoyed them.
The story also helps differentiate Psychonauts 2 from other modern 3D platformers. Maybe Psychonauts 2 doesn’t offer a variety of moves as acrobatic as Super Mario Odyssey or a challenge as satisfyingly as Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, but it’s offers a compelling narrative experience that most games like this don’t even attempt to achieve.
It’s all in the mind
I don’t mean to imply that Psychonauts 2’s 3D platforming mechanics aren’t interesting or fun. You have typical abilities like a double jump and glide (although they do have fun psychic themes tied to them, like how you slow you descent from a fall by holding onto a thought bubble that functions like a balloon). Other platforming abilities are more special, like zipping between stray thoughts floating through the air, helping you access out-of-the-way areas. One level even has you using this technique to connect different thoughts and change a person’s personality, like making them going from loving cilantro to hating it.
Levels take place inside character’s brains, so each one has you exploring a different mental world with some creative theming. One has you jumping your way through a hospital-turned-casino. Another has you competing in a sort of nightmarish Iron Chef cooking competition. Each stage offers something just a little different, either through some new ability or gimmick, like having to roll on top of a giant bowling ball through a city filled with sentient germs.
The world outside of these self-contained stages is also fun to explore. This includes Psychonauts HQ, which has a modern retro vibe that should entice anyone like me who loved Epcot in the ’80s and ’90s as much as I did. There’s also the nearby outdoors camping area, which has a lot of secrets hidden in high places or behind some fun puzzles.
Like any respectable 3D platformer, Psychonauts 2 has a bunch of items for you to collect. I like how most of these help make you stronger. You’re not just collecting stuff for the sake of collecting stuff. Finding cards, mental thoughts, and other doodads help you rank up, which means that you can improve your psychic abilities. Your pyrokinesis, which lets you ignite a small ball of fire, can eventually impact a much larger area and do more damage.
A few headaches
As pretty and creative as Psychonauts often is, the experience has some jankiness. Loading screens can kill the flow of cutscenes, as you’ll find yourself staring at them in-between sequential story beats. It’s especially odd on Xbox Series X, because the loading takes like 1 second. So you can be watching an important scene, then transition to a short animation of a beaver hanging out in the woods (that’s the loading screen), and then go right next to the next part of the story.
Also, as nice as the environments and character models look, the animation is lackluster. Movements can look stiff and unexpressive. The game’s art style looks so much like a Tim Burton-esque animated film. I wish the animation could match that.
Still, after 16 years since the release of the first Psychonauts, it’s nice to confirm that the sequel was worth waiting for. It keeps much of what made the original special — including the humor and creative levels — but gives it a more impressive visual package.
If you enjoyed the original, or just like the idea of a psychic-themed 3D platformer, I’m sure that you’ll like Psychonauts 2 and find plenty of laughs along the way.
Psychonauts 2 comes out on August 25 for Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Microsoft sent GamesBeat a digital Xbox Series X version for this review.
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