If you look up the definition of “cult classic” in the dictionary, you might find a screenshot from the original Psychonauts next to it. The 2005 game — the first from Tim Schafer’s studio Double Fine, which was just acquired by Microsoft — received plenty of positive reviews, but bombed sales-wise. Through the power of word of mouth, Psychonauts found a second life when it was ported to PC in 2011. A decade-and-a-half later, the PS2-era classic is finally getting a sequel, and we got a chance to see it at E3 2019.
In the first Psychonauts, young psychic Razputin (better known as Raz) attends psychic summer camp to develop his skills. He soon gets wrapped up with the titular Psychonauts, who are impressed with his mind-bending abilities. Psychonauts 2 begins after the events of the first game and VR spinoff In the Rhombus of Ruin; it’s Raz’s first day at Psychonauts HQ, and he’s finding that life in a corporate office isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It’s amusing that even as part of a top-secret psychic organization, Raz’s workplace has many of the staples of dreary office life: drab cubicles, banal discussions about profits, and team meetings designed to boost morale (hilariously called the “Morale Corral,” which sounds exactly like something a middle manager would come up with). Thankfully, he doesn’t have to wait long for action — his first mission is infiltrating the mind of the maniacal Dr. Loboto (recently captured by the Psychonauts and named Employee of the Year) and finding out who he’s working for.
This is where things get interesting. Journeying through the minds of others turns mundane settings into something strange, almost nightmarish. What’s a worse way to spend a day: in a cubicle or a dentist’s chair? In Psychonauts 2, you don’t have to choose! Inside Loboto’s brain, the spy headquarters is suddenly adorned with teeth. Raz’s old skills come back to him in no time: he uses telekinesis right away to toss a tooth on an exposed, wriggling nerve and create a platform. There are even zippers of teeth that serve as entryways to new areas.
As Raz gets his old skills back, he also gets badges — a throwback to his camp days. From the demo we saw, everything looks very streamlined and fluid. Raz can easily move from melee attacks to telekinesis to pyrokinesis, platforming his way through Loboto’s brain while fighting enemies like chattering teeth and red-stamping bureaucrats. Plenty of characters from the original game are back, and the demo heavily features agents Sasha and Milla, as well as fellow camper Lili (also now a Psychonauts employee).
Though Psychonauts was beloved among its small group of fans upon its original release, it was also criticized (and rightfully so) for its initial slowness and sometimes clunky gameplay. It appears that the sequel remedies those issues. The action begins right away, and everything looks more streamlined, from the camera to the platforming to the combat. It also looks amazing; it’s great to be able to see Double Fine’s distinct art style fully realized without the limitations of three-decade-old technology.
It’s a light-hearted game, to be sure, but it’s interesting to see how things like doubts and regrets manifest deep in the dentist’s psyche. Raz has to exploit these doubts, which manifest as physical beings, in order to get the information he needs out of Dr. Loboto. Within the first half hour, Raz has a whole slew of abilities at his disposal; no lengthy tutorials are bogging it down this time around.
It’s been a mind-boggling five years since its announcement, but now that it’s almost complete, Psychonauts 2 looks like everything that made the first game special in a more streamlined, polished package. It’s still full of humor, the characters are compelling, and the bizarre levels are only limited by the developers’ imaginations. Fans have been waiting a long time for this one, but the wait is almost over. Likely to be Double Fine’s last multi-console game, Psychonauts 2 launches next year for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
Images: Double Fine