Psychonauts 2 review

By Luke Albigés,
Creativity is dead. Well, it can certainly seem that way, at least. In a gaming era where the top flight seems to be made up almost exclusively of safe sequels, identikit free-to-play shooters, and annual retreads of the same ground, you'd be forgiven for thinking that creativity was on the way out. It's so refreshing, then, to see a major release that has more than enough imagination to make up for the platoons of me-too battle royale games and the squads of predictable yearly updates that try to pass off a few bullet points as originality. Psychonauts 2 is creativity incarnate, so good luck even trying to work out what kinds of weird and wonderful mindscapes the game might send you to next, with each adding its own unique mechanics and twists on top of having its own visual flavour and theme. It's a journey into the bizarre, a double-jump on the wild side, an adventure unafraid to go to some strange, dark, and unexpected places. And on top of all that, it's a damn fine game to boot.

psychonauts 2 review xbox

Psychonauts 2 tells the tale of Razputin, a former cadet with the Psychonauts — a team of psychic spies and mind manipulators — who now joins the outfit in a more official capacity after making it into the intern program as the game begins. This affords us a much closer look at the inner workings of this strange squad, with Raz operating out of their HQ, the Motherlobe (which serves as the game's main hub area) and working more closely with the various eccentric agents who also call this place home. The original had Raz on the periphery of the organisation, and by design, so it's awesome to see where the magic science happens and to follow Raz as he lives his dream, rising through the ranks to try and make a name for himself alongside those legendary Psychonauts who once trod the twisted halls of the Motherlobe. It isn't long before you're able to leave the safety of headquarters and head out on field missions, with external locations and characters all helping to give further background and context to the organisation. All this lore and background is rarely shoved down your throat, though — a lot of the time, it's delivered through optional conversations and interactions, meaning there's only as much of it as you want.

The rest of the game is similarly adaptable based on what you want and/or need from it, with a slew of useful accessibility and gameplay options, none of which impact achievements. Well, sort of. Having already played a good chunk of the game at preview stage, I sped through some early sections with invincibility on and 'Narrative Combat' (read: Beast Mode) enabled, only to discover when I disabled said options on arriving at a new section that there are achievements tied to using each of the healing items, which you'll never be able to do unless you switch off invincibility, at least for a bit. Everything else seemed to unlock fine, whether using these options or not, but aside from a few encounters, the game honestly isn't that difficult so I'd advise against using them if you can help it. Narrative Combat trivialises every fight and makes ability upgrades feel redundant, while invincibility isn't going to save you from falling into a lake or a bottomless pit and getting flung back to the last checkpoint. While I seemingly popped most achievements (40 or so — we don't yet have the full list) over the course of a natural playthrough and a little side mission/collectable mopping afterwards, it looks like you'll need to be going for 100% if you want the completion. That's going to involve a lot of revisiting old areas and hunting down all manner of stuff, so using these boons during your story playthrough isn't even going to save you a whole lot of time in the long run.

psychonauts 2 review xbox

It's also worth noting that to enable options that let you faceroll encounters would be to miss out on one of the most improved aspects of this sequel. There's a fantastic variety to enemy types, and it's great fun to see how your various psychic powers interact with each of them. Use Telekinesis to strip armed foes of their weapons, then lob them back; throw out Mental Connection tethers to separate crowds; burn flammable objects and hazards with Pyrokinesis to control the battlefield. There are loads of cool interactions even without spoiling some of Raz's cool new abilities, and before you throw Pins into the mix. These badges let you alter how abilities function to futher mix things up, and you can equip up to three at a time. There's even a degree of interaction between certain Pin combinations, encouraging you to experiment to see what awesome effects you might be able to find. As with lore, combat is as much or as little as you want it to be — stick on Narrative Combat if you want foes to go down in a couple of slaps or Psi Blasts, or play without and see how much creativity you can bring to help end each encounter a little quicker.

Platforming too is a vast improvement over what we saw in the original game, as you'd hope it would be some 16 years later. Even with a few slight collision quirks here and there, it has still come on in leaps and bounds, to the point that you'll genuinely want to leap and bound around the more open play spaces in search of hidden goodies. The new and refined abilities certainly help with this, but it's primarily the tighter mechanics that make flinging Raz around the crazy environments so much fun. That last part is actually pretty important, considering that Psychonauts 2 likes to do a lot of experimental things with its world design. While it's awesome to see abstract angles and confusing curves that recall the works of Escher and Dali respectively, just thinking about what a nightmare they'd be to navigate with poor controls is blowing my mind. Double Fine sets its sights high here and incorporates elements reminiscent of other platforming giants — mini plantetoids a la Super Mario Galaxy, for example, or perplexing portals akin to those seen in Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart — and the team has done a wonderful job of making Psychonauts 2 feel like a 'proper' platform game. A strange distinction to make, perhaps, but an important one when platforming in the original felt more like a means to an end, while the sequel seems confident enough in its ability in this field to strip back some other aspects and lean into it.

psychonauts 2 review xbox

Even if you haven't played (or don't remember much about) the original game, you won't be missing out on too much here. Psychonauts 2 begins with a comprehensive recap of the story so far, and while you'll miss a plethora of small in-jokes and references if this is all you have to go on, you'll have everything you need for a full working knowledge of the narrative. If you want more than that, fire up the original game (it's on Game Pass) before you start this one — I'd say Psychonauts 2 will definitely be a slightly better experience if those little visual gags and throwaway lines aren't lost on you, although it's an entertaining game either way. Writing is great and the performances are there to match, with no shortage of excellent exchanges between the crazy cast that are sure to get a smile or a laugh out of most players.

The abstract, grotesque-by-design art style, meanwhile, won't be to everyone's tastes. Don't go mistaking a distinct style choice for 'bad graphics,' though — it's as clean as something that is designed to be messy could hope to be, it's slick and polished, and there's a huge amount of character in every little design nuance and animation detail. Also, the way these intentionally inconsistent proportions and designs afford options for the team to really mess with things inside of each of the unique brainscapes really makes it all worthwhile. Some are totally trippy, others grotty and grim, but each gets to be a one-of-a-kind reflection of the character in question, made all the stronger by this lack of rules on the design front. Unpredictability is one of Psychonauts' strongest weapons, and the way the team is able to pull the rug from under players — even mid-stage — makes it a captivating ride. The story tying the whole thing together is actually really interesting and engaging too, which isn't something you can say about a whole lot of other platform games. But then Psychonauts 2 isn't like most other platform games. Heck, Psychonauts 2 isn't like most other games.

psychonauts 2 review xbox


Summary

Both as a sequel and as a standalone game, Psychonauts 2 is superb. It's fresh, it's innovative, it's brilliantly presented and delivered, and it genuinely feels like the follow-up the original cult classic deserves. Stages flow fantastically on your first visit, and my only real complaint here would be that some can feel comparably rather bitty or unconnected when you return to them later to mop up things you may have missed, which couldn't really be avoided without forcing full replays, set pieces and all. It's an imaginative adventure that has been well worth the wait, and I'd encourage everyone to give it a go. If you think creativity is dead, you haven't played Psychonauts 2.
9 / 10
Psychonauts 2
Ethics
Luke spent around 15 hours inside the heads of the crazy cast of Psychonauts, playing on both Xbox Series X and Series S, and picking up around 40 achievements in the process. A review copy was provided by Microsoft.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.