You never know what’s going on inside somebody else’s head—unless you’re a Psychonaut. The secret squad of psychic agents at the heart of Double Fine’s cult series make a living protecting the world from paranormal threats, and when they aren’t on a mission, there’s nothing they love more than diving into each other’s brains for a little look-see. They just slap a tiny door onto the back of somebody’s noggin and then their astral self dives right in. You’ll travel into the heads of several people in Psychonauts 2, helping them overcome their fears, anxieties, and insecurities, and hopefully putting them on a path towards healing. Along the way you might find yourself genuinely caring for some of these broken characters and their histories of grief and self-doubt. That’s the goal, at least, one that the game easily achieves. Psychonauts 2 is a hilarious, warm-hearted, all-ages platformer that does a better job of exploring real human emotions than any grim, pretentious, AAA cinematic game.
At the heart of Psychonauts 2 are the organization’s original founders, the telepathic rock stars known as the Psychic Six. Decades ago they came together to save the world from an awesomely powerful psychic known as Maligula, and stuck together to form the Psychonauts. Today it’s a bustling, well-funded international agency with a prestigious internship program, and although most of the Psychic Six have disappeared, retired, or gone senile, their legacy still looms over everything the agency does. Especially when the Psychonauts get warning that Maligula might be making a surprise return any day now.
Rasputin Aquato, the 10-year-old whiz kid who we first met as the hero of Psychonauts in 2005, is once again in control of the situation, even if he just barely got accepted as an intern. Raz is completely starstruck by the Psychic Six, in the way a 10-year-old comic book fan in the ‘80s would have been if they somehow got to work with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Even though he’s just an intern, he gets to know each one of them intimately, exploring their minds and helping them regain their confidence (and sometimes sanity) while seeking out a mole who might be working with Maligula’s followers.
These adventures into the consciousness of others result in some of the most gorgeous and ingenious levels you’ll ever play in a videogame. You’ll run and jump through elaborate dreamscapes with their own unique visual identity, learning about the real lives of Raz’s heroes and the traumas, both personal and professional, they endured. At one point you’ll find yourself in a world built around the glorious sport of bowling, eventually discovering that a romantic relationship crucial both to the development of the Psychonauts and the rise of their greatest enemy began with a date to a bowling alley. An emotionally stunted villain views his life as a Disney-style theme park ride, a tragic mix of It’s a Small World and Haunted Mansion that details how a life of endless luxury was pulled out from underneath him as a child. Inside another character’s head you’ll compete in a surreal crossover between a ‘70s game show and a modern day cooking competition show. Each cerebral journey introduces its own unique and minutely detailed world, with all of its elements coming together to reflect and expand on the mental state of the character whose brain you’re in.
The best example of this comes early in the game—so early that I feared I’d be writing an essay about games that peak in their first few hours. One of the Psychic Six was a real rock star, and the inside of his mind is a psychedelic, candy-colored, outdoor music festival. (Based on the music that the character makes, I’d compare it to the original Woodstock, or maybe even the H.O.R.D.E. tour. I’m talking some real hippified jam band biz, here.) It all has the vibrant color burst and that shimmering haziness you expect from the visual shorthand of the psychedelic ‘60s, and it looks fantastic. Between the blissed out music, the surreal imagery, the empathetic exploration of a character with recognizably human thoughts and emotions, and an overpowering sense of happiness—a significantly altered but cheerful warmth—this is my favorite videogame moment of 2021 so far.
Fortunately what follows is almost as good. Psychonauts 2 doesn’t repeat itself. Every time you jump into somebody’s head, you know you’ll find a new set piece that doesn’t look or feel like any of the others you’ve played. Whether it’s a casino, a small ocean world built around images of greenhouses and alcoholism, or a massive library that was seemingly designed for a German Expressionist film, Psychonauts 2 won’t stop surprising or impressing you.
As amazing as its ever-changing aesthetic can be, Psychonauts 2’s greatest strength is its understanding of and deep empathy for people. The characters you meet in this absurd cartoon world—characters with ridiculous names and magical brain powers and ostensibly exciting superspy lives full of adventure—will remind you of people you know in the real world. It isn’t afraid to dig into the pain and stress that partially defines life, or the aching and ever-expanding sense of loss that comes with age. Each one of Raz’s heroes is broken in their own way, and the best he can do—the best you can do—is help make them just a little less broken. Your psychic powers might seem like magic, but there are no magical solutions to betrayal or broken hearts or the heavy weight of your own diminished abilities. We can’t fix each other, Psychonauts 2 realizes, but at least we can try to help each other work through our issues.
Psychonauts 2 feels like a game made by real people who care about real people. Many games have come down the pike the last several years with a focus on the psychological state of its characters, and thus its players, but too often they lack any tact or any legitimate insight into how people think and feel. They use sorrow and violence as shortcuts, relying on cheap scares and easy provocation. It’s like they’re made by machines, or the board room, or some algorithm that slightly rearranges previous AAA hits into something that’s supposedly new. Too many of these games fall into that witless trap of thinking something “serious” and “important” must also be humorless and dark, unrelentingly grim and fatalistic. Psychonauts 2 reveals that for the nonsense that it is, showing that you can more powerfully and realistically depict emotion when you use warmth, humor, humanity—the whole scope of emotions that make us who we are. Psychonauts 2 asks “how does it feel to feel?”, and then shows the answer to us—and the games industry at large—in brilliant colors.
Psychonauts 2 was developed by Double Fine Productions and published by Xbox Game Studios. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X|S version. It’s also available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.