Cult classics are a strange black hole for outsiders looking in. While fans rave about how the project is an underappreciated gem, those oblivious to the fact courteously nod at the blind spot in their knowledge. They know that the work is important but there’s a disconnect in the praise.
It’s like describing the “Mona Lisa” in colors. It’s brown here, a little tan there, some blue in the background. One doesn’t really get a sense of the masterpiece, and that’s how I felt about “Psychonauts” when a friend described it to me. It’s considered a great game, but you never know the extent of that until you pick up the controller.
Finally, I did. “Psychonauts” on Xbox Game Pass is brilliant — a little hard on the eyes, but deserving of its laurels. The title also ended on a cliffhanger and those same fans have waited 16 long years to find out what happened to the protagonist Raz. For me, the wait was significantly shorter as “Psychonauts 2” launched a few days ago.
YOU NEED TO PLAY THE ORIGINAL
Playing the games back to back, I have a better sense of what went into the sequel. The follow-up is more polished and bigger in scope. Fresh off his deeds at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp and the Rhombus of Ruin, Raz finds himself as an intern for the Psychonauts, a secret spy-like organization staffed by people with paranormal abilities.
After his heroics, the protagonist finds himself at the bottom rung of the ladder as the interns — all older than a 10-year-old boy — look at him with derision. He even ends up the butt of a prank. For all his exploits, he starts at Square 1 just like in the original. He has to prove himself to the interns and to the Psychonauts’ second-in-command Hollis Forsythe, who is running the Motherlobe headquarters. The Grand Head, Truman Zanotto, is still recovering from a kidnapping.
All of this makes “Psychonauts 2” follow the path of the original, but the sequel has more of a focus. The game assumes players are already familiar with first game, and if players aren’t, they should go back and experience the original to familiarize themselves with the platforming and powers.
STREAMLINED GAMEPLAY AND MORE POWERS
Players control a more experienced Raz, who already has a suite of psychic powers: Psi-Blast, Telekinesis, Levitation, Clairvoyance, Pyrokinesis. The controls have been streamlined so that the powers work seamlessly while running. It’s a huge improvement over the clumsy controls of the original.
Raz also acquires more abilities as he advances through the campaign. He picks up the Mental Connection, which acts as zip line across anchored thought bubbles. It helps him reach new areas and acts a grappling hook in combat. Time Bubbles slow down a small zone letting Raz jump atop turbines and other obstacles. It’s also useful for crowd control among swarming enemies. Mental Projection adds a paper-thin copy of Raz to the fray and it acts as a damage sponge and a way to obtain healing. Out of combat, it’s used in puzzles where Raz needs to access a blocked door.
Players can’t use all these abilities at once. They’ll have to switch them out by pausing the gameplay. It’s annoying and one of the limitations of the game. It does create a sense of strategy as players pick the best powers for each encounter and puzzle. Despite the issues, “Psychonauts 2” is still a less frustrating experience that feels more modern than its predecessor. Players won’t encounter obtuse puzzles or situations that require perfectly timed platforming. There’s no Meat Circus level.
LEVEL DESIGN AND STORY COME TOGETHER
Instead, players are treated to a campaign that’s more cohesive, with a central mystery that still surprises even with a few telegraphed plot points. Although the original and sequel came out 16 years apart, director Tim Schafer creates a surprising congruency in the campaign, with the fiasco in Whispering Rock having an impact on the “Psychonauts 2” events. It answers mysteries from the original and expands the universe in an organic way as players are introduced to the founding members of the titular organization and Raz’s circus family.
The protagonist’s role in all this is to act almost as a therapist for these psychic spies. They all have trauma from battling the game’s main villain Maligula decades ago. Although she’s gone, a faction called the Deluginists are trying to resurrect her, and the key to stopping that lies in the brains of these agents.
As a psychic, Raz can jump into their minds and the game’s levels are trips into their consciousness. The premise lets players explore surreal worlds that explode with creativity. The original games had their moments but the sequel’s levels are more realized and work to further the plot better. Players fix the leader Ford Cruller’s fractured mind and uncover a love story with Lucrecia Mux. Compton’s Cookoff level is a spoof cooking show where players have to serve the ingredients and go through a gantlet of obstacles. It also reveals some of his fears and longings.
The Psi-King’s Sensorium focuses on the five senses and putting together a lost Psychonaut member. Each level peels back a layer of the story and Raz discovers the hidden relationships among the founding members. It’s cleverly woven together and the stages will delight players with their mix of traversal, combat and puzzle-solving. One of the joys is diving into a mind and uncovering the trippy world beneath the surface.
Although players can rush through the campaign, it’s worthwhile to grab every collectible and power-up. It makes some of the tougher battles more manageable and it also offers more backstory that could otherwise be missed.
Taken altogether, Raz’s latest adventure is worth the wait and surpasses expectations. I didn’t know much about this cult classic before, but getting knee-deep in it, I appreciated every narrative thread and how Schafer amazingly ties two stories together despite the distance of 16 years. Double Fine completed its story and it was better late than never.
4 stars out of 4
Platform: Xbox Series X|S, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Mac (available in the future)
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Author: Gieson Cacho