We wonder if Tim Schafer has finally retired that Google Doc. Back in E349’s cover feature, he told us he’d been using it to collate notes ever since Psychonauts’ release: ideas that came to him over the intervening years, whether at random junctures or after meeting fascinating people who inspired him to imagine what their inner worlds might look like. Many ended up on note cards that were combined with others to form more solid concepts for the sequel’s brain spaces. By the time the credits have rolled, we’re convinced there can’t have been many left over.
Yes, Psychonauts 2’s cup runneth over with a giddy, go-for-broke energy. There is a palpable sense here of a developer seizing the unlikely opportunity it has been presented, and with the help of Microsoft’s money, going hog wild with it. This is, in every sense, a game that feels like it has been gestating in Schafer’s mind for that length of time. Occasionally that overburdens the story, not least in a lengthy recap that has to fill us in on both the events of the original and those of VR continuation Rhombus Of Ruin – a necessary evil, since the story picks up where that game left off. Even so, it could perhaps have been handled a little more elegantly.
We praised the brisk cutscenes in our preview, but there’s a glut of them here, collectively resulting in a big exposition dump near the start. It packs in references to existing characters and figures from Psychonauts lore that will leave some scratching their heads, as well as introducing a host of newcomers. Even a writer as experienced as Schafer can’t quite make it work without leaving you wishing the plot would get out of the way so you can get started. When a character later references another who “overengineers everything”, we ask ourselves if Double Fine’s CEO is making a joke at his own expense.
Though it takes a while to shift into high gear, it turns out the studio is playing the long game. The inevitable upside of such a large cast is having more brains to probe – and some of them have multiple, wildly different segments to explore. One particular mind is fragmented into three distinct parts, each of which has its own sub-areas, and once you’ve pieced together the shards there’s a fourth. And that’s not including the base, a bright, expansive hub surrounded by woodland, mines and a mysterious place called The Questionable Area, where a certain group set up camp.
By the time returning protagonist Razputin Aquato has been welcomed to Psychonauts HQ – and dumped in the organisation’s intern programme – we’ve already been on an Inception-like mind heist, having entered the brain of maniacal dentist Caligosto Roboto to find out the mastermind behind the kidnap of Psychonauts boss Truman Zanotto. It’s a thrilling tease of the invention to come as you pursue him through a gleefully disgusting world of teeth and gums, which also doubles as a quick run-through of Raz’s existing powers. Already, the platforming feels more robust than the original, as you use the Levitation ability to roll down slopes and float over gaps with the help of an ethereal ball, while lobbing objects and pulling open doors with Telekinesis. If nothing else, it’s reassuring to play a followup that doesn’t saddle its hero with amnesia as an excuse to have us collecting abilities we earned and used a decade and a half ago. With those badges already earned, we can instead look forward to unlocking new powers.
These abilities tend to be a little more specific in their use than Pyrokinesis, or particularly Psi-Blast – though Time Bubble, which slows down spinning fan blades and fast-moving platforms, can also be used to briefly put the brakes on enemies during the sporadic combat interludes. With four powers mapped to the bumpers and triggers, you will need to chop and change on occasion, with Projection conjuring a papery double who can post himself through letterboxes to unlock doors and slide between bars to open gates. Mental Connection, which allows you to link words within thought bubbles, seems like a brilliant addition – one sequence that presents you with a succession of thoughts to tie together, each prompting a unique line of dialogue, is possibly the funniest part of the game. It’s swiftly ditched, albeit with good, and narratively relevant, reason (see Post Script) but you can still use it throughout to drag enemies toward you, or zip between stray thoughts floating in mid-air. These often provide a quick way to get to higher ground and nab more Figments: those characterful 2D sketches pertaining to the themes of the brainspace you’re currently visiting.
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