Even though 16 years have passed, Double Fine doesn't appear to have forgotten how to make a magical platformer.
Considering its rocky launch over 16 years ago, it's pretty hard to believe that we are now just mere weeks away from receiving a sequel to Psychonauts. This gem from the PS2-era was so much of a financial disaster that publisher Majesco decided to back out of the video game industry entirely. A sequel back in 2005 might have been out of the question, but an increase in fan interest over the years prompted developer Double Fine to revisit the IP and build upon some of its defining features. With Psychonauts 2 now close to release, we were able to experience roughly 3-4 hours of gameplay to see if it holds up to modern standards.
Psychonauts 2's story picks up right off the back of the events of the last entry in the series, the VR-focused Rhombus of Ruin. On his first official day on the job, protagonist Razputin finds himself delving into the twisted mind of Dr. Loboto to try and find out just who hired him to capture Psychonauts boss Truman Zanotto. After doing some digging, it's unclear just who may have put him up to the task, but two unsettling discoveries are made. It turns out that there is a mole placed within the Psychonauts organisation and that they plan to bring a harrowing psychic villain known as Maligula back from the grave.
The stakes here are certainly high, but I found Psychonauts 2 to be as side-splittingly hilarious as its predecessor all these years later, and it was great to see the voice actors for Razputin, Sasha, and Coach Oleander reprise their roles. Something else that I appreciated is that the game features a recap of the original's story as this helps to break down the barrier of entry for new players. With the original releasing over 15 years ago, a lot of players will either have hazy memories or will have missed out on the game completely.
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Within the demo, I was able to explore through four different mental worlds and a standout for me belonged to the deranged ex-dentist Dr. Loboto. As expected, his unhinged mind is in complete disarray, and disturbingly, its walls are lined with gums and teeth. Staying true to the theme, its platforming challenges saw me hop across rotating dental mirrors and removed teeth that were placed within pools of mouthwash. This level acted as a tutorial, but its mechanics were explained in engaging ways. For example, I had to use my PSI Blast ability to shoot down waves of chattering teeth and Telekinesis to pull down teeth zippers.
Another favourite of mine took place in the mind of Compton Boole, one of the founding members of the Psychonauts. This level plays out like a TV cooking show and it's a lot more puzzle-oriented than the other stages. Here I had to make several dishes for three puppet judges by following recipes and preparing the strangely enthusiastic ingredients sitting in the audience in the correct manner. Whether you are trying an egg or blending a strawberry there are a number of traps here that you need to avoid and there's very little time for you to precisely time your movements as you are competing against a ticking timer.
As I touched upon before, the psychic powers from the original game have returned here and they are a pivotal part of both platforming and combat. Razputin has a broad selection of different powers at his disposal and up to four of these can be allocated to the back triggers by pushing up on the D-pad. One of the coolest new powers here is called Mental Connection, and it enables you to reprogram a character's brain's by linking together different thought bubbles. I really liked this ability as it acted as a fun grappling hook mechanic and it also pushes you to think about what thoughts you need to link together to get the right result.
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Unlike the original game, you are given the freedom to upgrade your abilities in the order that you wish using skill points unlocked by improving your Intern Rank. Your Intern Rank is increased by collecting certain items such as "Figments of Imagination" and PSI Cards. Each ability has a linear skill tree with up to four upgrades and the requirements become steeper the further you progress. Here, for example, I could choose to upgrade the Pyrokinesis ability to have a much broader field of attack or the PSI Blast ability to allow for a larger explosion.
Something that Double Fine really strived to do with the sequel is having these powers play more of an active role within combat. Along with your basic melee abilities, you can now wield these abilities to do damage and some are more effective than others on different types of foes. This makes it important to constantly mix up your equipped abilities and only upgrade the ones that you use the most. It was also handy, for example, to use my Telekinesis ability to draw a long-ranged attacking enemy closer, and the Levitation ability was useful in allowing me to retreat to find some health when I was on the verge of death.
After playing Psychonauts 2 I was left with an oddly bittersweet feeling. I was glad to see the series return with so much promise, but I couldn't help but think about its unfulfilled potential had a sequel arrived earlier. I found the mental worlds here to be brimming with creativity and to wonderfully encapsulate the inner struggles of its characters. It was also great seeing that the physic powers have more of a use during combat and that there is a lot more freedom when it comes to upgrading them. Be sure to check back for our full thoughts when Psychonauts 2 launches on PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series on August 25, 2021.