For years, I’ve heard nothing but good things about Psychonauts, the 2005 platformer from celebrated developer Double Fine.
Now, with the title recently coming to Xbox Game Pass, I finally started playing it earlier this month. After beating the game, I can honestly say I understand the hype — Psychonauts is wildly creative, wonderfully charming and incredibly well-written and acted. As the young psychic acrobat Raz, you go into the minds of different quirky characters with their own inner demons in some of the most inventive levels I’ve ever seen in games.
That’s why I’m even more pleased to say that so far, the long-awaited Psychonauts 2 appears to be living up to that legacy. In a special Xbox Series X preview, I was given access to multiple levels of the game, including the intro, and I’m quite impressed with what I’ve played.
A little psychic finetuning
The game begins with Raz now a member of the Psychonauts, a global espionage group of psychics who use their powers to stop global threats. After the Psychonauts leader is saved from a kidnapping, Raz and friends discover that there’s a mole in the group as part of a larger conspiracy to resurrect a dangerous villain.
Right off the bat, I was taken by how much better Psychonauts 2 feels over the original game. Where his melee attack felt a little sluggish and his jump originally felt a bit floaty by modern standards, he now punches fast and hops more precisely. The animators have also done a nice job making him do different poses while jumping to make it look and feel even more fluid. Dodging feels tighter and more viable now, as you can do it freely without having to be locked onto an enemy.
“There are things that we did with the powers and controls that were good at the time,” says Geoff Soulis, Psychonauts 2 lead environment artist. “But as we’ve all developed as game creators and game players, you want to update things and make them feel better and more interactive.”
“We really wanted to tighten that up and really just lean into Raz being an acrobat and being very agile and moving all around a combat space or an exploration space, and just making sure that fundamentally felt really good,” adds Lauren Scott, senior systems designer on Psychonauts 2. “Same with camera controls and really fine details like that.”
This also extends to Raz’s psychic powers, which include Telekinesis to pick up and manipulate objects and Pyrokinesis to create and control fire, are all much more useful this time around. In the original game, these powers were primarily designed for puzzles, so their actual practicality in combat was limited, especially as you had to navigate through several menus to toggle between them.
But Double Fine’s clearly taken a lot of care in Psychonauts 2 into making them easier to access (via four mappable powers and an easy-to-access quick select wheel) and handier to actually use, like Telekinesis now automatically lobbing a projective at your closest target, rather than you having to awkwardly line up an arc.
“Something that we really expanded and worked on was the combat,” explains Scott. “We wanted to make sure that we had powers that were really, really fun to use, and each had some utility in combat, and also that we had enemies that were reactive to the player — that each new enemy provided a new challenge and that they work together dynamically in combat spaces to always keep things fresh and have the player of thinking about, ‘Okay, what power can I use here? What techniques can I use there?'”
To this point, she mentions that there are some enemies that are more susceptible to certain powers as a means of actively encouraging you to experiment with your arsenal.
“I actually have always been a huge fan of Clairvoyance [which lets Raz see from other people’s perspective]. I mean, it’s for the ‘lulz,'” she says with a laugh. “But in this game, we actually endeavored to make it useful in combat. There’s actually an enemy called the ‘Bad Mood’ that requires clairvoyance to beat it, so that was a personal goal, like how can we make Clairvoyance [better].”
At the same time, Double Fine doesn’t want all of these mechanics to feel overwhelming to players. To that end, it’s adding a variety of accessibility options, including an invincibility toggle, which it made clear on Twitter that fans shouldn’t feel ashamed for using. Unfortunately, this has led some elitist, gate-keeping gamers to cry foul, arguing that this isn’t truly “beating a game” or that these types of features go against a developer’s “intended” experience.
However, Scott stresses that there is no “right” way to play Psychonauts 2. “We want our games to be accessible and playable and fun to as many people as possible. It’s as basic as that,” she explains. “All of it is to the end of just [allowing] more people [to] play and more people [to] have fun. People who want to play ‘super hard’ mode can put on all the most difficult pins and customize their experience that way and have as much fun as they want as well. We just want to broaden that whole space.”
The outstanding level design is back and better than ever
While all of this is new for the Psychonauts series, a good deal of time has also been put into expanding on the pillars of the original game. As I mentioned before, the game’s original levels — ranging from a shady suburban area that was under surveillance or a French Revolution-inspired chessboard featuring Napoleon Bonaparte — just oozed personality and originality. In Psychonauts 2, I’ve already felt that same level of character, but amplified greatly.
“It always starts with Tim, and it comes down from him about the overall theme and what the goal of the particular level is and sort of a rough narrative outline of the space.”
In Psychonauts 2‘s opening level, you follow Loboto, an antagonist from the first game. In the span of a minute, I noticed a lot of neat stylistic choices being made to keep the moment-to-moment gameplay fresh, like a corridor being manipulated to keep you at a distance, a shift in perspective so you have to jump up the office cubicles, and a floor suddenly tipping so you have to slide down it. All the while, I came across the series’ lovably bizarre brand of humour, like a “Tooth Fairy” enemy that was a literal cigar-chomping winged tooth to go with Loboto’s dentist theme.
But besides feeling bigger and denser, these levels — and the stories within them — already feel deeper and more thoughtful. As Psychonauts 2 co-writer/director Tim Schafer told me earlier this year, Psychonauts‘ original depictions of aspects of mental health like dissociative identity disorder and schizophrenia — which actually resonated with players — were something of a happy accident. This time around, it was a more conscious part of the design process, and as a result, Double Fine has consulted with mental health experts like Take This to more sensitively explore these themes.
“For the most part, we’ll have a level or the part of the story evaluated and then [they’ll] come back with suggestions on things that we might want to change or reword,” says Soulis. “A lot of that didn’t involve us having to do a ton to change […] But we were very respectful with all of the advice that we got and tried to give the amount of care and empathy that we could to of all of these decisions, especially regarding mental health because it’s a very important thing.”
I saw this on grand display in one of the later levels made available to me, centred on Hollis Forsythe, the Psychonauts’ second-in-command. She used to be a medical doctor who eventually developed a gambling addiction. While this initially manifests in a gloriously vibrant Las Vegas-esque casino, you’ll soon find yourself in darker medical-themed 2D platforming sections where you’re jumping on X-rays of her body while hearing more about her troubled past in the background. I was extremely impressed at the layers of environmental design here, mixing aspects of healthcare with a casino to create something wholly unique and engrossing.
Soulis credits Schafer for dreaming up these wild level concepts, which he and his team then build upon with him collaboratively. “It always starts with Tim, and it comes down from him about the overall theme and what the goal of the particular level is and sort of a rough narrative outline of the space,” says Soulis, who is one of a handful of people at Double Fine who worked on the original game alongside Schafer.
“And so together, design and art will start building out these beats, and then those beats get built into the level and then Tim will come back through and then write a lot of the smaller scale dialogue and sort of character interactions that you have. And then we apply that and then refine it back into what you get in the end.”
Of course, sometimes you just want to take a break from the main story to explore, which is something that the original Psychonauts offered via the areas surrounding Raz’s camp. Now that he’s a Psychonaut, though, Raz has access to the organization’s headquarters, the Motherlobe, which serves as a hub area containing many different indoor and outdoor sections.
“It’s a place that you can learn a lot more about characters whose brains you can’t go into. They’re scattered all over the place. They actually have different states, depending on where you are in the game. They’ll say different stuff,” says Scott. “And there are a few sidequests that you can do to sort of spice things up.”
She added that from a gameplay perspective, Double Fine wants to “drive home the idea” that the Motherlobe is a place “with a lot of cool, super psychic stuff” for players to engage with.
“One of the important pieces of that, I think, was the shop that you can go to purchase combat items to top up between [levels],” says Scott. “We have items called pins that help that let you customize your powers, and you can equip three of them, and they sort of adjust your play experience based on what you want. And we have just a ton of characters that you can talk to who were doing all kinds of psychic things. Every single room that you walk into, we try to have something that that drives that concept.”
For Soulis, the Motherlobe was also an opportunity to make the Psychonauts “feel like an actual organization,” given that they’re largely in the background of the original game.
“In the first game, you’re in a sort of shabby rundown camp that’s supposedly for a psychic spy organization. But in this game, you’re at an actual facility and they have a testing site, a lab, an isolation area and command centre,” he says. “It’s an actual space and it allows some of the older characters to have their own flavour. You know, [German scientist] Sasha has his lab, [Brazilian Levitation expert] Milla has her memory space that she’s in to reach out into the world, and they all add a lot more depth to their character and the world of Psychonauts itself.”
Psychonauts 2 will launch on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC on August 25th. The game will also be available on day one on Xbox Game Pass.
Image credit: Xbox