When Psychonauts hit in 2005, it wasn’t just a clever platformer. It was part of a wave of action/adventure games experimenting with new types of storytelling.
That was the year of Shadow of the Colossus, which turned the power fantasy on its head by making you wince as you kill giant beasts; the year of Advent Rising, which evolved its mechanics and story based on how you played; the year of Indigo Prophecy, back when we gave Quantic Dream the benefit of the doubt.
Even that year’s bigger, mainstream games pushed story depth. God of War was Devil May Cry with heart. Resident Evil 4 revolutionized horror by changing the camera angle. Half-Life 2 tested the limits of in-game worldbuilding. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory showed players what it felt like to be a spy.
Being more family friendly and taking itself less seriously, Psychonauts existed on the fringes of this group. Yet there was no overlooking its fusion of adventure game storytelling and platforming mechanics, and the way its story justified the gameplay better than almost any game before it. Developer Double Fine created the thinking person’s platformer — the game Microsoft and later Majesco signed when they wanted to publish art games (and Microsoft dropped when it moved on from that foolishness).
It was earnest, optimistic, and sensitive. It felt like something we hadn’t seen before.
Sixteen years later, Psychonauts 2 landed in a very different market. Like most sequels, it carried gameplay baggage from the first — platforming through people’s minds was no longer a new concept, though it had been gone long enough that it sort of felt like one. In this case, the industry had also changed around it, and it was no longer hard to find earnest, optimistic, sensitive stories in games. To stand out this time, the developers had to carry the game with narrative creativity.
They did so masterfully.
With Psychonauts 2, Double Fine built one of the most engaging and varied stories I’ve ever seen in a game. It’s the rare game that makes me pay more attention when cutscenes show up. You can play a Mario game and enjoy it fully without ever paying attention to its plot. To do so with Psychonauts 2 would mean missing more than half of the experience.
The narrative success comes from a mix of things. Some harken back to the original game — jumping into people’s minds is still a brilliant tool for environmental storytelling; having big eyes still makes it easier for characters to show emotion. What’s new is how well the game fuses all its storytelling tricks together. It’s a subtle thing, but the balance and pacing of being silly one moment and hitting hard emotional beats the next has taken a big step forward. The game tackles serious issues like alcoholism, guilt, forgiveness, family trouble, and many others, but never feels burdened by them. As strange as the classic adventure game logic sometimes is — you can still find a piece of bacon to make Ford Cruller pop out of your ear — the whole thing flows elegantly, which makes the world feel more alive.
When you’re running around a cooking show feeling pressured by the crowd, or when you’re playing through a psychedelic music festival wondering if it might give you a headache, you can feel that you’re in good hands. And when you’re solving the larger plot of finding a mole in your psychic spy organization, and helping people deal with their trauma as you go, you get the sense that you’re doing it the right way, due to the precision with which everything is told.
Double Fine also packed the game with variety, so it never feels like just a platformer, even though you run and jump a lot. You live in this world, with more than enough activities to distract you and keep you from dwelling on missing that last jump. Which you will, because the controls — while generally quick and responsive — aren’t super forgiving.
Between the controls and the visuals — which look vibrant and distinct, though on a technical level are nowhere near those in Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, its main release calendar competitor — Psychonauts 2 doesn’t feel like a cutting edge piece of technology.
It doesn’t need to. That was never the point. You don’t play Psychonauts 2 for its technical achievements. You play it to go on wild adventures with Raz and friends. And those adventures take you to places you’d never expect to go — usually inside people’s minds; sometimes riding on a bowling ball — and once again set the bar for narrative justifying gameplay, making the game feel as relevant as the original felt 16 years ago.