When “what’s old is new again” permeates in a way that’s less fad and more transcendent, well, you’re usually onto a good thing. In games, this is as true an idea as you can get -- we live, breathe and play in a space that’s copycat at best, and as cyclical as the moon’s straight-line passes over our flat horizon. Or, as scientists like to call it: “orbiting”.
What all of this means is games have a tendency to stay in familiar and safe lanes. This isn’t bad, either. Especially if those lanes are fun, engaging, expansive and thoughtful. And when you combine the idea of cyclical popularity with that transcendence -- ie, an old idea existing in a modern gaming landscape, and therefore expanded upon due to large shifts in technology and varying ideas scaled up in reflection of that, it stands to reason the old stuff like, say, “platforming” would not just get another go around, but would do so in ways that feel fresh and new, while offering up something tangibly familiar.
In Psychonauts 2
, this is exactly what we get: an old game, with old ideas, in a new world and timeline reaping the rewards of growth and ideation over more than a couple of generations (it’s been in development for the better part of six years). And now with Microsoft
coffers to help in reaching that coveted finish line, no less, the game is looking as good as ever, and plays as good as it looks. And we know this thanks to a meaty amount of playtime we managed to have with it in hands-on preview form recently.
"An excitable young lad who looks about ready to either fly a Wright Bros. plane, or front a post-geek beta-build-laden experimental wokefear-themed garage band...”
If you’re late to the grey matter party, in Psychonauts 1 and 2 you play as Rasputin “Raz” Aquato
-- an excitable young lad who looks about ready to either fly a Wright Bros.
plane, or front a post-geek beta-build-laden experimental wokefear-themed garage band. In the first game Raz infiltrated a training summer camp for kids with psychic abilities, and became a prize “psycadet” himself after he (or you) went on to uncover an insidious plot, proving your net psyche to the Psychonaut higher-ups.
In Psychonauts 2 Raz has gone from Psycadet in the first outing to full-blown “Psychonaut Intern” whose first major break is… *drum roll* ... working in the mail room.
Actually, it’s in this comedic setup that Raz’s overenthusiasm for wanting to be a true blue Psychonaut that things kick into narrative gear. The whole game is a “what if Jhonen Vasquez
had a baby?” delivery of top-notch design and art-direction. Though those influences are only really added here so people not familiar with Scott Campbell
’s art that got the whole tone underway in the first place (he also worked on Brutal Legend
), know what they’re in for. Those names can be mentioned because they create a point of visual reference, but it’s a disservice to the package as a whole to suggest they influenced the world of Psychonauts at all. This is a fully realised IP that could transcend games in a heartbeat -- something we actually asked creator (and industry legend) Tim Schafer
"It appears it wasn’t too hard for Double Fine to reunite the voice cast of the original game who Schafer reveals “jumped right back into character”...”
“Various people over time have brought that idea to us; Hollywood has come callin’ a few times,” he enthuses. “But it’s never worked out for one reason or another [and] we always just really focus on the games. I think games are cooler than movies anyway, so that’s where it naturally belongs.”
Thankfully, while time between releases would be considered long in any conversation, it appears it wasn’t too hard for Double Fine to reunite the voice cast of the original game who Schafer reveals “jumped right back into character”. It’s also a double
boon in that the diehards who played the original will feel like the namesake maintains integrity, while newcomers who see value in said game universe can go back to the first title (which is also available on Game Pass via the Backwards Compatibility program) and won’t feel displaced. Consistency is always a good thing when you’re working in the world of sequels.
Speaking of, familiarity doesn’t just live in the game’s aesthetics. Moves and abilities, as well as collectibles and puzzles feel super on-brand. And combat too. Psychonauts 2 definitely feels superior to the first game thanks to a better camera system and faster movement all round. And it’s just polished. Like, to the absolute nines, which is something Schafer admits being a part of the Microsoft family in the latter stages of the game’s development helped a lot with.
“The question when we joined Xbox was “what would you do with Psychonauts if you were not as constrained by resources as you are now?”, he says. “And so that really helped us finish the game right; finish the game with polish and [all the] features we wanted to finish it [with]. And to take a little bit of time to make sure it’s good enough for the players.”
"This time around you’re walking right into the Psychonauts braintrust at Psychonauts HQ -- a place Raz has fantasised about...”
It would come as no surprise if newcomers thought they knew what they were in store for after the game’s first brain, which serves solely as a tutorial, or refresher. But what they might not be ready for is what happens after. The first game took place in a summer camp with the cam grounds acting as the game’s hub. This time around you’re walking right into the Psychonauts brain trust at Psychonauts HQ -- a place Raz has fantasised about, and lives up to his every expectation. For players, this is Psychonauts 2’s hub -- a sprawling multi-tiered and layered playspace that acts as a bridge between brains and other spaces, while also working to maintain a steady flow of narrative and character progression.
Once you realise it’s not all combat and platforming, a fully functioning world with an economy and oh-so-many collectibles is presented before you. And like so many games of this ilk and from yesteryear, progression and narrative expansion is built from growth and exploration. It’s a very animated, interconnected world with environments that tease more behind every part that looks alive; a tantalising array of “what ifs” and “maybes” that tickle the senses.
"We’re exploring them in terms of both narrative and gameplay. So it’s really about what aspect of the psyche do we want to explore to serve the story better and what aspect do we want to explore to serve the gameplay...”
“I think it’s because we’re not just exploring these themes in the abstract,” Tim reveals when we ask how they tackled disparate concepts and contextualisations of the brain and psyche, without going too far in one direction versus another, when you consider the breadth of content they *could* produce. “We’re exploring them in terms of both narrative and gameplay. So it’s really about what aspect of the psyche do we want to explore to serve the story better and what aspect do we want to explore to serve the gameplay… like, you know, what aspect of your psyche helps with combat? Projecting an archetype might help you with combat.
“And so there are lots… I mean the brain is an amazing, mysterious and unknown thing and there’s so much of it that we have not covered in this game, but it was a great resource for bringing in new contextualisations for powers and environments and story beats.”
“And speaking from the design side of things,” adds senior systems designer, Lauren Scott
. “The way we sort of approach these big topics... I think the key of it is distilling the idea down into its core identity and keeping it really, really simple. For example, a couple enemies we have [are] the Doubts… well, what do doubts do? They’re a ton of different ideas that might come out that you might latch onto, but [we] just pick one, and the one we picked is that doubts slow you down. And they sort of make you hesitate and second guess yourself. So we made that enemy a really sticky, slow enemy that splats on the ground and slows Raz’s movement down if he walks over it.”
"From dealing with someone’s phobia of the dentist and what that manifests in their traversable brain, to how someone’s rewired thinking around gambling might shape in their head...”
What results is a game that never lets you down in the wow department because, thematically, you just never know what you’re going to get. From dealing with someone’s phobia of the dentist and what that manifests in their traversable brain, to how someone’s rewired thinking around gambling might shape like in their head. Both examples are from the game, and both are as tonally disparate as you could imagine, but they tie nicely together because the game’s systems and its progression setup keeps everything harmoniously bridged. Which is no mean feat when looking at the scale at hand.
There’s a lot of game here.
I mentioned collectibles before, and in our chat with the Double Fine team, Tim cut off any queries about post-release content because he felt like there was more than enough content baked into the premium product already, that it’s just not needed (yet). And if you’ve played Brutal Legend, you’ll know that Double Fine likes to line its game-worlds with collectibles and hidden treasures. And Psychonauts 2 really is no different.
What’s going to the best leg up for this much-loved title though, is the opportunity for a new audience. There’s a whole backstory on how the first game didn’t reach as broad an audience as it should have until Double Fine managed to get the license for itself, and even then it was all a lot of climbing up steep hills, but with Psychonauts 2 the barrier of entry is as low as it can be for a game of this size thanks to Game Pass
, and it’s not something lost on Tim at all.
“And it’s already a perfect game for Game Pass -- it’s unusual and quirky and might be a risky thing for someone who’s in a store thinking about spending $60 on it, but on Game Pass there’s so much less risk and it’s so easy to just try it and I think it will reach a lot more people because of that.”
We’ll have more on the game shortly, including video content from our hands-on with full 4K capture, so stay tuned. But as far as mid-year releases go, Psychonauts 2 currently looks like it won’t just tide you over until year’s end, but carry you on through it with the amount of content we barely managed to scratch the surface of.