Psychonauts 2

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, macOS, Linux and Xbox

Developer: Double Fine | Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

Release date: Aug. 25

“We writers are most effective when we get inside someone’s head,” says one character in “Psychonauts 2.” It’s an apt way to think about why the offbeat video game series, written by Double Fine studio head Tim Schafer, resonates so well. “Psychonauts 2,” a sequel to a 2005 cult favorite, gets in people’s heads — literally.

That’s the game’s core concept: that each person’s brain is a platformer level to jump through and explore via dreamlike sequences. For example, in one brain that is being overwhelmed by sensory overload, players explore a 1970s-inspired psychedelic trip, scrambling over giant noses and outstretched tongues.

Like in the original, players follow Razputin “Raz” Aquato as he uses familiar psychic powers and some newfound skills to brave the intern program with the Psychonauts, a group of international secret agents. Raz is still a kid, and for him, the events of the first game and an additional VR title, “Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin,” happened just a few days ago. Now he must uncover the mystery of what happened to Nick the mailman’s brain and help the founders of the Psychonauts piece together their tattered friendships and minds.

The original game and its sequel blend compelling story, psychic abilities and surreal elements. Add to that recipe the game’s zany cast of characters, and it all gels together. “Psychonauts 2” juggles multiple visual metaphors while managing to be coherent. For example, a coffin level, touching on ideas of death, veers into an underwater realm with sharks that hint at a character’s darkest secret.

This time, mental health takes center stage in a purposeful way, as game levels highlight a character’s traumatic memories, inner turmoil and more. Consent is also verbally expressed, as Raz usually asks for permission to visit people’s brains. Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, the game features content warnings alerting players of depictions of addiction, panic attacks, PTSD, anxiety and delusions — something the first game lacked.

One of the most compelling things about Raz is that he’s both a circus performer and a psychic, and those two identities are sometimes at odds with each other. His family hates psychics, blaming them for the family curse that prevents them from getting near water. “Psychonauts 2” revisits that lore and explains more of how it came to be, giving his delightful family more screen time. Sometimes this is done in cutscenes; other times, it’s dropped in through witty dialogue as Raz interacts with the world around him.

The richness and cartoonish sincerity of Psychonauts’s world makes playing the game feel like switching on the TV for some well-written, Saturday morning cartoons. The plot twists don’t exist in a vacuum, with the seeds having been planted in the first game, in “Rhombus of Ruin” and in the early scenes of “Psychonauts 2.” The story’s twists and turns also make use of the characters that players have gotten to know rather than introducing an unfamiliar and new Big Bad. That has the added benefit of building more nuance on top of the already strong characterization.

The game does a consistent job of homing in on small moments and recalling earlier details from the franchise and expanding upon them, adding a sense of heft and solidity to this fictional world. Early on, for example, a henchman utters an obscure riddle in the 2021 sequel; by the game’s closing act, we learn what the riddle means, even if it’s a small detail that some may miss. There’s even a nod to the first game, when Coach Oleander, one of the original villains who has since been reformed, asks if “Psychonauts 2′s” Big Bad should be allowed to return to a normal life; the other Psychonauts give him a pointed look before he relents.

Combat in the game can be a little easy at times, but it’s great fun to use Raz’s repertoire of powers, which includes the ability to slow down time or draw a paper-thin version of Raz that flies around to distract enemies or sneak into tight spaces. Raz has far too many powers to map to the Xbox controller’s bumpers and triggers, so a lot of the combat and platformer challenges involve quickly pausing to remap the controls to enable different powers. Once you reach late game and accumulate enough health and intern credits to level up skills, Raz is powerful enough to take out the final boss without much of a challenge.

But the focus of the roughly 10-to-15-hour-long game isn’t in its fighting or action scenes. For “Psychonauts 2,” it’s all about the story and exploring the minds of its characters. In that vein, the game has accessibility features including an invincibility toggle (though Raz can still drown in water or be electrocuted), an option to turn off damage from falling and an option to make Raz’s attacks more powerful to speed up combat.

Like many games, “Psychonauts 2” attempts to be cinematic, but it also explores visual techniques and tricks that only video games can offer. In one level, you enter a wine bottle, but when you walk through the bottle and emerge on the other side, the wine bottle has become a fridge. In some instances, you’ll enter a door only for it to vanish behind you.

I played the game mostly on the Xbox Series X but also on an older gaming PC hooked up to a Series X controller. The graphics take a huge hit on the lower-end PC. Large swaths of the game, especially the outdoors and the real world, looked dull and lifeless on the PC compared to the Series X. Depending on which device you play the game, that choice could have a significant impact on your enjoyment of the experience. I found that the game delighted me most when I was playing on the Xbox, and I could see the massive world across my TV screen rather than on the smaller screen of my laptop.

The game delves into politics, too, portraying an Eastern European monarch — a Grulovian, like Raz and his family — who snobbishly looks down on the peasants of his land. But when Raz enters the monarch’s mind, he sees a different version of the story the game has been telling, one where the Psychonauts are the villains that have been ruining the fictional land of Grulovia. Amid the later parts of the game that touch on the Grulovian war, it almost feels like art is imitating life, and studio head Schafer is reflecting on America and its interventions in global conflicts.

The game brings back some of the dated graphics and imagery from the 2005 title, such as Raz’s jump animation and various collectibles. That, alongside a rock song performed by Jack Black, delivers nostalgia for a time nearly two decades past. The franchise’s staying power should come as no surprise. Credits for the game’s crowdfunding backers, who collectively paid over $3.8 million for “Psychonauts 2” by 2016, last for more than 20 minutes.

So far, all of this year’s early front-runners for game of the year have had this in common: There’s a sense of joy and hope amid the chaos. A clear analogy can be drawn to “Chicory: A Colorful Tale,” a game that is also about mental health, caring and embracing imperfection. These are games that leave the player lost in thought after playing, wishing to spend more time with the characters.

After traversing nearly a dozen brains, I, along with Raz, couldn’t help but feel empathy for people along all walks of life. The moral of the story, delivered rather obviously by Raz’s supervisor Hollis Forsythe, is that institutions are flawed, people are flawed, but we are all just trying our best.

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