The cult classic PS2 platformer finally gets a modern sequel and it’s even more bizarre and imaginative than the original.
No one person or company can be good at everything and even when it seems like that might be the case it’s usually only because they’re working in a very narrow field. Developers like Naughty Dog and Rockstar don’t have the greatest range, in terms of the type of games they make, and even then things like gunplay are never as good as dedicated titles from other studios. But then many a popular game, from all kinds of developers, has flourished despite some of its core mechanics being weak.
We wouldn’t say the 3D platform action of Psychonauts 2 was weak, but it’s certainly not up to the standards of something like Super Mario Odyssey. However, developer Double Fine, who celebrated their 20th anniversary last year, have made a habit of experimenting in every genre possible, from the mix of beat ‘em-up and real-time strategy that was Brütal Legend to bizarre puzzle adventure Stacking, which was based around Russian matryoshka dolls.
In all that time they’ve only ever made one proper sequel (role-playing game Costume Quest 2 in 2014), which given they used to be a small indie developer trying to keep the wolves from the door is an impressive commitment to originality and experimentation. We say used to be, because they were recently bought by Microsoft and this is the first game to be published by them – and we’d say it confirms them as a very worthwhile purchase.
Double Fine excel in two main areas: dialogue and unique ideas. The studio was founded by Lucasfilm alumni Tim Schafer and so even though the plots are usually either inconsequential or overcomplicated (or both in this case) the writing of the characters, and their voiceovers, is always top notch. Psychonauts 2, perhaps unwisely, picks up immediately after the events of the first game, and its VR spin-off Rhombus Of Ruin, as protagonist Raz starts his first day as an intern at international spy agency Psychonauts.
Well, occasionally there are references to spying, but you never really get to see what anyone does under normal circumstances, as the plot revolves around a mole at the agency, the kidnapping and return of its leader, and the resurrection of a decades-old enemy from the dead. It’s all much more complicated than that that and involves people with odd names talking about other people with even stranger names, that you’re never quite sure are someone you’ve met before or a reference to one of the earlier games.
In terms of Psychonauts fan service the sequel buries the needle but rather than explain why an old man’s head pops out of Raz’s ear when he waves a rasher of bacon around the game just expects you to go with it, which is asking a lot sometimes. Thankfully, the dialogue and voiceovers are so consistently good that Double Fine just about gets away with it. Schafer is best known for his comedic writing, but Psychonauts 2 runs the whole gamut from high school comedy to sci-fi mystery, while encompassing several romances and touching upon a range of mental health issues.
Apart from the bits where the game just will not shut up about its silly background lore it all works together extremely well and while it’s never laugh out loud funny it can be deceptively cutting at times, akin to early era The Simpsons.
In terms of gameplay Psychonauts 2 is, like its predecessor, a 3D platformer, with a number of small hub worlds to explore in the real world but most of the story missions taking place in someone’s head. That doesn’t make any difference in terms of abilities – only the (surprisingly compelling) collectibles change – but it does allow for a dizzying range of different locations, from a 60s music gig to a giant robotic mail sorter, to a hospital themed casino.
All of this makes sense within the context of the story and inevitability ends up with you fighting various aspects of the character’s psyche, from censors that want to stamp you out of existence to a judge that attacks you with gavel and law books. The combat and platforming are absolutely fine, but they lack a sense of weight and tactility. It’s yet another game with psychic abilities, including telekinesis, that are similar to Control, but it’s nowhere near close to that gold standard in terms of action.
The combat’s flaws are not pronounced enough to make it a chore but it’s the script and discovering what surreal sight the game will throw at you next that is the real draw. There’s nothing quite as bizarre as the turn-based board game in the original but the cooking show level, that was part of the preview we played a few months ago, does come close. Psychonauts 2 constantly plays with scale and perspective, reminding you that you are essentially in a dream, where real world physics and logic don’t necessarily follow.
Although the game itself is a substantial 14+ hour experience some of the levels are relatively short and yet feature completely unique set-ups, such as a Monkey Ball inspired stage set in a smelly bowling ball shoe about to be cleaned, where you mingle amongst the doomed population of germs, whose world looks like 1950s New York and has a show tune style soundtrack, and who react to impending Armageddon like they’re in a period sci-fi movie.
It would take a long time to spoil all the strangeness and surprises in Psychonauts 2 but the only other thing we can see putting people off is the unapologetically ugly art style. It’s absolutely supposed to look the way it does, but most characters look like a cross between a Muppet and Frankenstein’s monster, which is probably not going to be for everyone.
What might also rankle some is that after all the fuss about the game having an invincibility mode it’s actually really easy, even if you never touch the accessibility options. That’s fine – the more people that play the game the better – but a hard mode would’ve been nice as well.
If you’ve ever been dreaming of a sequel to Psychonauts – and many have, given this was only made thanks to crowdfunding – then this is that dream fully realised. The graphics are fairly low tech, and the game design hasn’t moved on much since the PlayStation 2 era, but that’s more an indication of how ambitious and ahead of its time the original was.
Psychonauts 2 has more original ideas in one game than most other franchises, even some developers, manage in their entire lifetime. It’s not perfect, but Psychonauts 2 is almost unique amongst non-indie games in that it feels like the unfiltered creation of a passionate group of artists. Double Fine wanted to make Psychonauts 2 and they wanted to make it like this, and it’s almost impossible not to be swept along with their enthusiasm.
Source: Read Full Article