3D platformers are not as common as they used to be. The original Psychonauts launched in 2005 when the mascot platformer was about to burst and in 2019 on the cusp of the launch of the sequel, they’re almost all but dead aside from the occasional nostalgia-driven indie title and Kickstarter project. But Psychonauts 2 doesn’t seem to care. While it looks remarkably like its predecessor in presentation, it’s still got that the trademark Double Fine charm that appears to make it more than the sum of its mid-2000s parts.
And that’s what makes the game what it is according to Tim Schafer, founder of noted developer Double Fine. Psychonauts is a very different breed game, especially in the 3D platformer realm. The first entry’s sense of humor mixed in with a modicum of darker themes gave it the cult following it currently has and by replicating that formula almost a decade and a half later, it still allows it to stand out today.
“We wanted to try a lot of new stuff with Psychonauts especially focusing on narrative and telling a story that seamlessly weaves in with the platforming and using environmental storytelling and narrative to tell a deeper story,” explained Schafer. “And I feel like that’s still our thing.”
This statement is ever more apparent at E3. On the grand platform dominated by big games like Cyberpunk 2077, Doom Eternal, and Marvel’s Avengers (even though it may not totally deserve it), it can appear as though the definition of a game is a narrow one, only relegated to titles with guts, gore, guns, or a bloody combination of the three. Psychonauts 2 sticks out now more than ever and Schafer is well aware of that.
“[The discrepancy is more apparent] especially when you’re at E3,” he says. “There are a lot of games of certain types. There are a lot of things you see that are dark and gritty and the world of Psychonauts is, even though it goes into some dark places, still very cheerful and colorful and comedic world. And by standing out in that way, you can make a 3D platformer very relevant.”
Psychonauts 2 Preview | A mental vacation
Schafer wasn’t lying as the demo he had just previously shown behind closed doors had proven. The live demo kicked off with an image of a brain that slowly dissolved into a row of cubicles before it revealed Raz, the raspy, outgoing protagonist of the series. He was slaving away in a boring cubicle, which was a far cry from what the mental image of Psychonaut should be doing. The office staff full of familiar faces is then brought together for the “Morale Corral” where the crazed, shower cap-wearing villain Dr. Loboto is awarded Employee of the Year. But to accept, he must get his boss’ signature.
The demo then reveals that this whole thing is a ruse taking place in Loboto’s mind that is meant to trick him into spilling the beans on the higher ups in the chain of command that he is nefariously working for. Loboto’s resistance to giving up the answer twists the purposely boring office setting into something more fitting and more Psychonauts. Loboto’s dentistry background fuses with the cubicles and turns the whole thing into some hellish dental nightmare version of Office Space.
Psychonauts 2 Preview | A few new badges
It’s in lockstep with the series’ clever level design that uses the mind-diving premise to craft simple worlds with creative wrapping. The platforming was fairly standard but Raz’s moveset has expanded a bit. He can now grab ledges and wall jump, which doesn’t turn it into a twitchy platformer but give him some much-needed versatility. Although it remains to be seen how much he’ll be able to upgrade or if the platforming sections will grow more complicated as the game progresses.
Combat has also seen its share of upgrades too. It was tame and shallow in the first entry, as the basic punch and slam attacks hardly interacted with the arsenal of different psychic powers that also didn’t leave much room for experimentation. Fighting was more of a means to tackle silly mental metaphors than it was a solid gameplay mechanic in and of itself.
However, Raz is a bit more combat ready here. He’s been equipped with a dodge roll now, making him more nimble and able to avoid incoming damage. The psychic powers also interact more with each other in Psychonauts 2. While more will be shown in the final game, Raz was able to lift up objects with his telekinesis while also shooting or punching other enemies. This multitasking allowed combat to have a faster pace and added in some complexity since you could take on multiple enemies at the same time.
It still didn’t look incredibly deep or something you’d confuse for something like Ninja Gaiden but it’s a thoughtful step in the right direction for a sequel especially if the new unannounced powers continue to give players more options. And this wasn’t just by happenstance. Schafer discussed how the game is more responsive now and how the combat was one area Double Fine focused on when making this anticipated sequel to a charming but imperfect game.
“We wanted to improve our combat,” he said bluntly. “It wasn’t super developed in the first game. We definitely knew there would be a lot of things we could do. [The powers] control different, they flow different. They work off each other [this time].”
Psychonauts 2 Preview | Sticking to its toothy roots
But that’s not the only aspect from the first game that the team wanted to overhaul. The camera was chief among those, which was apparent as Schafer chuckled as he was quick to list off that as the first point of improvement. But the game is still Psychonauts and he was quick to mention that what the studio wanted to keep from the first game.
“We tried to think about what we like the most about the first game and not lose the humor, the story, or the surprises that make Psychonauts,” he explained.
Psychonauts had such a cult following for those exact reasons and Psychonauts 2 is following closely to those popular origins that spawned almost 14 years ago. This also means that it can pessimistically be called a dated game, as it doesn’t look like a state-of-the-art experience only possible on the current generation of hardware.
And people looking for that will probably find it jarring especially if they don’t have the nostalgia for 3D platformers of that time or instantly gel to its style. But for those who have been spiritually crushed since 2005 due to the lack of a Psychonauts sequel will likely find this game to be what they wanted: a witty, original platformer with a whole lot of heart. It might not be for everyone but given how unique Double Fine games are and how rarely that studio makes sequels, it doesn’t have to be.