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FGC #601 Psychonauts 2

This article contains spoilers for Psychonauts 2, primarily in regard to a lore twist that is learned approximately halfway through the game. If you have had long conversations with Ford Cruller, you know what I am talking about. Anyway, you have been warned…

THE PSYCHONAUTS!My grandfather was the eldest of seven brothers. As confirmed by those granduncles and practically our entire extended family, my grandfather was always known as a generally kind man who was also very quick to anger. And everyone thought this was wholly justified! He had to “keep in line” his younger, male siblings with very little help from a father growing up, and then he was a navy man just in time for World War II. He spent all day on a boat with a metaphorical collection “brothers” that all had to be disciplined and controlled, and… well… I don’t know if you have ever dealt with a man before, but they can get kind of rowdy. So is it any wonder that his experiences from childhood to young adulthood stayed with him his entire life? You cannot just “turn off” the person you have been for twenty years, and if that means you occasionally must throw your drunken brother-in-law off a balcony to make a point about being civil at dinner parties, so be it (also, in my grandfather’s [legal] defense, it was not a particularly high balcony). My grandfather lived to be older than most, and, even through to the age when he was frequently napping in the living room lounger, his whole family continued to have explanations for any temperamental shouting matches. He’s always been like that. That’s just who he is.

Until it wasn’t who he was.

Today’s game is the venerable/mythical Psychonauts 2. Psychonauts 2 is here! It was released! After 16 years of absolutely no Psychonauts (Gogglebob.com does not recognize the existence of virtual reality), here is Psychonauts all back again. And it is no exaggeration to say that Psychonauts is “back”, either. If your number one complaint about Psychonauts is that it never should have ended, Psychonauts 2 has got you covered with everything from the original, and a host of quality-of-life improvements to round out an “and then some”. Psychonauts 2 starts with a Raz that already knows the essential skills from Psychonauts 1 (sorry, invisibility, I said essential), and escalates from there with confidence that the audience does not need an entire level to understand PSI blasts again. All new abilities are then introduced, challenges are expanded, and, by the end, Raz will be thought-grappling while bossing a clone around with the best of ‘em. It is remarkable all on its own that Psychonauts 2 is simultaneously exactly more of the same, and something wholly new and different. This is the game Super Mario Bros. 2 could have been! If that wasn’t awful!

Connect the thoughtsAnd I would be remiss if I did not note that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Psychonauts was one in a seemingly endless parade of collectathons that had been going strong for ten years when it was released back in 2005. But now it seems like the idea of searching environments for hard-to-find collectibles has fallen by the wayside, and Psychonauts 2 is an example of a lamented evolutionary dead-end that that did not survive to see 2021. Chasing figments or hooking hidden keys to hidden chests feels simultaneously antiquated and refreshing when the best other titles of this era can manage is a sidequest or two where you must rescue three cats. Three cats!? You lifestream-addled morons! This friggen’ foyer has 17 tickets to find, and five more scavenger hunt items just to add a little flavor. Is this the kind of gameplay that is sustainable for title after title demanding you achieve 101% to see a marginally satisfactory ending? No. Of course not. That’s why so many people in Liberty City had mental breakdowns when photographing graffiti and seeing a “1/5,000 found” notification. But now, as likely the one game this year that is going to ask you to achieve “Rank 102”, it is a much easier pill to swallow.

But a collectathon can only work if there are interesting worlds in which to do your collecting. Mario 64 had portraits that doubled as portals, Banjo Kazooie had entire realms inside its haunted castle (wait… that was just the same as Mario…), and Psychonauts has always been about exploring the mind. And abstract psychological concepts are fertile ground for a dungeon or ten! Psychonauts 1 featured bipolar disorders transformed into theatres and Napoleon complexes transferred to gigantic boardgames. Psychonauts 2 ups the ante (literally) with hospital-casinos, gameshows, and germ-riddled bowling alleys (uh… that is better than it sounds). It is a joy to explore these abstract worlds with concrete platforming abilities, and slingshotting over a gap to find some emotional baggage or sneaking under a bridge to find a bright idea is consistently pleasant. These “mindscapes” are beautifully realized from a conceptual and level-design standpoint, and every opportunity to enter a new level feels like a gift. Look, Ma, now I can jump in this crazy bee lady’s brain! Wonder what I’m gonna find there!

But there is one important difference between Psychonauts 1 and Psychonauts 2…