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Psychonauts 2 has no right being as good as it is.
Seriously: After years of developments and delays, multiple rounds of funding, and a studio track record that has often flirted with greatness without ever being able to actually seal the deal, how were we to expect that a 16-years-later sequel would not only be able to carry on the legacy of the original game (and its woebegotten VR interquel), but actually surpass them? It’s irritating, is what it is—the sort of frustration that can only be alleviated by getting this column done as quickly as I can so that I can play more Psychonauts 2.
But first: I have often questioned, while doing my ludicrous job, how far charm can take a project—that is, how many structural or technical flaws can be eclipsed with things like creativity, humor, and that special quality of art known only as chutzpah. Which is a sort of roundabout way of saying that Psychonauts 2 is undeniably a flawed game, technically messy and looped into a 3D platformer framework that wasn’t especially fresh when the first game came out in 2005, and which has all but disappeared in the intervening decade and a half. And I don’t care about any of it, so charmed am I by its visuals, its humor, its oddball characters, and especially the mental worlds it sends protagonist Raz (still a perfectly cast Richard Horvitz) tumbling into. I just keep smiling, an expression I usually reserve for when something especially terrible has happened in a Dark Souls game.
Take as an exemplar of the game’s design ethos the mental world of Compton Boole, one of the founders of the games’ titular organization of psychic superspies. As with the original game, Boole’s mental issues take on enormous metaphorical life once Raz jumps directly into his brain, in this case by having his massive self-doubts manifest as a bizarre cooking show—one with talking food, a cruel ticking clock, and judgment passed by hand puppets of Boole’s real-world friends. (Also, they’re goats. Psychonauts has never been afraid of a little beautiful dream logic.) As Raz, you have to help Compton prepare his assigned dishes, bouncing over a level filled with giant cleavers and grilling elements, making sure the cheerful eggs and fruit in the audience get chopped, boiled, and fried to their hearts’ content. It’s chaotic, hilarious, and all-around brilliant, perfectly putting—as the best of Psychonauts’ mental worlds have—the pressures and anxieties of the brain you’re hanging out in directly into your hands.
It’s also kind of janky, with some frustrating jumps that can make it difficult to move the cheerful little bread people to their happy dooms. Given that you’re on a tight timer to get maximum rewards, this can be frustrating. And yet those issues, damning in a different context, only propelled me onward, because I was having such a good time competing in the fictitious mental cooking show where you chop up happy food to feed it to goats. If my brain (and even my hands) tell me something is technically poor, but my heart is screaming in joy at every Price Is Right-aping interstitial and eventual boss battle where I pluck goat-vomit-covered food out of piles of spew, then who’s right? Is this happiness? Video game Stockholm Syndrome? What’s the difference? And all of this is just one mental world. Psychonauts 2 has tons of them, each pulling different clever tricks, and supported by industry-standard visuals, voice acting, and actual, honest-to-god, jokes. It’s probably a pretty bad 3D platformer, in an objective sense. (They still have the figments system, where you’re tasked with scooping up collectibles like Banjo Goddamn Kazooie! Why do I still love it? Am I broken?) But it’s one hell of a good Psychonauts game.