Psychonauts 2 Review
60s counter culture believed through enough love, music and mind expansion, they’d achieve peace in their lifetime. Then some siphoned off to the Charles Manson family to start a race war, and many more joined the F.B.I. to do something similar.
Transcendence, art and making out do not have inherent political affiliations. That Woodstock and the Civil Rights Movement overlapped had less to do with natural sequences, and more like one of those coinkydink summers where Armageddon and Deep Impact came out, moments history books will describe as ‘big into asteroids!’ Watching your movement fracture into the very pain you imagined preventing is, for lack of a better term, a bummer. A curse that comes for many. Even the Psychonauts.
I’ve never been to Shakedown Street but I have been playing video games for too long. Generations ago it felt like a rebellious community. Defining a growing medium as its own unique space to explore intimacy, atmosphere and technology. Grounds to stand against gatekeepers, senators and Florida attorneys crusading against them. Now games are one of the most persuasive routes to a young reactionary right, who troll against human rights all hours of the day. All these to say it has been a long 20 years since the first Psychonauts released. It was a game I played most of in one sitting at a friend’s place. The genesis of not only video games, but independent games and the stature of Double Fine founder Tim Schafer, have grown to represent various things over time.
When we first met Razputin Aquato (or Raz for short) he was a rosy cheeked, green eared runaway sneaking into Whispering Rock, a summer camp and training ground for adolescent psychics. He was excited to hone his fledgling psychic abilities but more excited to meet members of the Psychonauts, an agency of psychic spies whose exploits are published in pulp comics. In Psychonauts 2, a sequel that has fought to exist, Raz finally joins their ranks (albeit as an intern). Like his first adventure, Raz must chase down conspiracies and great brain robberies. A mole has infiltrated the Psychonauts to resurrect their greatest foe. Stopping them will take Raz to the foundations of the Psychonauts, uncovering a timeline of young revolutionaries way over their heads with geopolitics.
Double Fine has always been a creative studio but so many of their games are shy of greatness. The level of craft in Psychonauts 2 crystalises their strengths. Ambitious ideas and (ideally) the resources to manifest them. Bundling as many gags and high concept scenarios together like an alchemist’s tight five. Dog pile combat and distinctive powers don’t gel nicely, but options to minimise fight sequences signal a game that would rather be played than wrestled with.
Hub worlds, especially the abandoned “Questionable Area” tourist trap, are large and ornate playgrounds. Packed with heights to explore, secret passages, rewarding details and obstacles to exercise Raz’ circus upbringing and brain powers. Psychonauts 2’s level design betrays a team with some strong love for a Disneyland ride queue.
Most of the game is set within various characters’ psyches. Levels revolve around repairing mindscapes, dream-like environments that radically transform when provoked. These stages oscillate between sobering reflections on addiction, dejection, despair to the most glorious commitment to gross-out humour since Earthworm Jim. The opening stage, a cove of teeth, gums and braces, is one of the most viscerally foul things I’ve encountered in a video game. Another level is set in a mouldy bowling shoe. Rank and extremely refreshing. Then you’re tackled with an extraordinary chapter exploring sensory overload and panic attacks in a situation so alien, existential and J.G. Ballardian that it accomplishes the unthinkable: a Beatles parody that doesn’t come off as tacky.
Feed Your Head
Raz enters the Psychonauts only to find himself back on the bottom of the pecking order. Briefly. The game’s focus swiftly changes to the struggles of Raz’ heroes: the founders of the Psychonauts. Above all else Raz’ mentor Ford Cruller. Cruller, til now a zany, bacon-loving coot, turns out to be a broken man hiding underneath layers of eccentricity. The entire founding team of Psychonauts are frozen between fears of the past and future, burrowing deeper into their own minds. A facade of superheroic hippies hiding wounded dreamers and misfits in a bureau that blew up out of their daytripping.
The first Psychonauts had Raz repair brains suffering from the broadest sweeps of ‘crazy’. This story puts Raz in the backseat of his own adventure, but focused on older characters riddled with realer, specific regrets, which makes for a more interesting game.
It’s tempting to overanalyse where the minds of Double Fine are at 20 years in. Veterans of video gamedom’s silliest shops now being assimilated into the Microsoft family tree. Long and unexpected creative journeys play a big part in Psychonauts 2. One burnt out Psychonaut, living isolated in his personal Little Shop of Horrors, feels like an homage for puppeteer Frank Oz. A similarity that would be easier to dismiss if all the new Psychonauts characters did not look like Muppets (and by contrast the returning cast looking like those creepier nectarine skinned Dark Crystal puppets).
Psychonauts feels like a game with all hands on deck. Double Fine had sought funding through a crazy quilt of means. All those skeptical of their finances will see just what kind of glorious strange can be made with those millions. Something confident, uncanny and beautiful. Like wafts of familiar scents, moments throughout Psychonauts evoke memories of both Double Fine and LucasArts’ highest highs. Many of Double Fine’s best known collaborators, from visual artists to voice talent, have pooled in. It makes a fine game, one about the atrophy of counter culture, how bonds make finer milestones than accomplishments, and how past failures do not negate future glories. Psychonauts 2 is a rare treasure, one that feels rarer and rarer as years go by, but clearly still possible with the proper gang of weirdos.