When this year’s Game Awards nominations were announced, one of the most noteworthy news was that Xbox is the most nominated publisher of the year – the other one being the controversial snub of Forza Horizon 5 from the Game of the Year category. That news alone points to how far Xbox has come in the past few years. They usually say the right things – and when they don’t, like the time they tried to double Gold’s price, they backpaddle spectacularly like removing the need to have Gold to play free-to-play multiplayer games – and release decent games, but this year they released some of the best games of the year. Forza Horizon 5 is the best-reviewed game of the year, Age of Empires IV made a well-received comeback, Halo Infinite’s multiplayer has been dominating discourse and player attention since its alpha test phase, and Deathloop is another big winner in critical reception (exemplified by it being the most nominated game for 2021’s Game Awards). Psychonauts 2 is a perfect encapsulation of why Xbox games have succeeded so effectively this year; there is a love for the original game and a want to “correct” any flaws it had without removing integral parts of its charm. It’s an indie game with the budget and the staff of a AAA studio and it uses these resources to do exactly what it wants to do; perfect the formula of the original, address its weaknesses and introduce new ideas, deliver a compelling narrative that makes the game feel like it has a purpose and a reason to exist besides nostalgia. It doesn’t do anything spectacular or deliver an experience that will have people conflicted or discussing the story (the sort of games Sony has become excellent at making), but it is everything I ever wanted from a Psychonauts sequel and then some.
Psychonauts 2 picks up after the first (and the VR-exclusive spin-off), which sees Raz finally start his career as a Psychonaut…intern. Obviously, he starts a little lower in rank than expected, so he decides to take matters into his own hands with disastrous results coinciding with a dangerous foe re-emerging to plunge the Psychonauts into world-ending stakes once again. I won’t go into too many details about the story, because unlike the first one, Psychonauts 2 does have a good story rather than a reason to enter other people’s minds and have that carry the narrative; it’s not especially memorable or particularly great, but as a narrative “hub” where most themes, characters, and ideas will need to start and exist for a while before Raz explores them more thoroughly inside other character’s minds, it more than exceeds the requirements.
That idea is what compels me the most with Psychonauts in general. From gameplay to a design and narrative standpoint, Psychonauts is all about the micros and macros coexisting together and being able to choose freely which one you want to interact with; from collectathon challenges (figments that can reach 200 on each brain) to “secrets” for each brain and hub area, Psychonauts 2 is all about pacing. Introduce a character/theme/gameplay loop, then expand on it and “conclude” its arc, then move on to a big set-piece moment or finish the loop and restart it. Take the theme of meddling with someone’s mind as an example. It is re-introduced early on (part of the failings of Psychonauts 1), then established as part of the sequel when Raz makes a horrible mistake, then explored more thoroughly through Raz trying to correct that mistake and “mend” another character’s psyche. Psychonauts 2 is less interested in making grand statements about mental illness and wellbeing (it knows that through this family-friendly experience, it will always come up feeling like it’s too simplistic) and more interested in exploring such themes from a mechanical and narrative stand-point. For example, meddling with someone’s mind can have unintended consequences from well-intended actions, like Raz trying to get someone to take more risks, but instead getting them addicted to gambling. From a mechanical standpoint, this allows the devs to create a fascinating mix of casinos and gambling-related activities alongside hospitals; this introduces great looking and unique stages such as a roulette wheel maternity stage; in this stage, the game also starts introducing risky situations where the player must use a power that leaves them exposed to damage from enemies nearby in order to progress through the level. From a narrative standpoint, it explores why the character whose mind we are in will not allow for any risks, how that part of her psyche (the one able to become addicted to gambling) came to be, and why they worked so hard to keep it hidden under all circumstances. Narrative-wise, all these ideas were so thoroughly explored and became the context for some wonderful character building and witty jokes that I didn’t mind the simplicity, because (like the first Psychonauts) it never felt like it was preaching or sharing the way to solve this complicated issue; it was simply having fun and relishing the setting to create unique moments and entertainment.
That is the loop for each new area in Psychonauts 2. Now realize that this happens for all 14 brain levels and 3 hub areas, in the span of ~20 hours for a completionist run; it’s incredibly well-paced, definitely one of the best-paced games I have played this year. There is not one dull moment and at the exact moment I felt like I had enough, the only thing left to do was grind a bit to get a couple of harder achievements. Every brain (and each new area of that brain) and every hub level has so much creativity put into it, it could easily be a game of its own; some areas have new art styles, all have their own music (which is phenomenal), their own ideas and pacing. There are levels that I rushed through because the narrative experience was so much better and then went back to complete later; others I took my time with, completing once and 100% them. Some are all about exploring and poking at everything to see what yields a reward, while others are all about movement and platforming.
That is what the original Psychonauts was all about as well, but it had so many rough-edges that it was the world and the charm that kept me going (although the final stage was just too much for me to ever 100%). Psychonauts 2 fixes this with great gameplay. Raz feels great to move now, the combat has a challenge to it and needs more than spamming the attack button to master now, and the camera now is an ally in exploration and platforming rather than a bystander that sometimes gets in the way. The fast-loading times now mean that I take more risks, I leave areas when I feel like I’ve seen everything and return much more willingly if I missed something. Failure is less of a hassle and more of a reason to return again and have more fun. The extra budget from Microsoft means the game ran flawlessly with minor visual bugs and no crashes or stutters that I recall; it also means that Jack Black and a surprise actor who I did not know was involved and was a great surprise to hear have prominent roles and deliver great performances alongside the stellar cast of voice actors.
That is what I meant about Psychonauts being the perfect example of why Xbox has been so successful this year. They’ve delayed games because they were not ready, and they’ve thrown more resources into them, especially for games in already-existing franchises; new-IPs will always be the thing that excites me the most, but going back to franchises that I have a history with and love for, giving the best studios the resources, time, and confidence to reinvigorate them and perfect them is not a bad compromise until the new IP arrives! Psychonauts 2 is the best example of that; a cult classic from 20 years ago with so many great ideas that were held back by technology and a tight budget/release schedule, now being given the full sequel it deserves. One that fixes the errors, expands on what was great and keeps what made it special intact. Psychonauts 2 is one of my favorite games of the year and it just made me a lot more excited about Double Fine finally having that security to experiment and do what they are best at; Weird, witty, and unique games no one would fund but should exist anyway.