The unlikely sequel to a 16-year-old game about going inside people’s heads to rummage around in all their mental baggage, Psychonauts 2 is wonderfully anachronistic. It’s a missive from a time when practically every game was about running and jumping and collecting things in some cartoonish otherworld, and every developer was trying to find ways to make those actions feel novel and exciting. This game’s novelty is its bold, beautiful, confident weirdness – it’s funny, unselfconscious and excellent fun. Psychonauts 2 touches on some mental health topics that might be triggering for some, but though this is not the most nuanced portrayal of the complexities of real-world mental heath ever committed to code, its themes and metaphors are never as straightforward as I expected them to be.
We play as Razputin, a resourceful, psychic 10-year-old from a family of travelling acrobats, who ran away from home to join a team of gifted mind-hopping spies. Surprisingly, the acrobat stuff is just as fun as the psychic stuff: lifting things with telekinesis and zapping figments of the imagination with mind-lasers is cool, but Raz is so nimble and light that leaping him around people’s freaky mental architecture is joyful in itself, even when it’s fiddly.
Outside people’s heads, we run around the Psychonauts’ headquarters, the Motherlobe, and the campsites, forests and quarries of its surroundings. Inside people’s heads, we explore bizarre mental landscapes that prod at characters’ obsessions, passions and past mistakes. One character’s inner world is a city-sized obstacle course full of germs and bowling balls; another’s, a warped combination of casino and hospital. I’d describe more, but discovering them is a gift.
Psychonauts’ style is psychedelic, off-the-wall and sometimes gently disturbing. If it were a children’s film, it wouldn’t be Pixar or DreamWorks – it’d be that slightly off French one you half-remember seeing on TV once on holiday, in which you sometimes get chased by witches made of bees, or have to fight a vomiting hand-puppet. It looks like nothing else: characters have weird proportions and asymmetrical faces, like Tim Burton creations run through a Picasso Instagram filter. Each mindscape is a world of its own, stylistically distinct and wildly, unrestrainedly imaginative. I can genuinely say that, despite 25 years of playing video games, I never knew what to expect from Psychonauts 2, and I can’t think of a greater compliment to its unconventionality and creative spirit.
The writing is funny but also not pleased with itself – the actors’ deadpan delivery contributes to this unselfconscious vibe. “Every time you lie, you take a day off your mother’s life,” says Razputin’s mother casually, when he claims to be heading off to practise his acrobatics. The game throws around very strange setups, off-the-cuff quips and self-referential jokes with abandon, and doesn’t much care whether or not you get them, in the tradition of The Mighty Boosh and Monty Python. It is the opposite of the try-hard sarcasm that plagues most comedic games, especially American ones.
I’ve rarely played anything that is so unashamedly itself. Each hour is different, each character distinct and memorable, each new psychic playground full of surprises. There are a few things here that belong back in 2005, such as an obsession with collectibles and a redundant tree of upgrades that only confuses the array of psychic powers. But this is a standout game that reminds us why 3D platformers were once gaming’s most popular genre.