Legacy can mean a lot in the world of video games. Sometimes, a long time between sequels does not diminish the audience demand for a title. In the film industry, a sequel like Bladerunner 2049 can bomb having been too far from when fans were originally enamored with the last outing, but often with video games the demand only heightens with time. Tim Schafer’s visionary game Psychonauts was a massive critical and fan success when it was first released in 2005. However, it was at that time considered to be a commercial disappointment (hard to say why though as legions of fans love the title).
In the time since, Schafer’s development studio Double Fine Productions has cranked out a bevy of quirky titles, probing the recently un-trendy depths of adventure games. Using a revolutionary foray into a new form of crowdfunding where users could invest in a title’s creation, Double Fine announced the long-desired Psychonauts 2. As development nears completion on the title, Microsoft just this week announced further that Double Fine is going to be acquired to become a premier part of Microsoft’s first-party studios.
The good news is for those fans that wished prehistoric distributors in the aughts weren’t so short sighted, Psychonauts 2 is the surreal, humor-filled ride that fans have been longing for now going on fourteen years. The game picks up pretty much right after the events of the original Psychonauts. Raz, Coach Oleander, Lili, Sasha and Milla are on the hunt for who has kidnapped Lili’s father Truman Zanotto. The demo presents the situation as if Raz is enrolled as an official Psychonaut but instead of headquarters he always imagined, it’s an endlessly stuffy office space.
Lili collects him in spite of his protests and they head to a company award ceremony. There, Sasha and Milla are giving out a “Worker of the Year” award. The award is presented to Dr. Loboto. The prize is an all-expenses paid vacation with a small catch. All present urge Dr. Loboto to merely get his “boss” to sign a permission form. The ruse is then presented as Raz and the team attempt to trail Loboto not through the cavernous office space, but into is deeper memories.
Their assumption is that Loboto did not kidnap Truman Zanotto on his own, that he was actually instructed by someone else. Their theory is right, and Loboto makes a run for it spelunking into his darker fears and conceptions of himself. What follows is a psychedelic trip through Loboto’s mind. The office space motif is melded with cavernous gum-work of jaws and teeth. As Raz gives pursuit, he’s plagued by the self defense mechanisms inherit to any mind: censors, doubts and regrets. Each views Razputin as a thought that must be removed, hinting that Loboto does not want to tell the truth yet doubts that he shouldn’t and regrets what he has done.
The further the player takes Raz the more amazingly, insanely designed the level becomes. The enmeshed state of teethwork and office space becomes a trippy nightmare scape. As Raz approaches the answer–and the hint of a nefarious unnamed villain of far greater stature–he must employ greater and greater mechanics to traverse this world-inside-a-mind. He can attack, use telekinesis and even use a degree of perception to float instead of fall. There’s a tool in the toolbox for every occasion here, but it is the variety that makes this one short level alone so enrapturing. Milla even floats by at one point urging Raz to “roll with it” as things get difficult and he uses his psychic force to craft a ball he can balance on descending downhill.
There is humor all throughout, such as Lili gleefully urging Raz to burn posters that are on the walls and a pair of hysterical flying teeth with what seems like comical New York accents. The real gem of this experience is how wondrously designed and distinctly unique the experience is. Given the almost unlimited palette of video games, it’s surprising how many properties are largely mining the same terrain countless others have. Psychonauts 2 will succeed on the same merits its predecessor did causing it to reverberate out many years later, because it feels powerfully like its own brilliant, mirthful entity.