Video Games

Psychonauts 2 Turns Recovering From Trauma Into a Game

The long-awaited sequel involves hopping from brain to brain to help their owners face the past.

Bright purple and blue X-rays of a skull, neck, and hands. In the background, the silhouettes of two shadowy figures.
A screenshot from Psychonauts 2. Double Fine

In real life, healing from trauma is a slow, complex process that, even when successful, leaves people profoundly changed. But in Psychonauts 2, the long awaited sequel to 2005’s cult classic Psychonauts, those who have been scarred by trauma provide a colorful inner landscape to explore, a unique puzzle to solve, and you can be on to the next one in about an hour.

The first Psychonauts reviewed well, sold poorly, and gradually became beloved by its cult following. In the game, a young boy named Rasputin (shortened to Raz) has run away from his family of circus performers to a psychic summer camp where he hopes his powers will be accepted and he can train to become an elite Psychonaut. He quickly stumbles onto a conspiracy to steal the brains of his fellow campers and use them to power superweapons. To save the day, Raz must enter the minds of those who stand in his way (each brain is a separate level), healing their pain so they can help him progress. The game ends on a cliffhanger, with the kidnapping of the Psychonauts’ leader, and Psychonauts 2 picks up the kidnapping plot precisely where the first game left it 16 years ago.

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While much of the first game sees Raz traveling through Thorney Towers Home for the Disturbed, helping patients suffering from serious delusions, Psychonauts 2 focuses primarily on the effects of trauma. The six founders of the Psychonauts hold the key to solving the kidnapping, but an intense battle in their shared past has left them scattered and broken. To get the truth, Raz has to help each one face up to the past rather than hiding from it with various coping mechanisms that constitute each level’s gimmick. With permission, he enters each of their minds, overcomes their mental barriers, returns them to mental health, and gains both an ally and a clue to help find and defeat the kidnappers.

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Each brain Raz enters has its own theme and a unique visual style. There’s a casino/hospital, a psychedelic music festival, a cooking show, an ocean dotted with desert islands, and many others. As you traverse the brain’s terrain, a variety of enemies representing doubts, regrets, panic, etc. must be defeated. And, in old-school 3D platformer style, you’re also encouraged to find collectables and secrets, rewarding exploration and problem solving. It’s wacky and warm and moves along quickly, with something new in every mind to go along with a new oddball character.

The psychological allegories work reasonably well, as long as you don’t take them too seriously, and the game’s goofy style helps to signpost that you’re not supposed to. The platforming and combat are decent, but the core appeal is the variety in the levels and the charm of the characters and storytelling. The world of Psychonauts is ultimately a kind, inviting place, where mistakes are forgiven, and even the people that do bad things aren’t actually bad, they just need help to overcome their trauma and inner demons. Although the game has an extensive mental health disclaimer, I’d be surprised if many people found the game emotionally tough going—the cartoony good humor softens any rough edges you might expect in a game about confronting past trauma.

The action 3D platformer genre has always been a favorite of mine. It’s been out of fashion a long time now, barely kept afloat by occasional Super Mario entries. Psychonauts has all the old standbys: the slow accretion of new abilities, the largely pointless collectables, the secrets, varied level design. It won’t heal your trauma, but it provides a pleasant enough coping strategy while you wait for time to do what a ten year old with a magic brain portal can’t accomplish in the real world.

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