Long-awaited game sequel delves into mental health, dreams

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Photo by Simon Graves

Fans meet child psychic and protagonist Raz Aquato again in “Psychonauts 2” while interacting with various other characters.

After 16 years of waiting, Double Fine Productions has released a sequel to critically acclaimed action platformer “Psychonauts”.

Psychonauts is a series that began in 2005 on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 2. It followed protagonist Raz Aquato of the Aquatos Family Circus who, after learning he held psychic abilities, ran off to Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp to hopefully better understand his newfound powers. His journey, however, would find him tangled within a conspiracy of brain-snatching dentists, psychotic coaches intent on world domination, arsonist milkmen and an assorted cast of other oddball characters. Raz’s adventure would see him using his abilities to enter the minds of the mentally twisted and deranged to uncover the secret plot of the camp with the help of an elite organization of super-powered psychics, the Psychonauts.

Rasputin’s first outing into the psychic world would see little success, only selling about 100,000 copies at release. It was even declared a failure by its publisher, Majesco, and cited as one of its main causes for the company moving away from the video game industry. It would see a cult following, however, in the years to follow. 

“It’s one of the most enjoyable platformers I’ve played. The levels you explore are all with the thoughts of others, so they all feel super unique and creative,” Kash Krueger (12) said. “By far my favorite level is The Milkman Conspiracy, exploring the broken mind of security guard Boyd, [with] his mind filled with secret agents and investigators [and] Raz working in disguise to uncover the conspiracy of Boyd’s alter ego, the milkman.”

Its growing popularity as a hidden gem” of early 3D platformers eventually sparked its acquisition by Double Fine Studios and, after a small virtual reality release continuing the story of Raz, “Psychonauts 2” was released in August of 2021.

The new release follows the plot of the first game and its virtual reality sequel (although the game makes sure you’re caught up on the story so-far through some quick narration by Rasputin). It places Raz no longer as a camper but as a member of the Psychonauts. You are tasked at uncovering the mystery over the kidnapping of the leader of the psychonauts, Truman Zanato, and the reawakening of a long-forgotten and ancient psychic evil.   

Gameplay follows closely to a 3D platformer such as most Mario titles. But unlike any mustachioed plumber, Raz uses a range of psychic abilities to explore the world of Psychonauts. You may have to flip a switch just out of reach using your telekinetic powers, slow down time itself to sneak through a spinning fan or even just light things on fire with pyrokinesis to, you know, burn things. The game has a world for you to explore. Most of the fighting, puzzle-solving and platforming takes place within the mind. This is accomplished via Raz’s most prominent ability, the Psycho-Portal, which acts as a physical door into the mind, allowing Rasputin to enter the subconscious minds of others. For gameplay’s sake, entering the mind of another gives you the chance to explore a new world full of completely unique environments and challenges to overcome.

Since the game is centered around the mind, the collectables are literal figments of the imagination. You find tags to sort emotional baggage around each level. Enemies are not just goons but other aspects of our psyche. You face off against bad ideas, doubts and regrets. Even judgemental behavior appears as buff-armed judges, enablers acting as cheerleaders, boosting the enemies around you. 

These worlds are built around the emotions and state of a person’s mind. Some of these worlds are built around heavier topics such as guilt, grief, loss and other subjects of mental health and various disorders. This is where “Psychonauts 2” excels, blending play with commentary. 

The original “Psychonauts” took a backseat to actually covering real disorders. Most characters you meet are, simply put, “broken”in mental disarray without much in the way of some inciting incident. “Psychonauts 2” takes a much more realistic approach. 

We see fully-fleshed out topics like that of stress, for example, through characters like Compton Boone. He suffers from performance anxiety, believing himself only ever able to do something right when someone helps him do it. His fear of falling short of the expectations of others and worrying that his actions would only harm others ultimately leads to him locking himself away. His mind reflects such fears. It is a literal game show, with his closest friends the judges as he is asked to prepare meal after meal as a timer marches down to zero. The player helps Compton prepare dishes until, eventually, he is able to prepare one of his own, proving to Compton he is able to succeed without the full input of others. 

Topics of loss and addiction are also covered. We see this through Bob Zanato, a man broken by the loss of his husband, a failed psychic playwright by the name of Hellmut Fullbear (who is voiced by actor Jack Black). He has completely isolated himself, using his abilities to quite literally pull his own home from the ground, raising them atop a tower of weeds and vegetation. Hidden away and unwilling to seek support, Bob soon turns to alcohol, the plants he controls seemingly supplying him with an endless supply of liquor. He had hoped to find comfort by shutting himself away, drowning out his trauma through alcohol. His mind, a literal ocean of bottles, reflects his coping. Raz traverses the ocean, uncorking the various bottles throughout

Bob’s mind to unearth long-repressed memories. Eventually, with Raz’s help, Bob is able to confront his repressed memories, pushing through his past and beyond the bottle into the future. 

These are only a few of emotional and mental subjects covered, spread throughout the minds of a wide cast of characters for you to meet and explore. “Psychonauts 2” does well to bring to attention mental and emotional disorders people around the world endure, teaching that it’s never wrong to reach out for help. Furthermore, the game does good to make sure it’s fun while doing it. Through exciting gameplay and story, the sequel story of the psychic kid was well worth the wait.