Psychonauts 2 hands-on preview: Matinee of mental gymnastics

We got an early taste of what's in store for Double Fine's much-anticipated return to the Psychonauts franchise.

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It’s wild to think that Psychonauts 2 is finally almost here. I have long cherished my adventures, the laughs, and the more somber realizations that made up the first game, as well as in the excellent VR puzzle follow-up, Rhombus of Ruin. It won’t be long before everyone gets to partake in another wild adventure of psychic powers and the surreal brain levels that those powers will give us access to in Psychonauts 2. That said, Double Fine and Xbox recently invited me to take part in an early peek at what the much-anticipated sequel has in store for us, and my goodness, much of what I expected was on display even in my short time with this early build, pretty much in the best of ways.

Last time on Psychonauts

For this preview, Psychonauts 2 shared with me the beginning of the game and a few “brain levels” of gameplay. For those who don’t know, this game takes place immediately after the events of the first Psychonauts and its VR follow-up, Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. Don’t worry if you haven’t played either of the previous games, though. I’m happy to share that there’s a very good “Story so far…” segment that guides you into what you may have missed (though I’d absolutely recommend playing the other two games if you have the time). The point is, Psychonauts 2 takes the time to get you up to speed on who Razputin “Raz” Aquato is, why he loves the Psychonauts so much, and why he has a natural talent for all the platforming you’ll be doing in the game.

The important thing you need to know here if you don’t is that the Psychonauts are an agency of psychic operatives who practice and hone their psychic powers to take on operations against world threats. At the end of Psychonauts 1, Raz was able to prove himself to be unofficially recognized as a Psychonauts agent, but this game features the actual Psychonauts headquarters and Raz has a whole cast of new, quirky, and interesting characters to which he must prove his value. It culminates in discovering a threat so dangerous, it endangers psychics around the world. That leads to Raz meeting and cooperating with some of the best of the best among the Psychonauts in a variety of platforming, psychic powers, and action inside a vast collection of surreal, wacky, and often disturbing brain levels.

Story, visuals, and humor are maybe the most important thing I was here to see in my brief time with Psychonauts 2. I love the cartoonish, but also often dark humor that Double Fine has made a staple of this franchise. It was very much on display here. Raz, himself, is a nerd. He loves the Psychonauts and has an encyclopedic knowledge of their escapades. His genuine enthusiasm for them all while trying to prove himself among their ranks is infectious.

The preview was also full of familiar faces like Sasha Nein and Milla Vodello, as well as new and quickly lovable and charming or outright hate-worthy characters, and the levels…? Well, maybe you saw our coverage about the previously teased tunnel of teeth? Yes, something very similar to that appears early, and it doesn’t exactly get less weird from there. In all of this, Double Fine has really upped their visual game, making it all look incredibly polished while retaining the vibrant Psychonaut’s style so far.

Psychic powers, their applications, and you

When it comes to gameplay in Psychonauts 2, it would appear that many of the tricks and powers Raz learned in the first game are returning. Thankfully so, because it wouldn’t make much sense to have to earn powers like Levitation and Telekinesis again considering this comes right after the previous games. With that in mind, you begin the game with Levitation (an extension on your double jump and moving faster over hazardous ground), Telekinesis, Pyrokinesis, PSI-Blasts (a mental projectile), and fairly quickly, Clairvoyance as well. Make no mistake, though, Psychonauts 2 also comes with its own new bag of mental tricks, my favorite of which so far is Mental Connection – an ability that allows you to spot and zip between thought bubbles like a grappling hook to reach unreachable areas or solve certain mental puzzles.

As a third-person action platformer, Psychonauts 2 tasks players with traversing the environment with Raz’s lovely bag of mental tricks and also the agility he learned from his previous circus life. The movement, platforming, and puzzle-solving was feeling pretty good in my time with the game. You can equip four psychic abilities at one time to each of the shoulder buttons on a controller, so every situation is a regular assessment of which four you’ll need. Thankfully, you can also just tap a single button to open a menu and re-equip your myriad of powers at any point too in order to get the job done.

What job you may ask? Well, whether you’re in a brain level full of surreal obstacles or the real world with its own shenanigans, there’s plenty of puzzles and just-out-of-reach areas for Raz to explore. A billowing updraft might demand you use Levitation to ride it up before using Mental Connection to grab a thought bubble and zip thought-to-thought through a room. You walk across narrow stretches of pathing like a tight rope, need Telekinesis to carry a heavy key object around to objectives, or use Pyrokinesis to burn up in obstacle and open a path. You might just also need to equip your favorite offensive abilities to fight off a group of mental enemies such as stamp-happy Censors and buzzing Regret.

In all of these matters, the most important thing to me about Psychonauts 2’s platforming, combat, and regular use and swap of mental powers is that it was intuitive and flowed incredibly well. It was also as fun as ever to discover interesting interactions between Raz’s powers and the world around him. You can even specialize your style with a series of upgrades to your powers from various pickups throughout the game that make them more effective and/or give them expanded functionality. For instance, you could expand the area-of-effect a Pyrokinetic shot would burn or make your PSI Blast ricochet off multiple targets. It was very fun to get a taste of what an power could do with some upgrade points invested in it.

A fine mental flex of what’s to come

It was in 2015 that Psychonauts 2 was first announced. This game has gone through a long path to arrive at its final stretch to the finish line, and it’s looking and feeling great. Tim Schafer and Double Fine have put an incredible amount of work and polish into this world, and it’s ridiculously fun to play around in. The characters are feeling as quirky and interesting as ever and the adventures are sometimes dark, sometimes humorous, and always wackadoo as I'd expect them to be. Additionally, the control and interaction with throughout my short playtime with Psychonauts 2 was extremely accessible, stylish, and adaptive so far. I’ve been waiting a long time to finally see this game come out, and everything that I saw in the preview has me convinced that Psychonauts 2 is going to stick the landing when it arrives on August 25.


This preview is based on an early Xbox preview build of the game supplied by the publisher. Psychonauts 2 is slated to arrive on August 25, 2021 on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and optimized for the Xbox Series X/S.

News Editor

TJ Denzer is a player with a passion for games that has dominated a lifetime. When he's not handing out beatdowns in the latest fighting games, exploring video game history, or playing through RPGs with his partner, he's searching for new food and drinks in the constant pursuit of good times with good people inside and outside the South Texas area. You can also find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.

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