'Psychonauts 2' delivers a lesson on empathy that we all need right now

Get the Full StoryPsychonauts 2 is a lot like a brain, which is fitting given the game's premise. It's kind of goofy-looking from the outside, but far more complex once you peer beneath its soft, mushy surface. And soft and mushy it is. Psychonauts 2 unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve, unafraid to be vulnerable and, at times, downright saccharine. It s bursting at the seams with empathy and understanding for its world, characters, and the player themself.After the emotional rollercoaster that was 2020 and the realization that the foreseeable future may be just as treacherous, Psychonauts 2's central lessons are ones that I think we've desperately been needing to hear. It s one of my favorite games of 2021, and serves as proof that even after 16 years, Psychonauts has always been a story that was worth revisiting. Perhaps now, more than ever.

It s bursting at the seams with empathy and understanding for its world, characters, and the player themself.

But let's set the scene, first.The long-awaited sequel to Double Fine's 2005 action platformer picks up shortly after the events of the first game and VR one-off Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. Don't worry if you're fuzzy on the details of the original game and subsequent VR entry Double Fine included a helpful recap at the start of Psychonauts 2 that quickly brings you up to speed. Razputin "Raz" Aquato, now a top PSI cadet after completing his training at the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp and saving the Grand Head of the Psychonauts, has been recruited to embark on an Inception-style mind-heist with his fellow cohorts to extract vital information from the dastardly Dr. Loboto. Of course, Loboto quickly finds out what you're up to, and so begins a merry chase through his twisted mind, which is overflowing with horrifying depictions of corporate bureaucracy and teeth. Lots of teeth he's an ex-dentist . That's just the intro. Soon after, you'll be let loose into Psychonauts HQ, The Motherlobe, a wide-open area that's ripe for exploration, worldbuilding, and optional but highly encouraged character interaction. It's rich with lore, introduces a great new supporting cast, and its reach only grows as your adventure continues, constantly presenting new and exciting opportunities for discovery.

The Motherlobe and its surrounding area is an open hub that's ripe for exploration.

Credit: Double fine

From there, the real plot of Psychonauts 2 is set into motion, but it's something that's better experienced without prior synopsis. The remainder of the journey will see Raz trek through bizarre, inventive mental worlds to complete his overall mission all while navigating an unwelcoming internship program, familial growing pains, and most importantly, helping just about every person he comes across process and in some cases, overcome their emotional traumas.This is where Psychonauts 2 solidifies its place as one of this year's must-play experiences: In its thoughtful, digestible, empathetic handling of human emotions. Throughout the game's narrative, you'll encounter folks of all kinds, most of them struggling with all-too-familiar challenges of their own. Like a lot of emotional distress, these challenges are often invisible until you, in true Psychonauts fashion, delve deep into their psyches to see what's up. Peek inside, and perhaps you'll find a man who's consumed with feelings of abandonment, and grieving the loss of a partner that has left him utterly bereft. Maybe you'll find a woman who has changed her personality to fill so many different roles that she doesn't recognize herself anymore.

'Psychonauts 2' exemplifies how we can talk about mental health with a sense of levity, absent of any and all judgment.

Guilt, addiction, anxiety, and depression are among a few of the other mental hurdles that Psychonauts 2 tackles, all with the type of grace that can only be accomplished when equipped with a thorough understanding of each subject. The Double Fine brand of irreverent humor that permeated almost every moment of the original Psychonauts is still here, but with a far more mature view of mental health lying underneath it. Depictions of serious mental illnesses are presented in a lighthearted, sometimes comical manner, but they never feel like the butt of a joke. Psychonauts 2 exemplifies how we can talk about mental health with a sense of levity, absent of any and all judgment. The game implores you to never judge yourself for feeling them, too.The past year has been a mess. We've lost people. We've been isolated. We've watched as bad people made bad choices with complete disregard for others, proudly touting their selfishness as a badge of individualistic honor. Psychonauts 2, while not specifically addressing the dire situation we're still living in, sends a clear message: Be better to each other. Without condescension or looking directly into the camera to teach you how to be nice, Raz and crew put the best parts of human nature in the foreground. Those being our compulsion to help those who need us, and our capacity to understand those who've had experiences that are completely different from our own.

'Psychonauts 2' wades into some dark waters, but presents it all in a digestible, empathetic way.

Credit: double fine

The world of Psychonauts exists in a universe where caring about the way others feel and how they're affected by their trauma is the norm. Hell, the Psychonauts' literal job, among other things, is to help others fight whatever is plaguing their mind simply because it's the right thing to do. It made me yearn and gave me hope, even for a world that's more like that. This game isn't going to correct the world's flaws, but at the very least, it's a reminder of what we could be. I don't think that's ever been more important to remember than right now.Psychonauts 2's story is high-stakes, but it doesn't rush to its impending conclusion. Instead, it opts to take its time fleshing out characters new and old. For the game's message of empathy to come through, it needs you to feel a deep connection to every person you meet. In its avoidance of an all-out sprint, it achieves that with a near-perfect success rate.

'Psychonauts 2' treats its characters with incredible empathy, and makes you do the same.

Players of the first game will recognize some familiar faces, a few of which end up taking the back seat throughout the main story, but their brevity makes room for some truly fantastic new members of the Psychonauts universe to shine. The most notable additions include Hollis Forsythe played by Kimberly D. Brooks , and Brain in a Jar played by Jack Black, who turns in an extremely Jack Black performance . The latter had my favorite story arc in Psychonauts 2, but it's a revelation that I won't spoil here.In terms of gameplay, the strongest aspects of Psychonauts 2 are the various obstacles you'll be tested with inside each mental world that you enter. Each one is brimming with personality, and acts as a reflection of who the owner of each brain is, as well as what they're going through. One area sees Raz navigating through a sadistic hospital-slash-casino, in which he'll rub elbows with everything from a skeleton couple that's desperate to win a baby from a rigged roulette wheel, to a talking urine cup that runs a cardiac-themed horse race. Entering Brain in a Jar's mind brings you into a cel-shaded landscape straight out of Yellow Submarine, in which you'll drive around in a Volkswagen Bus-style tour van collecting bandmates to put on the concert of a lifetime.

Brain in a Jar's mental world is up there with The Milkman Conspiracy from the original 'Psychonauts.'

Credit: Double Fine

Combat is the weakest link. Due to sluggish controls and a lack of feedback, I found myself wanting to rush through enemy confrontations to get to the next jump-and-glide section as soon as I could. I wish that using and switching between powers in the heat of battle was snappier, but instead, it just felt I was constantly winging it.Luckily, Psychonauts 2 also gives you the option to turn on a few key assist features right off the bat, including an invincibility mode, if you need some extra help I certainly did for a specific quest that saw me battling wave after wave of relentless enemies. There are other difficulty modifiers, too, like the ability to turn off fall damage completely, or add a significant damage increase to your attacks. I didn't end up having to use these, but their presence drives home developer Double Fine's stance on accessibility: That letting people play how they want is never a bad thing. As I already said, Psychonauts 2 is a judgment-free zone.The Psychonauts aren t here to fix people. They simply aim to help others fight their own demons.Psychonauts 2 doesn't preach to you. It doesn't judge your knowledge of the intricacies of mental health and emotional intelligence, or lack thereof. It just presents you with the tools to build on those things and do the work yourself, so that hopefully you can use them when you finally put the controller down.It's is an incredible joy to play. It's a delight to look at, too. But that's not what makes it special. What makes Psychonauts 2 special is its gigantic heart, which can be heard beating throughout every one of its necessary lessons on empathy and healing.

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