APRIL FOOLS! But dear God how I wish this was real.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste--but it sure makes for amazing level design. Psychonauts 2, the sequel to Double Fine's cult classic 3D platformer, is like a crash course in high-level psychology, packaged as a brilliantly crafted run-'n'-jump adventure. Humankind has always been fascinated with the inner workings of the mind, with its emotions, fears, calculations, and primal instincts, which coincidentally sets the foundation for fascinating characters. Psychonauts 2 takes everything that made the original great--humor, imaginative design, and lovable characters--and polishes the gameplay to match the heady concepts.
The story picks up right where the original left off. Within moments of becoming an officially appointed Psychonaut, circumstance pulls our lovable hero Razputin into his first mission: save Truman Zanotto, leader of the Psychonauts and father of Raz's love interest Lili. Instead of a quaint summer camp, the cerebral adventure takes place on a luxury cruise liner, where one of the guests seems to be plotting Zanotto's murder. This plot lends itself to a nicely balanced level structure, where you're never wandering for too long. The confined space of the cruise ship (given Raz's fear of being cursed to die of drowning) helps guide you towards the real attraction: all the absurdly inventive mental mindscapes.
When Raz slaps a miniature door onto the heads of guests (and suspects) on the ship, he's transported into a manifestation of their mind, where the bulk of Psychonauts 2's action takes place. As with the first game, these imaginary locales deliver incredible storytelling through the environment: enemy designs beautifully reflect a character's psyche, and the platforming challenges double as a depiction of that person's hopes and fears. Trying to deduce who's plotting Zanotto's death becomes a thrilling hunt for clues inside the infinite possibilities of the mind's eye--especially when the cast of suspected kidnappers is full of zany, deranged oddballs.
There's the world-famous hairstylist Neddward, who secretly hoards the clipped hair of his rich clients. That manifests itself as a level set in a forest of hair on a gigantic scalp, where Raz is accosted by demons fashioned from discarded locks and tresses. Then we've got Tilly, the supermodel whose obsession with body image makes for a nightmarish subconscious full of deformed, plastic-surgery-ridden enemies populating a surreal, Salvador Dali-esque landscape. You never know what to expect when delving into each fantastical Mental World, making for level variety that's nigh unrivaled in the world of gaming.
And exploring those environments is a joy, thanks to controls that have been completely overhauled. The first Psychonauts sullied some of its best ideas with frustrating bits of platforming and some hard-to-control psychic powers; Psychonauts 2 suffers from none of these problems. Raz's movements are much more fluid, giving you a Mario-caliber level of control over his running and jumping. When the improved movement meets with the combo-and-counter-centric combat, a la Arkham City, it feels like every aspect of Psychonauts' gameplay has been sharpened to precision.
In addition to the smoothed-over platforming, Psychonauts 2 also uses the PS4 and Xbox One's processing power to amazing effect. The visuals look crisp and modern, while still retaining Double Fine's unique cartoon art style. One moment, you're admiring the dazzling particle effects of Raz's psychic projections; the next, you're marveling at the bizarrely proportioned heads and outlandish wardrobe of the ship's many guests. It's a look that recalls the latest Pixar films, if they suddenly took a turn for the adorably weird.
Not every level is as good as the next, though. Take the mind of Milgranda Burton, an esteemed marine biology professor who harbors secret fantasies about being a mermaid (and is also a hilarious spoof of Jane Goodall). Her mind takes form as a vision of Atlantis, spliced with textbook diagrams and academic minutiae. It looks gorgeous, but guiding Raz through this underwater metropolis becomes a chore, shifting your focus from the creative ideas and onto the frustrating swimming mechanics and labyrinthine layout. The majority of the Mental Worlds are accessible, fun, and thought-provoking, but some demand too much familiarity with pop culture. Appreciating the mind of Trubert, the otaku son of a rich playboy, requires extensive knowledge of anime and Japanese culture to pick up on all the references.
But most importantly, Psychonauts 2 manages to retain all the charm and whimsy of the original, expanding the story and polishing the gameplay to a shine. Being able to explore the innermost thoughts of the supporting cast makes for astonishing character development, where you live through memories and experiences instead of being told about them through boring dialogue or cliché audio logs. The peak of this psychological spelunking involves Raz and Lili exploring each other's minds, giving you a look into their endearing young love (without ever stepping outside the bounds of a PG innocence). And Psychonauts 2's writing is just plain funny, with visual gags and witty discourse throughout, delivered with impeccable voice-acting.
Where the first Psychonauts was sadly overlooked by many, Psychonauts 2 is the kind of game that has universal appeal, while still retaining everything that makes it so unique. The concepts and ideas on display are as ingenious as ever, but now they're backed by intuitive controls and higher production values. It's as charming and enjoyable as it is hilarious, valuing fun as much as its visionary ideas. By the time you've finished Raz's sophomore escapade, you'll wish you could explore every video game character's inner psyche. And that kind of imagination fuel is an exceptionally powerful thing.