Many thought it would never happen but Psychonauts is back, with the original cast and all the platforming weirdness you could hope for.
The fact that Tim Schafer’s studio Double Fine has managed to keep going for 14 years without a major hit certainly deserves some kind of reward, and being bought out by Microsoft is presumably a very lucrative one. Double Fine has certainly had plenty of critical hits, or at least near misses, with the likes of Brütal Legend, Costume Quest, Stacking, and Broken Age, but their most famous game is still their first… and now it’s finally getting a sequel.
Psychonauts was originally released in 2005 and despite rave reviews was not a hit. That’s perhaps not much of a surprise though given its intentionally ugly artwork and hard-to-explain premise, neither of which were compensated for by its marketing. The best way to describe it is as a comedy 3D platformer by the writers of Monkey Island and Portal, but for some reason that’s not what the now-defunct THQ (the new one just uses the same name) went for.
We’ll see if Microsoft manages any better, although the fact that they’re publishing it presumably means it’ll instantly become part of Game Pass – even though they’re honouring the game’s original plan to release on PlayStation 4 as well, after it started life being crowdfunded on Fig. All existing fans will need to know, though, is how much it resembles the first game and if it still has the same sense of surreal inventiveness. Having seen the E3 demo, we think we can safely say they won’t be disappointed.
The basic premise of Pyschonauts is fairly easy to grasp, as you play gifted psychic Raz who, in the first game, went to a summer camp for similarly-powered people, with the hope that he could become a psychonaut – essentially a spy with psychic powers. Hilarity, literally, ensued and at the end, and in disappointing VR spin-off Rhombus Of Ruin, he got his wish and becomes a junior member of the organisation.
The E3 demo was unfortunately not hands-on, but since it was the first time any gameplay had ever been shown it was still a very welcome assurance that everything is on track. It starts with the implication that Raz’s life at Psychonauts HQ is not all he hoped, as he’s stuck in a cubicle, doing mundane paperwork. But then you realise that what you’re seeing is some sort of Mission: Impossible style sting as Raz and his fellow spies try to trick Dr Caligosto Loboto, the crazed dentist from the first game and The Rhombus Of Ruin, into revealing who he’s working for.
The plan is that he’s given an award for employee of the month, at the fake office the psychonauts have implanted in his mind, and he can claim a free holiday if he gets his boss to sign a permission slip. It doesn’t work though, as Loboto realises Raz is following him and the ordinary office landscape starts to warp, as corridors become infinitely long and Raz ends up walking on walls and ceilings.
This all looks great, almost like something out of a Treasure game, and things get even weirder as Loboto’s suspicions are confirmed and the office begins to fill with disgusting looking teeth and gums, including flying cupid-like teeth that provide some of the demo’s best gags. The platforming appears to be pretty basic but the art and level design is great, and far more imaginative and unpredictable than any similar game.
There’s relatively little combat in the demo, just a few brief fights with censors and clockwork dentures, but Double Fine were able to demonstrate a number of psychic abilities, including telekinesis and pyrokinesis. The most interesting implication for these seemed to be puzzle-solving, but since this was the first level there was nothing more difficult than burning posters off the wall after Lili, Raz’s love interest, tells you to.
Schafer has become increasingly uninterested in proper LucasArts style puzzles in recent years, so exactly how complex things will get in Psychonauts 2 remains to be seen. Although he has already said that the main lesson from the first game – that everyone hated the final Meat Circus level – has been learnt.
The hardest aspect of the demo to critique is the writing, or rather the comedy, which is of course all in the eye of the beholder. Although we had a semi-permanent smirk on our face we’d be lying if we said we laughed out loud at anything. Psychonauts was rarely one for belly laughs though and this appears to be aiming for a constant state of mild amusement rather than the less frequent but more powerful laughs of Portal.
The end of the demo has Loboto trying to convince his mysterious employer that he would never betray their identity, and then seemingly being turned mad by them revealing their true form. What that means for the wider plot we’re not sure, but we do know that it all looks extremely promising and almost certainly exactly what fans have been hoping for from a sequel for all these years.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Developer: Double Fine
Release Date: 2020
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