This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Psychonauts 2.
Ah, Psychonauts; what a great game that was. I hope your fingers are still smarting from the last time I had to bring that across. Sure, the platforming physics were a bit jank, and all the characters looked like their concept art had been scanned in by someone with Parkinson's disease, but it was funny and well-written and weird, because it was a Tim Schafer game from that wonderful golden age of the PS2 era, when games could be weird and culty - I said "culty"! - because they weren't expecting to make enough money to pay for the CEO's moon expedition. Unfortunately, they were still expected to make some amount of money, and that's where Psychonauts 1 fell short on initial release, and why I had to start breaking fingers.
Fortunately, Double Fine have managed to cling to driftwood long enough to wait for the inevitable twenty-year nostalgia wave to come around, and can now surf that driftwood all the way to Sex Island with Psychonauts 2; yes, they've pulled what's now technically known as the "Shenmue Gambit". And, you know, slipping on those old, familiar Psychonauts trousers, I could almost think no time had passed at all; I mean, in the game world, it literally hasn't. But nevertheless, very little about the look and feel of the world seems to have changed much; there's all those clashing color schemes we remember so fondly, and all the old characters exactly as we remember, still designed like plasticine models after they've been peeled out of a waffle iron.
Ooh, that fine praise was a trifle damning, wasn't it? Psychonauts 2 certainly has the vibe of a sequel the creators had been hoping to make right after the first one after it had made them rich and respected by their peers; the mechanics have barely changed at all, and the plot deals with a lot of loose strands that were dangling off the first game like hairs on a teenage boy's chin.
Psychonauts 1, a game about a summer camp for trainee psychic commandos, felt like we were glimpsing a larger world of psychic politics through the narrow perspective of a child, like a birthday party at a McDonald's themed around SEAL Team Six. In Psychonauts 2, the horizons broaden as our protagonist, Raz, enters the adult world of the Psychonauts, and must start from the bottom rung of the intern program; for you see, while the look and feel of Psychonauts hasn't changed much, one significant difference is that the people creating it have aged about twenty fucking years, and Crikey Seamus O'Testicles, does that come across at times.
Where the first game focused on a group of kids Raz's age and their children's problems like bullying and having to go to the psychotic dentist, Raz's fellow interns are all disaffected teenage Extreme Ghostbusters rejects. And the plot isn't even about them much; they just sort of pop up as a convenient peer group whenever Raz needs someone to get embarrassed in front of. It's almost like they're teenagers in a game being written by people who don't really identify with young people anymore! Which might also explain why the plot eventually focuses squarely on the original founders of the Psychonauts and Raz having to fix their doddery old Farrah Fawcett-liking brains so they can help him defeat their one-time nemesis.
So from the halfway point of the plot, we suddenly have to stop giving a toss about any established characters and exclusively reserve our tosses for the backstories and inner worlds of these hitherto-unexplored vintage scrotes. It's like if most of the second half of The Last Crusade was devoted to a flashback about Indiana Jones' dad: yes, I'm sure Indiana Jones' dad had a jolly interesting and storied life, but I'm kind of here to watch Indiana Jones biff Nazis and snog hotties, and the closest his dad gets to snogging hotties is adding tabasco to his Sunday brunch Bloody Mary. It's a switcharoo on the first game, where the kids were fully characterized and most of the adults were merely props, when we were having to explore and fix the mental realms of dudes who thought they were Napoleon or that the milkman was spying on them, and in all, it was an accurate and sensitive depiction of mental illness the way Jabba the Hutt was an accurate and sensitive depiction of thyroid issues.
After twenty years, we clearly want to go about things with more maturity, so this wacky comedy game about psychic spies who look like the cast of Gumby after they got rescued from a horrendous sink disposal accident feels it has to visualize a character's struggles with alcoholism and anxiety with sympathy and seriousness, rather than as a vehicle for a string of silly gags. Thing is, though, I like silly gags; Christ knows there haven't been enough of those since September 10th, 2001, when human society officially peaked. Speaking as someone with a brain that's a fixer-up on a good day, I care more about having a laugh than you paying sufficient respect to people with anxiety disorders and their flag and national anthem ("I Wanna Be Sedated" by The Ramones, if you're interested).
My point is, for me, Psychonauts 2 suffers from having lost its cynical edge; rather than fuck with a mad person's head so he firebombs a hospital, we must now acknowledge the admittedly fucked-up ethics of going into someone's brain and rewriting their personality, and then we must learn an important lesson and apologize and forgive each other, and everyone gets extra marshmallows in their cocoa that night. Not that there's anything wrong with that; marshmallows are nice. But I knew the ethics were fucked; I assumed that was the big joke: that they were teaching wholesome, apple-cheeked summer camp kids the art of hands-free lobotomization. And I struggle to recall parts of Psychonauts 2 that really stand out as comedy highlights, the way stuff like The Milkman Conspiracy did in the first game; maybe the one chapter that's about as obviously about taking drugs as you can get without ever directly mentioning taking drugs, and that's more about the meta-joke, anyway.
"Ethics?! Meta-jokes?! Stop wanking off that grammar school education you didn't even finish, Yahtzee, and tell me and my easily-distracted moron friends if you recommend the sodding game!" Well, obviously, I do, unless you consider any of Psychonauts 1's gameplay issues to be dealbreakers, because they're all back and ready to flick your ears anew. Hey there, fiddly combat! Good to see you, annoying platforming physics where you waste half an hour trying to jump off a slippery two-inch perch to grab one last collectible with no actual fucking use! Why didn't you ever call, extremely limited equip slots for traversal powers, so you have to constantly go to the menu and swap them around like a partially deaf switchboard operator?
But if you can deal with that, then yes, I recommend, because it's the rest of the story that Psychonauts 1 left hanging, and however you shape it, it's a significant net increase in the amount of Psychonauts that exists in the world, and that can only be a good thing. But while I came away from it satisfied, the topmost thought in my head afterwards was, "Gosh! I should replay Psychonauts 1!", and that's not necessarily what you want from a sequel; it means that it evoked the original without managing to eclipse or transcend it. It's like I stuck my dick in a sofa cushion and had a lot of fun with it, but secretly. the whole time, I was thinking about the armchair.
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