There are a few things that shaped my humor when I was younger. The first is Monty Python, thanks to my nana. The second is Flight of the Conchords, once the only show I was allowed to watch on HBO. The third: Tim Schafer's suite of adventure games. Schafer and his immediate colleagues' comedic influence on younger-me is undeniable.
I've heard people often talk about how games aren't funny. And in most cases, I agree, except I always herald the most obvious exceptions to the rule: the dry wit of The Secret of Monkey Island series, the noir-tinged mystery of Grim Fandango, the cartoonish flavor of Psychonauts, among other adventure games of the 1990s and early 2000s. Psychonauts, co-written by Half-Life writer Erik Wolpaw, showed a shift into a new genre for the adventure games that paved LucasArts.
Psychonauts stars Richard Horvitz as Raz, then a hot commodity thanks to the cult success of Nickelodeon and comic writer Jhonen Vasquez's cartoon Invader Zim. Psychonauts, like Invader Zim, had a younger audience aim and was unafraid to push the boundaries. In the former's case, the boundaries were maybe pushed a tad much, landing it a T for Teen rating.
Psychonauts was a commercial dud, making a sequel unlikely back then. Its development was famously troubled too, after it was dropped by Microsoft. In an interview with us, 343 Industries head Bonnie Ross said Microsoft's decision to go with another project in place of Psychonauts, despite her advocating heavily for it, was one of her biggest regrets. Ever since Psychonauts' cliffhanger ending in 2005, fans have wanted to know what's next for Raz following the kidnapping of the Grand Head of the Psychonauts.
When a sequel was finally announced in late 2015, it was a shocker. In 2017 with the release of the VR adventure Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, we got to see the immediate cliffhanger of the original game resolved, though it opened up an even bigger mystery: who or what compelled Dr. Lobato to kidnap Truman Zanotto, Lili's father and the Grand Head of the Psychonauts, in the first place? And here in 2019, we finally get a peek at how its true sequel looks in action.
We kick off watching a hands-off gameplay demo of Psychonauts 2 that shows its opening moments. Raz is seen in a salaryman suit, doing menial work. This boring life, it seems, is what being a Psychonaut is really all about. It's a silly, unexpected first glimpse into the world of Psychonauts 2, one that isn't the exciting secret agent lifestyle Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp may have led all of us to believe.
It's all a ruse though, as we learn in a cool heist setup-esque sequence. Raz begins to tail Dr. Lobato down a hallway as his comrades, such as Sasha and Milla, individually duck into nearby rooms after walking with him. They have a plan to break into Lobato's mind, even if we don't know how it will shake out yet. Raz catches up, and Lobato asks Raz why he's taking so long; at that, the hallway itself unexpectedly stretches comically long in a neat visual distortion. Immediately, Psychonauts 2 feels right at home on the current generation.
Soon, it's business as usual for the newly-minted spy with psychic powers. With telekinetic abilities, he battles. With Levitation returning from the first game, he stands on a rolling ball for speed. Along the level, Raz even collects the ghostly specters of Figments, just as he always has. Action has never been the draw for Psychonauts, at least not for me, and in watching Raz skate around a mini-boss, I realized it still isn't. Psychonauts 2, at least, is steadfastly delivering the game that fans of the original want. It's not complicating the formula by reinventing it, it's just polishing it off for a new age. Its modern generation tricks look to be squarely of the visual variety, and remembering what I loved about the first game, that's a-okay for me.
The charm of the original game pops up quite a bit in the short 20 minute demo. In one silly sequence, Raz stumbles into a room of paintings, and is tasked with finding Dr. Lobato's self portrait. His pyrokinetic girlfriend Lili appears in one painting herself, telling Raz he has to burn them all to find where Lobato's hiding. When he burns a painting she's in, she jokingly cries out in pain. But we then find her in another painting, where she teases him even more. On Xbox and PS2, it's easy to picture a sequence like this, only I'd imagine the paintings would be stagnant. Here, Lili moves and interacts with Raz in 2D the whole time.
Toward the end of the level we enter Dr. Lobato's mind, and unsurprisingly for the menacing dentist, it has a lot to do with dental care. Just as Rhombus of Ruin took the "entering someone's mind" premise to a quite literal extent sometimes, so does Psychonauts 2 with its gum-like walls and toothy textures. It's colorful in a way the original game's palette attempted to be, showing off a stark shift from the corporate Psychonauts headquarters introduced in the opening moments of the demo.
Psychonauts 2 basically has the art direction of a 3D platformer from the early 2000s. Its environments are largely narrow but occasionally rounded into arenas; its characters have very strange proportions. There's something off about seeing its distinct style without those consoles' limitations, but it works. In a lot of moments, like when gravity shifts in the level to make Raz climb up cubicles vertically or where the hallway stretches long, it feels like the ideas Psychonauts always hinted at can only now be realized. In some way, we're all little psycadets experiencing the zany effects of psitanium now.
The Psychonauts headquarters, Schafer tells us during the demo, will be the new hub for Psychonauts 2, though we didn't get to see it in that form. The entire original voice cast returns for the sequel, as we saw already in the VR adventure Rhombus of Ruin. The soundtrack will be performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, with returning composer Peter McConnell. For those of us worried it would take too much after the original's so-so action, they assure us that the psychic powers are a lot more accessible in the sequel. Judging from seeing moves like Levitation return, they'll feel familiar. Just hopefully not too familiar.
The end of the demo leaves us on another cliffhanger, introducing Psychonauts 2's presumed Big Bad and effectively setting up the central conflict for the rest of the game. Luckily, from what we saw the humor and tone remain intact for the long-awaited sequel. There are gags I already remember fondly, like a couple of cigar-smoking, wise-cracking flying teeth reappearing throughout the demo to steal things. All Raz has to do is shoot them down (with ease) to get it back. In an era where every game feels grimmer and more self-serious than the last, the goofy universe of Psychonauts making its return is more than welcome. Psychonauts 2 is, simply put, more Psychonauts, whether that's what people want today or not. The Double Fine-developed Psychonauts 2 has a tentative release window of 2019 for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Mac, and Linux.