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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (478)

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ActRaiser 4.5/5
ActRaiser Renaissance 4/5
The Outer Worlds 3.5/5
Cris Tales 3/5
Warframe 3.5/5
Immortals: Fenyx Rising 4.5/5
Boot Hill Bounties 4/5
Pathfinder: Kingmaker 2/5
Borderlands 3 4/5
Horizon: Zero Dawn 3.5/5
World of Final Fantasy 4/5
ReCore 3/5
I Am Setsuna 2.5/5
Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
Boot Hill Heroes 3.5/5
The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5
The Bard's Tale Trilogy 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale III: Th... 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale II: The... 0.5/5
The Bard's Tale: Tales ... 0.5/5
The Technomancer 2.5/5
Tyranny 3.5/5
Pine 2/5
Victor Vran 3/5
Front Mission Evolved 2/5

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Psychonauts 2   PC (Steam) 

The Benefits of 20 Years in the Brain Tumbler    4.5/5 stars

‘Psychonauts’ was the inaugural IP that launched Tim Schafer’s Indie studio, Double Fine Productions, which was assembled by Schafer and a number of other ex-LucasArts developers in the magical Year 2000. Five years later, the first “Psychonauts” launched to critical acclaim but fairly dismal sales, likely due to it being something of a holdover from an earlier time when colorful, cartoonish 3D Platformers were the order of the day.

Because of its less than impressive performance on the market and Double Fine’s lack of publisher rights (which would be corrected later), the studio moved onto other projects, leaving the ‘Psychonauts’ IP to lie fallow for a decade, before determining that the Nostalgia Window had moved to a point where a sequel to a colorful, cartoonish 3D Platformer would find a receptive audience. Taking to Kickstarter for crowdfunding, Double Fine proceeded to raise funds for a ‘Psychonauts’ sequel… but instead of creating a new 3D Platformer, they instead put together a VR-only Adventure game more in the vein of where the studio’s ex-LucasArts staff’s expertise lay.

Right before being purchased by Microsoft, however, Double Fine announced the crowdsourced production of a full sequel in the series, “Psychonauts 2,” which would spend 6 years in development before being released under the banner of the Xbox Games Division in 2021. Not only is “Psychonauts 2” an excellent game on its own, it finally brings full closure to the cliffhanger ending of the first game, and ably demonstrates how much of a difference experience, practice, and modern development tools can make.

Presentation
Unlike game development in the ancient days of 2000-2005, modern developers (except for a handful of stubborn Japanese studios) use canned engines to underpin their projects, saving a massive amount of work. “Psychonauts 2” uses the Unreal Engine for its physics and underlying mechanics, while Double Fine’s art team did a fantastic job of recreating the visual stylings the series is known for in the new environment. ‘Psychonauts’ was always a bizarre and stylized IP, with character designs that seem clearly inspired by the works of creatively-disturbed people like Tim Burton. Everyone and everything in “Psychonauts 2” is slightly deformed and exaggerated, with characters rarely sporting symmetrical or ‘normal’ facial features, a profusion of bizarre skin-tones, and oddly-retro senses of fashion. Unlike the first game, which released on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, characters are also covered with realistic textures, making their skin and clothing look genuinely tactile.

Environmental design is wildly creative, with a handful of quirky real-world locations complemented by a plethora of off-the-wall mental landscapes that actively defy expectations at every opportunity. Color palettes range from somber to psychedelic, allowing the game’s external and internal worlds to have their own unique identities, yet still tying everything together under an overarching stylistic umbrella. While the original “Psychonauts” also featured creative and experimental world designs, “Psychonauts 2” simply elevates what was already there to a completely new level.

Audio is likewise excellent, with full voice acting by an incredible spread of minor celebrities, known voice actors, and obscure voice actors, with all of the main characters from the first “Psychonauts” returning to reprise their roles – and surprisingly not sounding a day older! The soundtrack in “Psychonauts 2” is also quite excellent, and a marked improvement over the first game, where the background music largely stayed in the background.

Technically, “Psychonauts 2” is a beautifully polished game with excellent performance. I never experienced any major or minor glitches (with the sole exception of one decorative rock that didn’t have a collision value), and the game runs smoothly and flawlessly on midrange hardware, even at max settings. Frame rates were rock solid, load times were nearly nonexistent throughout the entire run, and there wasn’t a single jagged polygon or bit of screen tearing to be seen. Likewise, it features plenty of modern QoL features, including native Xinput support (as an Xbox Division production, not having that in the PC version would be idiotic), as well as frequent-but-unobtrusive auto-saving.

Story
“Psychonauts 2” doesn’t really spend much time getting the player up-to-speed on the depths of the game world’s previously-established lore. Instead, it begins with a quick recap of the events of the first game and the preceding VR-exclusive side-game, “Psychonauts: In the Rhombus of Ruin” (which is like the Bermuda Triangle), before immediately diving into the present.

Raz (short for Razputin) is a young ‘Psycadet’ who just successfully completed the introductory step toward joining the titular global psychic spy organization, the Psychonauts, at Whispering Rock Summer Camp. Not only is our 10-year-old protagonist a talented psychic who proved himself useful on numerous occasions, where he directly assisted seasoned agents in the two previous games, he is also the scion of a famous family of Eastern European acrobats, granting him the necessary skills required for any Platformer game via a believable background.

The game opens with Raz and some Psychonauts agents with whom he has ingratiated himself performing surveillance on the deranged psychic dentist they apprehended at the end of “Psychonauts: The Rhombus of Ruin.” What appears at first to be simple real-world espionage is soon revealed to be an elaborate psychic construct, which the deranged dentist quickly sabotages via some sort of subliminal conditioning. However, before the construct collapses, our protagonists learn that the dentist isn’t the mastermind behind the prior games’ psychic nefariousness, but is a mere pawn being manipulated by a still-unknown power.

Back in the real world, Raz and the agents arrive back at Psychonauts HQ with the dentist in custody as well as the unconscious body of the Grand Head of the Psychonauts. In spite of Raz’s friendly – or more than friendly… which is weird when talking about 10-year-old kids – relationship with the Grand Head’s daughter and proven capabilities in the field, vouched for by at least three top agents, the group’s acting leader, the Lesser Head of the Psychonauts refuses to acknowledge his previous accomplishments and hastily saddles Raz with the lowly title of ‘intern,’ before brushing him off to join a gaggle of other interns, who immediately send the poor kid through a hazing ritual.

Realizing that he’s not going to get any official support from the Psychonauts or any privileges in helping them investigate what exactly happened to the Grand Head, Raz decides to take matters into his own hands – again – and tries to figure out the mystery himself.

In doing so, Raz will find himself wandering large portions of Psychonauts Headquarters and it surrounding environs, as well as the mental landscapes of several different Psychonauts members and potential suspects, which will ultimately lead him to uncover the organization’s checkered history, as well as his own family’s involvement in tragic past events.

“Psychonauts 2” spins its narrative in several layers, and plays its cards close to the vest. The mysteries at the core of the plot are all well supported and internally consistent, but never explicitly predictable, allowing the story’s twists, turns, and revelations to surprise and delight as all of the pieces of the puzzle finally fall into place. “Psychonauts 2” also – finally – wraps up the narrative arc that started with “Psychonauts” in 2005, allowing the series to continue with new adventures and new mysteries, instead of laboriously beating the same conceptual dead horse for more games than necessary.

“Psychonauts 2” clocks in at about 25 hours for a blind, completionist playthrough. That hits right in the sweet-spot for a narrative-based Action game, but comes across as somewhat brisk for a collect-a-thon-style platformer. Personally, I’m very happy with the fact that I spent more time engaged with the narrative than revisiting areas looking for impossible-to-see pick-ups.

Gameplay
“Psychonauts 2” largely recycles the same gameplay mechanics from the original “Psychonauts.” That is to say, it’s a collect-a-thon 3D Platformer with a heavy dose of Action/Adventure upgrade mechanics, via which Raz gains Psychic Ranks… by collecting all sorts of junk both in the real world and within the mental landscapes of the minds he visits. Raz starts off with all of the psychic powers he earned during the original game, as well as the ability to perform psychic kung-fu. Throughout the game he’ll also gain access to some new psychic abilities that are largely used in spatial traversal. Upon gaining Psychic Ranks, the player is free to assign upgrades to any of Raz’s powers, with each tier of upgrade (up to tier 5) consuming a specific amount of Ranks. Fear not, though, there are exactly enough collectables scattered throughout the entire game to purchase every upgrade, with none to spare.

However – and I can’t emphasize this enough – “Psychonauts 2” is significantly more fun to play than its predecessor largely because it’s much, much, much more polished. Likewise, the collect-a-thon collectables aren’t nearly as numerous and are – in general – much easier to visually spot than in the pre-HD visuals of the original. In general, Raz interacts smoothly with his environments, and the occasional misjudgment of distance over a bottomless pit rarely results in more than a small amount of damage and respawning on a nearby platform for another shot at it. There are significantly fewer rail-grinding segments – which I found to be intolerably janky in the original game – but when they do appear, Raz feels like he has magnets in his shoes instead of oatmeal.

Really, the only way the core ‘Psychonauts’ gameplay has evolved is in the basic combat, where Raz now has the obligatory ability to dodge-roll away from danger. However, with his plethora of psychic powers, the player also has the ability to assign Raz’s powers at-will to any of the four shoulder buttons via an intuitive and slick radial menu. While the radial menu is easy to use, and freezes time while it’s open, having to swap abilities in-and-out as the need arises can still feel a bit cumbersome at times.

Ultimately, “Psychonauts 2’s” gameplay feels like it’s what Double Fine intended all along, but just didn’t have the programming chops, QA testing, or underlying Engine support to pull off cleanly.

Overall
It turns out that 20 years in the old Brain Tumbler gave this series just the right level of polish it was originally missing. While everything about this sequel feels very similar to the original, the updated visuals, continued excellent storytelling, tighter platforming gameplay, and less tedious collect-a-thon-ing results in a sequel that fully realizes the original’s potential in all the best ways. I thoroughly enjoyed this latest offering from Double Fine Productions, and I hope they don’t make us wait another 20 years for “Psychonauts 3.”

Presentation: 5/5
Story: 5/5
Gameplay: 4.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4.5/5

 

 


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