Review Copy provided by EA. Reviewed on PC.
When Josef Fares, head of Hazelight Studios, said in a recent interview with Game Informer that “Video games are not always about fun,” it’s hard to imagine that he was talking about “It Takes Two,” the ebullient new two-player co-op action platformer he directed for Electronic Arts. In fact, “It Takes Two” isn’t just about fun, it grabs its audience by the hand, pulls it into a relentless bear hug, and refuses to let go until every last drop of fun has been squeezed out. It’s a psychedelic, candy-coated sugar rush of a game, bursting at the seams with enthusiasm, creativity, and mischief. “It Takes Two”’s blistering pace, tight controls, and addictive platforming blend together into one of the most delightful co-op games in years. This strange book has some extraordinary stories to tell.
“It Takes Two” begins on a bittersweet note, as a clearly exhausted married couple named Cody and May inform their daughter Rose that their relationship is splitting up. But when an upset Rose wishes for their marriage to continue while reading a strange book she found at school, her tears land on the two hand-crafted dolls she made to represent her parents. Suddenly, Cody and May found themselves transported into the bodies of the dolls in a giant, twisted version of their house filled with anthropomorphized creatures and objects.
The book springs to life, declaring itself as Dr. Hakim’s Book of Love, and sets about bringing Rose’s wish to life. It’s a bit “Toy Story,” a bit “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids,” a bit “The Parent Trap.” It’s all very 1990s, from the hokey divorce drama to the stream of cultural references to nineties mainstays like “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” and “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.”
It’s a saccharine introduction that didn’t begin to prepare me for the utterly deranged glee the next ten hours of “It Takes Two” would unleash. From the moment the party gains control over Cody and May until the end of the game, the pace rarely lets up. Each level in “It Takes Two” is designed around a different part of the family’s home, from the insides of the vacuum cleaner to the large tree in the backyard.
These levels are exceptionally well-paced, moving at such a rapid clip that it’s easy to miss the incredible layers of detail jammed into every section. Some will complain that “It Takes Two” is too easy, but I found the puzzles to be just right. They’re clever without being convoluted, and while we only died a few times, a much harder version of “It Takes Two” would require constant pauses and restarts with the potential to wreck the game’s pacing.
Rather than stuff these areas with collectibles, Hazelight opted for a toy box mentality, filling them with interactive objects, minigames, and hidden easter eggs. These curios slot into the level’s downtime to prevent them from breaking up the flow of more action-packed sequences. And the level design is stellar, alternating between more narrow linear pathways and wider, more expansive environments akin to JRPG villages. It’s clear Fares’s team has learned a great deal from their previous co-op game “A Way Out” and sought to avoid repeating that game’s mistakes.
Unfortunately, “It Takes Two” begins to slightly lose momentum towards the end, especially in one outdoor level that, despite being visually stunning, is burdened with repetitive combat sections that boil down to mashing the right trigger until you win. But the only reason why that stumble is so noticeable is because the rest of the game so rarely repeats itself. There’s almost always something new around every corner, hidden away in each nook.
Despite the game’s linearity, there’s plenty of replay value to be found here, too. Levels will sometimes have multiple paths to follow, especially in the game’s on-rails set pieces. More importantly, Cody and May have their own unique playstyles. In every new level of “It Takes Two,” a new mechanic is introduced for that level only, from a vacuum hose that players can use to suck up their partner and fire them like a cannon, to a pint-sized weapons system that uses flammable tree sap and matches to improvise explosives.
Starting with the second level, these mechanics are split into two unique, complementary tools, one each for Cody and May. In one level, Cody can throw a nail on the wall, creating a point for May’s hammer to swing from. In another, Cody can spray explosive goo, while May can detonate it and create chain reactions. Each area has its own gimmick, but it never feels gimmicky.
Entire games could be built from some of these mechanics, but “It Takes Two” refuses to rest on its laurels, stuffing itself with enough creative energy and fresh ideas to last years. It demands at least two playthroughs, one as each character, to truly see all the play-styles on offer. And they’re exceptionally well-balanced. Only in one level did I feel that my tool was less interesting than my partner’s, and that was quickly mitigated by the level’s other mechanics.
I wasn’t expecting Hazelight to summon memories of my beloved “Nier” franchise, but “It Takes Two” is constantly morphing genres, from 3D puzzle-platformer to arcade flight-sim to hack-and-slash. Moving from one style to the next feels fast and fluid, which is key to maintaining the game’s flow.
It’s entirely possible that a poorly planned genre switch could leave players confused and stop them in their tracks, grinding momentum to a halt. But it doesn’t happen. Similarly, well-executed are the game’s myriad boss fights, which feel like the perfect conclusion and test of each level’s new mechanics. These creative encounters are never lacking in ambition or creativity. Whether you’re taking down a robotic wasp queen or a rusty living toolbox, these battles never wear out their welcome.
Some of “It Takes Two”’s most delightful moments are its minigames, which range from mechanical bull riding to chess. These distractions imbue the experience with a certain “Mario Party”-esque charm. They’re simple by design but robust in practice. It’s easy to revisit minigames from the menu so the party can relive their favorites. The only letdowns are the “mash X as fast as you can” endurance challenges, which feel underbaked in nearly every game they appear in.
All of the creative level design and mechanical tricks in the world, though, would have been pointless if “It Takes Two” fell down at its core systems. But this game is an absolute delight to control. Every skip and hop feels remarkably responsive, and the moveset is just right, with a double-jump and air dash to give Cody and May tons of flexibility.
I didn’t once feel that the controls were getting in the way of my enjoyment, only facilitating and enhancing it. Fares has stated his desire to compete with Nintendo games, and he’s certainly achieved that in the controls department. They’re just as snappy as the recent high watermark for 3D platformers “Super Mario 3D World,” and that is a very high standard to match.
If “It Takes Two” has a major weakness, it’s the relationship between the parents and their daughter Rose. She doesn’t have much of a personality of her own, besides loving her stuffed animals and her parents. And she’s just not a particularly interesting or emotionally engaging character. There’s a strange iciness in the interactions with Rose that isn’t present in the affectionate way Cody and May talk about her. She’s an almost entirely passive character, and it’s hard to get emotionally invested in her parents’ journey when viewed through her sedate lens.
The relationship between Cody and May fares much better. “It Takes Two” doesn’t say anything new or interesting about divorce, but it doesn’t really need to. It’s more interested in a “Liar Liar” style family divorce drama with fairy-tale plot beats and goofy humor. The game doesn’t probe too deep into the roots of their relationship woes, preferring instead to fixate on relatively petty marital squabbles that never quite explain why their relationship broke up, let alone why it started. But despite being drawn in those very broad strokes, the relationship does develop over the course of the ten-hour campaign into a sympathetic and likable one.
It’s difficult to nail down the tone of “It Takes Two.” One minute, it’s probing the way Cody and May have neglected their relationship with their daughter. The next minute it’s solving puzzles with fart jokes. I’m sure some will find these sudden tonal shifts incredibly jarring, and there are a few moments where they are. But Fares’s team clearly knows what they’re doing. One scene, which I’ll avoid spoiling, involves a brutal act committed by the couple that beggars belief.
That particular scene is so bizarre in the way it bounces from agonizing discomfort to dark humor that I found it genuinely shocking. It’s one of the most extreme and strange emotional states a game has induced in recent memory, and it’ll stand as a make-or-break moment for many players. But I admired the game’s willingness to go there, to create such a shamelessly weird and emotionally conflicted scenario and play it out ruthlessly on screen. But how much “It Takes Two” works for you may largely depend on your feelings towards the Dr. Hakim character, a boisterous Spanish lover trope that the game’s humor is largely filtered through. I found the game hysterical throughout, but I can easily see Hakim’s over-the-top mannerisms grating on players impatient to return to gameplay.
“It Takes Two” excels in its presentation. Strong art design combines with excellent animations, detailed character models, and jaw-dropping lighting to create one of the most visually memorable and charming 3D platformers ever. Credit goes to composers Gustaf Grefberg and Kristofer Eng for the game’s excellent soundtrack, with tracks ranging from dissonant piano swirls that recall Shostakovich to sweeping orchestral pieces and driving rock guitar and Hammond organ anthems. Each new set of tracks manages to mirror the level’s theme without losing its own identity.
While “It Takes Two” feels remarkably polished and I didn’t encounter any major gameplay bugs or crashes, a persistent stutter affected nearly every cutscene on both my and my co-op partner’s PC, sometimes freezing the frame for around half a second. My partner also encountered an unusual graphical error that seems to break some textures on AMD’s recent RDNA2 cards, producing distracting visual artifacts. Others with the recent RX 6000 series cards have reported the same problem, so if you’re using RDNA2 it might be worth waiting for a patch.
“It Takes Two” is the type of game that authentically recaptures the spirit of invention found in early 3D platformers without ever feeling like a rehash. It’s become a dreadful cliche to declare that a piece of media “makes you feel like a kid again,” but the childlike wonder and awe of “It Takes Two” truly does deserve that level of praise. My face actually felt sore the next day from grinning ear to ear in my first play session, where six hours slipped away like thirty minutes. It doesn’t quite maintain that level of pure invention through the second half of the game, but even the lesser levels are great fun. It’s one of those games that restores your faith in the medium, curing any sense of gaming fatigue caused by the constant onslaught of repetitive open worlds and rote shooters. “It Takes Two” has soul, and it shows.