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PLATFORMS: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
RELEASE DATE: March 26, 2021
DEVELOPER: Hazelight Studios
PUBLISHER: Electronic Arts
ESRB: T for Teen
NOTE - A digital copy of this product was provided by EA for Review purposes. Gaming Instincts is an Amazon affiliate and does get financial benefits if you choose to purchase this product on this page.
Nowadays, many video games are dominated by useless collectibles, redundant side activities, and invariant gameplay. Hazelight Studio’s It Takes Two abandons these run-of-the-mill concepts in favor of an experimental and unconventional co-op experience. By straying from video game norms, It Takes Two establishes itself as an absurd yet joyous game about love and collaboration.
A Gripping Romantic Comedy
Deep into the story, a sentient stuffed animal is gruesomely dragged to its death. The little grey elephant had an innocent personality and a high-pitched voice. We were appalled by the horrific event, but at the same time, we couldn’t stop laughing at the ludicrous scene. This juxtaposition of emotions is representative of how It Takes Two handles all of its subject matter.
Just like a successful Pixar movie, It Takes Two explores a serious topic through an innocent, fun-loving tone. Their approach is evident right from the calming title screen music that contrasts the eccentric gameplay to come. The game aims to tell an intimate story about divorce while having players undertake absurd tasks like fist fighting a talking squirrel. It is to their credit that Hazelight Studios manages to accomplish their apparent goals without creating a dissonance of tone.
The game opens with the two playable characters Cody and May discussing a missed dentist appointment, which quickly devolves into a heated argument. The quarrel is natural and well-acted, driving home the intimate nature of the storyline. Their daughter Rose listens to the argument from an upstairs window as she holds two doll replicas of her parents.
A little later, Rose cries over the dolls in a scene that could resonate with people who grew up in similar circumstances. She wants her parents to love each other, an innocent and optimistic request that fuels the whimsical yet heartwarming adventure.
As a result of Rose’s wish, the two parents are transformed into dolls and must undergo collaborative challenges to regain their bodies. Their guide is Dr. Hakim, a purple mustached book with a boisterous personality who is accompanied by quick camera pans and guitar strums. For such an eccentric setup, however, there’s great restraint to the manner in which Cody and May’s character growth is handled.
Instead of making direct reference to the couple’s relational progress, It Takes Two chooses to illustrate it through the collaborative gameplay and in-game dialogue between the two characters. Throughout the game’s seven chapters, the couple banters about topics like the purpose of unreasonable purchases and an abandoned vacuum. They joke with each other but also throw slight jabs, replicating the real-life rhythms of married relationships. As Cody and May work together to solve puzzles and overcome platforming challenges, they steadily rekindle a long-lost connection.
This careful and compassionate attitude towards the pair is best conveyed by the optional arcade games, which offer small PvP challenges for friends. Some of these are so simple that we question their inclusion, such as a bull riding mini-game that just has the player pressing face buttons as they slowly appear on screen. For the most part, though, these mini-games are fun side activities that exemplify relationship growth.
From the start, plot-defining character moments are expertly interwoven into the smallest crevices of gameplay. For example, one mini-game has Cody and May participating in a photo booth where they pose in various backgrounds, laugh, and enjoy each other’s presence. Moments like these help move the plot forward without needing to make an explicit comment on the status of the duo’s relationship.
It Takes Two also delivers satisfying moments of levity, ranging from flatulence jokes to a surprising infusion of dark humor. Much of the comedy is predicated on the personification of everyday objects, like an embittered vacuum cleaner complaining about dust or an old hammer pained by the onset of rust. It doesn’t hurt that Cody and May’s quips have the energy and comic timing that one might associate with character banter in a Naughty Dog game. Given that It Takes Two was pitched as a romantic comedy, we feel confident in saying Hazelight delivered on both of those aspects.
Collaboration at its Best
It almost goes without saying the theme of fixing a relationship through collaborative challenges hinges on good cooperative gameplay. It Takes Two not only delivers in this regard, it goes so far as to prove it’s one of the best cooperative games since Portal 2.
Key to the game’s success is how each player has an essential role to fill in overcoming the odds. For instance, in the first mission, Cody acquires nails that can be thrown like Kratos’ ax while May gets a hammer that can smash objects. Some areas require May to use her hammer to swing on nails placed on surfaces by Cody, while a later boss fight sees the hammer used as a launching mechanism to put Cody within striking range of the boss. Of course, the inventiveness displayed in such situations would not be half as effective if the game didn’t understand the most fundamental aspect of cooperative play: communication.
Making progress through It Takes Two requires active conversation between the two players. Take the level in which one player slides down rails a la Ratchet and Clank, as their partner has to retract lethal obstacles by pressing the appropriate buttons. As one would expect, this quickly leads to one player yelling out orders as the other tries to press the appropriate button in time. As frantic and chaotic as situations can get, the game as a whole manages to be a bonding experience for players and characters alike.
Better still, none of the aforementioned mechanics are repeated. It Takes Two has something new up its sleeve at all times, from shooting war-torn wasps to balancing on a blue catfish. While the 15 hour campaign does make it long for a co-op game, the constant gameplay shakeups ensure It Takes Two never grows tedious. That’s good because, besides avoiding repetition, this approach to game content also keeps individual sequences from overstaying their welcome.
It’s inevitable that, due to the sheer amount of gameplay scenarios, some will not land as well as others. In our case, it was a puzzle involving the transportation of a block of cheese through a maze that proved infuriating, owing to controls too precise for comfort. As luck would have it, the labyrinth section doesn’t last long and transitions into a pleasant dungeon hack-and-slash sequence. Suffice to say, the few unsatisfying moments in It Takes Two are dropped as soon as they end for something more enjoyable.
In fact, every aspect of It Takes Two is designed for a pleasant and fun gaming session. The difficulty may spike at times, especially during the boss fights, but there is no real punishment for failure. Each session is relaxing and addictive, reinforced further by the reliable platforming and the rewarding puzzle design. At its core, It Takes Two is not a co-op game that ends friendships but instead strengthens them.
It Takes Two takes the central idea of collaboration and runs with it, backed up by every feature and creative decision. Its most impressive feat is how it tells a compelling story that is supported by absurd gameplay. In managing this, Hazelight’s newest adventure captures the joys of local co-op like few other modern games, marking it as one of the best games of 2021.