While Hazelight Studios’ highly inventive first game, A Way Out, explored desynchronized co-op and forced players to work together doing totally different tasks to overcome a variety of hazards, it felt like a first attempt that would lay the groundwork for more polished use of its mechanics in the future. Three years later, It Takes Two shows that the team is comprised of fast learners eager to improve drastically on existing ideas for a second effort. This may be the standard for which all other co-op games are judged going forward, and it very well should be.
It Takes Two tells the story of Cody and May, who have been holding off on telling their young daughter, Rose, about their impending divorce. However, after eavesdropping and learning of their plans, Rose becomes distraught and wishes for her parents to become close again, consequentially casting a spell that transfers their bodies into those of small toy dolls. Upon realizing their predicament, the couple is burdened with learning to collaborate during their quest to break the spell and return to their human bodies.
Unsurprisingly, It Takes Two requires, well, two players. Taking on the role of either Cody or May, two friends, spouses, or total strangers online work together to move through imaginative levels, never managing to make much progress lest they adapt and cooperate to solve the many elegantly-designed environmental hurdles in their way. Though death doesn’t carry the weight of serious punishment, the duo’s trek is comprised of plenty of intensity from moment to moment that absolutely requires equal participation. This is not a platformer that can be played lackadaisically – you’re either willing to be an active team player, or you’re not moving forward at all.
This adherence to unity is spectacularly realized here in a manner that A Way Out sometimes couldn’t seem to figure out. That game forced players to engage in actions that were often so separated from one another, which felt incohesive and sometimes left one player feeling like they were receiving a less exciting job or weren’t contributing as much. It Takes Two alleviates this issue by ensuring that, whether you’re playing as Cody or May, you’re always directly influencing your partner’s momentum and abilities in meaningful ways.
This is perhaps showcased most excellently during an early level in the game that grants May a “hammer head” and Cody a collection of throwable nails. Cody can throw his nails at boards so that May can swing across them using the hammer head, usually allowing her to clear the way for him immediately after by shattering some glass bottles or hitting a switch. Soon after, they’re even asked to put these skills to the ultimate test during a boss showdown with a household appliance that is equally hilarious and heart-pounding.
Luckily, It Takes Two never runs out of these types of synergetic activities and always finds ways to expand upon them a bit before moving on to something entirely unfamiliar. One moment I was piloting a makeshift airplane during a daring escape as my partner had a Mortal Kombat-esque 2D fight with a militant squirrel atop it. A bit later, we were delicately passing an important item between one another by swinging on trapezes at a carnival of sorts. We were even tasked with solving memory puzzles and math equations together in a classroom. Of course, all of that was before we played through a Diablo-style dungeon crawling section equipped with a sword and magic spells.
I eventually expected to see some rehashed ideas, but the game literally never stopped doing new things. And as much as I tried to find some mechanics that downright missed the mark, only one or two of the dozens of the ingenious concepts felt slightly undercooked, and even those remained extraordinarily enjoyable regardless. The same can be said for all of the utterly gorgeous environments, which range from a thrilling romp through a giant tree to find a wasp hive, to exploring a homemade cardboard castle filled with toy denizens, to gliding on fidget spinners across a colorful ball pit, to even solving time-based puzzles in a sentient clock tower designed so intricately that it was impossible not to stop and admire each awe-inspiring room.
Unfortunately, the developers’ insistence on forcing my partner and me into split-screen for most of the game even while playing online dampened these experiences a little. Not only did this claustrophobic range of vision rob some of the most memorable set-pieces of their full glory, but not having a wider view of our surroundings during moments where timing or precision was of paramount importance proved occasionally frustrating. Most irritating, however, is that there were only one or two moments in the game where either of us felt as though seeing the other’s view helped us in any way, meaning it primarily just served as a distracting design choice that hindered an otherwise lovingly-crafted adventure.
Though the game doesn’t offer any collectibles to seek out, it does have plenty of mini-games scattered throughout its levels, some of which require you to diverge from your main path to discover. These snappy optional events allow you and your partner to join in some friendly competition. A standout is a match of whack-a-mole wherein one of you holds a hammer and the other tries to poke their head out without being hit, and I got a good laugh out of one that had us trying to shoot targets with plungers, too. They’re not all equally fun, but they’re over quickly, so there’s no harm in trying each of them out if only to see how creative they can be.
From a narrative standpoint, these minigames shine a light on Cody and May’s undying desire to one-up each other – most notably when it comes to Rose. They both seem to want to win her affections and garner as much credit as possible for any happiness she experiences, yet neither are willing to acknowledge how their actions have a negative impact on her mental health. At one point, the story even veers into sadistic territory as the couple attempts to do whatever it takes to get back to their old bodies, even if it’s at Rose’s expense.
Aside from that unusually dark scene, however, there’s never any deeper exploration of these emotionally damaging issues during the 10 or so hours spent with Cody and May. It initially appears that the game might share a profound message about healing relationships, but it refuses to abandon the concept that some teamwork and simply being nicer will somehow fix a severely broken marriage teeming with resentment, selfishness, and incompatibility. This ultimately prohibits it from ever capitalizing on its underlying themes of trauma and anger, leaving the immensely satisfying gameplay working double-time to hide the fact that this is surface-level storytelling.
But while there’s obviously a lot more to learn about communication and respect that just can’t be found in this (mostly) superficial examination of companionship, I was honestly thankful that the tale avoided beating me over the head with melodrama. Like a good Pixar movie, It Takes Two‘s oversimplification of conflicts provides the levity needed to tackle its tough subjects without overwhelming its audience with grief or depression. Indeed, the game goes to great lengths to make its often self-centered heroes more palatable with tons of humor and playfulness, so while no one with marital problems is going to learn any meaningful relationship-improving skills from spending time with characters like Cody and May, the majority of players will likely be too won over by all of the charm and whimsy to care all that much.
Besides, the story is mostly just a catalyst here, and as someone who has been playing video games for nearly 30 years, I can safely say that It Takes Two primarily succeeds because it features some of the most original gameplay I’ve ever encountered and some of the most enthralling environments I’ve ever navigated. With the exception of maybe Super Mario Odyssey, I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that so expertly nails a sense of magic and wonder, and when you couple that with almost perfect platforming controls and creative cooperative mechanics, there’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t find a friend and start collaborating.
This review is based on the PlayStation 5 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Electronic Arts.