Review – It Takes Two

Honey, I Shrunk Our Therapist

Overview

Developer Hazelight Studios
Publisher Electronic Arts
Genre Adventure Platformer
Platforms PC, Playstation 4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X (reviewed)
Release Date March 26, 2021

I love co-op games. I also love my girlfriend, Michaela. Ergo, I’m always looking for co-op games to play with her, especially since she’s so obliging about learning about my gaming hobby. So when Hazelight Studios’ It Takes Two took the Game of the Year award at this year’s Game Awards, I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to not only cover one of the most high-profile games of the year, but to do it with someone I love. And that word is going to come up a lot: love, since this is a game all about rekindling the love between Cody and May, your two characters. So…what exactly was it about this release that so captivated the Game Awards that they gave it such a prestigious honor? (Besides making me burst out into Into the Woods songs every time I think of the title.)

Content Guide:

Language: D***, sometimes paired with God’s name, p***, a**, s***, some censored uses of f***, and God’s name used in vain.

Crude Content: One level features a “pull my finger” game. At one point, Cody vomits clay.

Spiritual Content: It’s never explicitly explained how Cody and May are transformed into their doll forms, but Cody speculates that it’s some kind of spell, and suggests that, since Rose’s tears caused the spell, they need her tears to break it. The castle in Rose’s room is called the Magic Castle. Throughout the game, Cody and May are able to affect things around Rose, though she can’t see them herself, meaning that there is some sort of mysticism at play here.

Violent Content: Wasp soldiers wield spears, squirrel soldiers fire machine guns. Cody and May perform various violent actions, like sucking the eyes out of a vacuum cleaner, igniting sap to explode on wasps, hacking away at evil sentient plants, and, perhaps most disturbingly, throwing an innocent elephant toy off a bookshelf as it pleads for its life in a childlike voice, tearing off a leg and ear in the process. (No blood is shed, only stuffing.) At one point, Cody and May skate inside a whale carcass, and blood spurts from where their skates touch the inside of the whale.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Cody mentions wanting a cold beer.

Sexual Content: Dr. Hakim, despite being a book, tends to gyrate his hips suggestively.

*SPOILER* Cody and May kiss at the end of the game.

Other Negative Themes: Dr. Hakim veers dangerously toward Hispanic stereotypes, with an overdone personality and aforementioned suggestive body language. As mentioned before, Cody and May decide it’s a good idea to murder Cutie the elephant in a scene that turns out more disturbing than the cute art style would suggest. They’re never reprimanded at all for this.

Positive Themes: The entire point of the game is that divorce should be an absolute last resort. In fact, Dr. Hakim seems to suggest that any relationship can be repaired through collaboration. While that may not be realistic in every scenario, it’s refreshing to see a game take marriage so seriously, and push back against a “throwaway” attitude towards it. Some of Rose’s toys are fiercely protective of her, fighting to keep her safe from anyone they deem as trying to harm her in any way.

Review:

If you’re familiar with Hazelight Studios’ previous work, then you’ll know that they’re no newbies when it comes to making co-op experiences. Josef Fares, the founder of Hazelight, wrote and directed Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons at Starbreeze Studios. Fares would later take that same team on to found Hazelight, which, to this date, only has two projects to their name: 2018’s A Way Out and 2021’s It Takes Two. Each of these games are meant to be played with a friend, and seek to offer a unique experience you can’t get on your own.

I’m going to be honest: this is going to be a hard review to write, simply because you already know this game is fantastic. You don’t win Game of the Year by being anything less than fantastic. So while I will do my best to remain objective, I think the best way I can do due diligence to this game is by sharing my and Michaela’s experience as we made our way through the world of It Takes Two.

The game opens with an outside shot of a house. This house belongs to May and Cody Goodwin, as well as their daughter Rose. As the game opens, May pulls up after a long day at work. Cody greets her tersely, and it’s not long before you realize that not all is sunny at the Goodwin home. In fact, Cody and May have decided that it’s best for everyone if they part ways. They break the difficult news to Rose, and Rose runs off to the shed, where she’s hidden a special treasure: The Book of Love by Dr. Hakim.

Rose pleads with Dr. Hakim to help her parents become friends again, all while clutching two homemade dolls that look suspiciously like her parents. She cries on the dolls, and Cody and May fall into a trance. When they awake, they’re inhabiting the bodies of the two dolls, and The Book of Love has come to life as Dr. Hakim himself, who sends the couple on a journey to reclaim their real bodies, and in the process, maybe their relationship.

It Takes Two is a co-op action platformer, but I use that genre distinction loosely. True, most of the game, you’ll be hopping from platform to platform over dizzying heights, but every time you think you’re falling into a rhythm, the game loves to pull the rug completely out from under you and switch everything up. The first level is a typical platforming level, but you’ll quickly find yourself swinging along hooks, grinding on power cords, and controlling platforms to help your partner make it across a tricky gap. Eventually, the game evolves into a third-person shooter reminiscent of the Ratchet & Clank franchise, and then you’re navigating a space level like it’s Super Mario Galaxy. And through all this, the game’s environments are wonderfully imaginative, taking you inside a giant oak tree inhabited by a militaristic squirrel tribe to a magical toy castle that Cody and Rose built together. When Cody and May were trying to escape a troop of revenge-hungry squirrels, and the game transitioned into a full-on Street Fighter match between May and the squirrel leader, I couldn’t help but bust out laughing.

There’s a reason Fares promised $1000 to anyone who got bored of this game. It Takes Two never lets you get too comfortable. It constantly throws new mechanics at you to keep you invested, but crucially, it never devolves into feeling unfocused or underdeveloped. This is a common trap for so many games that attempt multiple gameplay styles. But here, every mechanic feels fleshed out and complete. The way Hazelight avoided that pitfall is simple: the team developed a really, really fun platforming base that they were then able to add on to in each chapter to give each area a distinct feeling.

That core platforming is what makes It Takes Two consistently fun and dynamic no matter where you are in the game. A Way Out had an engaging story, but its gameplay suffered because of that. It felt more like I was walking around as I experienced the story rather than playing a game, except in the closing shooting segments. Here, the gameplay is just as fleshed out as the narrative, and just as engaging and accessible. As I mentioned earlier, Michaela is a relative newbie when it comes to games, especially platformers. And while It Takes Two definitely has some challenging moments (there were some times I was a little worried my TV might take a controller from an angry girlfriend), overall, the controls are accessible and satisfying for anyone to play. As we went on, her skills developed to match the pace of the game, and by the end, she was flying across gaps and grappling onto hooks like she’d been playing for years. Games that subtly teach you mechanics and help you hone your skills without being heavy-handed are a rare breed indeed, and it was a treat to see a game appeal to a new player so well while keeping enough challenge to keep a veteran invested.

I also appreciated the way the game fully embraces its co-op nature. It Takes Two is far from the first game to be co-op centered, but the way it weaves collaboration into its gameplay and narrative is a constant treat. You quite literally cannot play this game on your own. In terms of the story, that’s intentional, as every obstacle Dr. Hakim throws at Cody and May is designed to help them see how desperately they need each other, and how they have to each give a little in order to help themselves succeed as a couple. And weirdly enough, it almost feels like he’s counseling the players, too. The challenges you face force you to communicate with your partner. And trust me, you will need to collaborate closely. Michaela and I have been together for nearly four years now, and this game revealed some ways I need to communicate better in real life, let alone just in-game.

That leads me neatly to how seamlessly the gameplay integrates with the story and presentation. Cody and May go through some pretty perilous predicaments as they navigate their once-familiar household, but it’s almost like the game knows just when it’s time for a breather. You’ll build up to a dramatic boss fight, push through with your partner with just a few health bars remaining, gear up for the next challenge…only to realize it’s a much-needed slower-paced puzzle section. The story follows that pacing as well, with heated arguments between Cody and May taking up some of the more hectic sections, followed by a more introspective section as they explore. It feels like the story guides the gameplay, and while that may be a problem in some games, It Takes Two weaves the two together masterfully.

I really feel like Hazelight finally hit their storytelling stride in It Takes Two. A Way Out’s story was promising, but the voice acting was less than stellar, and the pseudo-realistic mocap acting was…well…poor. Swapping to a more fantastical setting helps the presentation immensely, and the voice acting here is absolutely phenomenal. In addition, the writing is incredibly snappy and solid, featuring some really funny lines that made both Michaela and I really laugh out loud. The performances of the cast really show off just how tight the writing is. As I described it to Michaela, it feels like playing a Pixar movie written for adults, with all the fun and imagination kept intact as it tackles a pretty heavy subject.

And about that subject matter: it’s nice to see a game that treats marriage so…well, sacredly. Well…as sacred as a game involving a hip-thrusting Book of Love can be. But seeing a game go to such lengths to communicate the importance of marriage and self-sacrifice is refreshing as a believer, especially in a world where we’re so quick to devalue any relationship that doesn’t instantly give us what we want. But I think what I really appreciated is how, even in a game with an off-the-wall concept and presentation, the actual core relationship is treated with gravity and respect. Even at the end of the game, after Cody and May are restored to their bodies, things aren’t all fixed. There’s still awkwardness between them, and the game is pretty clear that they’ll need to keep working. I appreciate that It Takes Two doesn’t go the “happily ever after” route, but still offers hope in a world desperately in need of it.

And I haven’t even mentioned the score. I don’t always talk about game music, but I have to give a quick shout out to composers Gustaf Grefberg and Kristofer Eng for a phenomenal score that matches the gameplay perfectly. Going back to the Pixar metaphor, it really feels like a movie score, with the music highlighting key emotional beats without ever drawing too much attention to itself. Special attention to the ending theme, which really brought everything home as the story wrapped up, and really hit Michaela and I in the feels, as they say.

Still…it’s not perfect. Cody and May’s bickering, while realistic, does get a bit repetitive at times, with some conversations being entirely composed of them going back and forth about the same two or three points. While these moments were few and far between, they were a bit obnoxious where they did crop up, as if the game was trying extra hard to say “Hey! They have a troubled relationship!” And as I mentioned earlier, Dr. Hakim’s demeanor veers a little close to stereotype, though I don’t think his portrayal is outright harmful or degrading.

We did also run into one or two glitches in our playthrough. They were mainly really minor graphical bugs, but at one point Michaela got stuck in a platform and we had to restart from our last checkpoint. Thankfully, the game is extremely generous with checkpoints, so we only lost about 2 minutes of progress. But it is worth mentioning nonetheless.

And, if I’m honest, the story It Takes Two sets out to tell has been done before. But here, it’s done with so much heart, charm, and love that I can’t help but feel like this is the first time the “fixing a broken marriage” storyline has really hit home for me, and it’s definitely the first video game to tackle the subject so well in my experience. Its imagination, world-building, and character shine through every moment, and the gameplay serves to back it up to a T. If the story doesn’t get you, the constant mechanical development and switcheroos will. Plus, where else are you going to utter the phrase “You steer the barrel lid out of the way of the cyclones and I’ll take care of the explosive larvae!”?

Conclusion

So…yeah. Everything I’ve said so far was probably pretty easy to predict. But what else can I say? There’s a reason this game has reached such high acclaim. It Takes Two tells a vitally important message without ever devolving into being preachy or campy, and it backs all that up with a gameplay experience that never stays the same way for longer than a chapter. It forces you to think on your feet and communicate with a friend, and it may even make you discover things about your relationship you never thought you would.

Even if you’re not in a romantic relationship, play through it with a friend or sibling. This game is worth playing through for anyone in need of a heartwarming story after a couple years of discouraging world events. It Takes Two brings players together like no other game I’ve played, and it seeks to restore some faith in humanity. It’s clear it was crafted with love and passion, and it comes with a hearty recommendation from me.

The Bottom Line

 

It Takes Two's innovate approach to co-op gaming makes for an experience that feels like watching a big-budget Pixar movie, but backs it up with snappy and accessible gameplay that starts strong and just keeps getting better.

 

9.5

Posted in ,

Wesley Lantz

Wesley's first memory of video games is playing through Super Mario World with his mom when he was 3 years old. Since then, he's been a classic Nintendo kid, but has branched out to the far lands of PlayStation in recent years. He enjoys the worlds that video games create and share with their audiences, and the way video games bring together collaborators from so many different disciplines like music, visual art, literature, and even philosophy. He is an advocate for excellency in all things, but isn't immune to a few guilty pleasure games, which may or may not include Disney's Party for the GameCube.

Leave a Comment