Hazelight and their founder Josef Fares have been banging the drum for co-op gaming for seven years now. They have given us the two-player-only Brother: A Tale of Two Sons and A Way Out, and – while they are both fantastic – they feel like counter-culture gems, a couple of exceptions that prove the general rule: AAA gaming is heading to the two extremes of solo campaigns and huge multiplayer royales, with very little in-between. It makes Hazelight’s determination to bear the burden of co-op gaming all the more romantic, perhaps even foolhardy.
It Takes Two might well change all of that. We certainly hope it does. It’s not just that it’s ridiculously, absurdly good, a leap forward from everything that Hazelight has made to this point. It’s because we finally get to see where Hazelight have been trying to go, the trajectories they have been heading in.
When we think about the cooperative experiences we’ve loved over the years, they’ve often been one-player games with a plus-one. Halo, Call of Duty, Army of Two, LEGO games, even Kane and Lynch: they’ve all effectively duplicated the main character, put a different hat on them, and encouraged you both to have at it. Aside from making co-op easy to develop, this direction feels like an objectively wise decision: any character can do anything, so you’re not limiting anyone’s agency. But It Takes Two shows how ridiculously limiting that approach is. How can you be of benefit to another player, if they could have done it themselves? When partnered with a ‘good’ player, when can a ‘bad’ player ever feel like the hero? Are you really working together if you’re just both in the same place, doing the same things?
It Takes Two breaks the accepted thinking, and pushes the two players apart. You and your partner are NOT the same character. Your abilities aren’t just photocopied from the other player. It’s essential to the joys of It Takes Two that you are very different people, doing very different things. As Cody, one of the two main characters in It Takes Two, you might be equipped with a sap gun, which blobs onto the environment and weighs things down. As May – the other half of this duo – you might have a gun that can ignite those blobs of sap, exploding them, clearing space and removing the weight from the thing you were weighing down. You are two halves of the same function, and you’re going to need each other to solve the puzzles that are thrown at you.
It seems so obvious, but it creates a fantastic dynamic. You’re calling over to each other for help, or weighing up how your abilities can complement each other. How do we get across a chasm, or destroy that wall? It becomes a continuous conversation. It’s life, more or less; none of us are equal, and we don’t get to switch characters as if we’re in a LEGO game. We need each other.
With that as the bedrock – and it is such a stupendously obvious bedrock, yet so few games have co-opted it – Hazelight makes the next brilliant decision: the two main characters are a divorcing couple. It fits It Takes Two like a dream: you are a couple working together, while also drifting apart. You have a single goal, but have two very different approaches for reaching it. You hate each other, but you need each other. Chef’s kiss. It Takes Two knows how contrary but effective this is, and it builds the entire game on it.
In our house, we’re not all gamers. My wife understands that I sit quietly with a pad in my hand occasionally, other times not so quietly. She doesn’t ‘get’ it necessarily, and probably files gaming somewhere near a fetish. But It Takes Two is near-completely accessible, and it does all it can to remove the obstacles from playing it, meaning that my wife had some kind of co-op epiphany.
Heaven knows, there are already too many obstacles to playing local co-op – the cost, the time, the people to play them with – so Hazelight knows that it must do everything in its power to add no further blockers. For one, there’s the Friends Pass, which allows a friend to play with you, online, for free. But it’s the game itself which makes for such a welcoming environment. It’s clearly a good fit for couples who want to roleplay as bickering, divorcing versions of themselves (I’m only moderately worried about how much my wife enjoyed this), but it’s more generally a theme that everyone understands: you are people who have been transmogged into dolls, and that’s a worrying thing that probably needs to be rectified. But on the way to solving your situation, you are navigating environments that are all so familiar and known. The back-garden. The shed. A tree. A kids’ bedroom, with pillow forts and make-believe castle. You’ll spend the game effectively navigating your childhood.
Then there’s the game, too. It never occurred to me how off-putting co-op experiences like LEGO can be to my wife, since I’m the one who’s leaving her behind and getting everything done. It Takes Two slaps me round the face and reminds me that it shouldn’t be this way. More often than not, my wife was helping me along as May, who gets the lion’s share of kick-ass abilities. And then there’s the generosity and welcoming nature of It Takes Two. Checkpoints are everywhere, there are no time limits, combat is at a minimum, and everything is telegraphed in a simple and obvious way. It doesn’t come across as patronising: the world is so tactile, constructed of things we interact with on a day-to-day basis. We all know what they’ll do. I can bounce on that balloon. I can jump on that hopscotch.
But beyond all of this, what we adore most about It Takes Two is its childlike wonder. This could easily have been a Honey I Shrunk My Divorcing Parents, or a Micro Machines around the various elements of a house, but It Takes Two plays fast and loose with reality, and elevates it – in our eyes – into classic status. You’re seeing the world through the eyes of a child, since it was a child who cast the spell upon you, which means that vacuum cleaners become monsters, pillow forts become castles, and a moon baboon toy becomes an interstellar guardian. Everything is exaggerated and anything is possible. For me, as an avid gamer, I could take huge joy from how It Takes Two slots in game references, switching to a Street Fighter battle in one sequence, and a Diablo-alike in another. For my wife, it was a nostalgic romp through childhood, treating the world like a giant soft-play, sometimes literally.
With all the gushing, we’re leaving little room for what It Takes Two actually is. As a story, it’s pretty simple: you’re two halves of a divorcing couple, who are overheard arguing by their daughter, Rose. Distraught, Rose looks for a way to bring her parents together again, and hunts for advice in the pages of a book she’s found called Dr Hakim’s Book of Love. Slightly creepily, she has also made two dolls of her parents, so that she can make-believe a happy family. When her tears hit the – supposedly magical – Book of Love, her parents are body-swapped into the dolls. This causes understandable stress in the parents, and you play them as they search for a way out of their tiny clay and straw bodies, while the Book of Love anthropomorphises into a relationship counsellor and does more to hinder than help. Cue trips around grandfather clocks, ponds, train sets and more as you try to get your daughter’s attention.
As a game, It Takes Two has acute attention-deficit: it’s mostly a third-person puzzle-platformer, with the two of you using abilities (each level tends to gift you a different ability) in a complementary fashion. But Hazelight are free-wheeling creatives, and things spin off in all sorts of directions, changing the game genre, perspective, taking you to surreal other-worlds and generally bending the laws of physics. Minigames will occasionally crop up, offering you a chance to duel in games of rodeo, swingball and more, while levels will tend to culminate in boss battles, which layer on multitasking and customary ‘rules of three’ to defeat them. They’re It Take Two’s low-point, as the frantic nature of them feels at odds with the rest of the game.
Beyond the bosses, which are cursed with simply being conventional rather than having any meaningful issues, there are still some downsides to It Takes Two. The voice-acting and writing is superb and always believable, but it’s burdened with too much telling and not enough showing. We are told about all the things that the couple dislike about each other, but we don’t get to see that stem from anything in-game. We’re told that Cody’s on the lazy side, and May is unavailable, but we never see those foibles in action. If we could see how mismatched the two of them are, then future developments would have had more weight.
But even as we write these complaints, we think of the highlights that eclipse them. Cody and May do things to an elephant that will sit with us forever, and could rival most sequences in The Last of Us. One level’s finally made us appreciate fidget spinners. A tree level is honestly sublime, and sets a bar that future levels attempt to reach. We would go on, but It Takes Two is so puckish, so determined to surprise and delight you, that it’d be a crime to reveal any more than we have.
It’s wonderful to see a studio master their craft, and produce the stone-cold classic that represents everything that they’re trying to achieve. Josef Fares and his team at Hazelight have been noisily making the case for cooperative experiences for some time now, and with It Takes Two on the Xbox it feels like they’ve been vindicated. Find someone else to jump onto this roller coaster with – a loved one if you can – as it’s an experience you will want to talk about and share repeatedly. Now, let’s just hope it opens the door to more games like it.