In It Takes Two, you fight the kind of common, red toolbox that might be sitting in your garage, or your parents' garage. It's one of the best boss battles I've ever played.
In the level leading up to this, co-op protagonists Cody and May learn to chuck nails and wield a hammer head, respectively. Cody can shoot nails into wooden surfaces; May can use the hammer to swing on those nails. Cody can nail moving platforms in place; May can hop onto those platforms, or wall jump between vertical surfaces that Cody can position via strategic nail shots. Eventually, he gets three nails to throw instead of one, leading to some excitingly frantic platforming.
The boss fight that closes this level uses those abilities in concert. Cody and May stand on a plywood platform, facing off against the toolbox. It can swing at them with bolted on plywood arms, which the duo needs to dodge. To deal any damage, Cody has to pin its long, wooden limb to a wall with his three nails, allowing May to swing over and smack its tinny body. As the fight proceeds, the toolbox shoots nails into the air which hurtle down at the plywood platform, a platform which gradually shrinks as the toolbox uses a handsaw to whittle it down to a nub with strategic cuts.
This whole arc is a virtuosic showcase of what this game does so well. Like developer Hazelight's previous game, A Way Out, It Takes Two can only be played in co-op, online or local, and success requires teamwork. This level introduces a new tool for each character to use, doles out a wide variety of tasks for you to accomplish with those tools, and then puts it all together in a wildly creative boss battle that forces you to work together to succeed. It's astoundingly good and the rest of the game maintains a consistently high bar of quality.
It Takes Two is the most creative 3D platformer I've played in years, but it builds on well-trod family comedy territory, with a story that marries elements of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! and The Parent Trap. May and Cody are a 30-something couple who just can't seem to find the time to spend with each other. When they are together, they can't stop fighting. As the game begins, they sit their preteen daughter Rose down at the kitchen table to tell her they're getting a divorce. Rose is, understandably, upset. She goes to her room, where she pulls out a pair of dolls: one made of clay, which looks like Cody, and one carved from wood, which resembles May. She cries, and when the tears land on the dolls, the ill-defined kind of magic that animates movies like Freaky Friday and 17 Again springs into action, transforming the flesh and blood May and Cody into their doll doppelgangers.
Their quest to return to their bodies takes them on a journey of personal growth, a story that mostly succeeds. That story is carried by Cody and May, who have a believably real relationship despite the cartoonish premise. The dialogue is often corny, but the voice performances from the two leads is impressively casual. This is some of the most natural-sounding small talk I've ever heard in a game. Their rapport helps sell the conceit that this is a couple that love(d?) each other deeply, but just haven't made time to prioritize each other. There's warmth here, even when they're bickering. There's certainly a naivety to the idea that forcing a couple to spend time together will make them like each other again, but it worked for me here because the problems in May and Cody's relationship do seem to stem primarily from a lack of time and attention. I never got the sense that they were fundamentally incompatible as a couple, just that they had forgotten why they fell in love.
The game's biggest problem, meanwhile, is Dr. Hakim, an anthropomorphic relationship advice book guiding the pair to reconciliation. He shows up about once a level to hint at where Cody and May should head next. Hakim heavily plays into the "Latin Lover" trope in a way that is loud, stereotypical and a little offensive. He's got a thick accent and each time he appears, he's accompanied by the sound of a strummed guitar and clacking castanets. He's pretty obnoxious. My wife--who I played the game with for this review--and I took to saying, "Oh, this terrible fellow again," each time he showed up on our splitscreens.
Cody and May's journey takes them across a wide variety of levels that wind their way through their home and the yard outside. There's a garden level, a snowglobe world, a trek through a village of wooden dolls, and many more. At first, these levels seem like semi-realistic recreations of the residential areas in question. But when you find yourself taking a psychedelic joy ride on a koi fish through the hollow trunk of a tree where an army of squirrels is battling a horde of hornets, it becomes crystal clear that It Takes Two is using the suburban setting as a springboard, not a one-to-one inspiration. And it's all the better for it. Like its deeply boring title, It Takes Two's setting appears mundane at first blush. But its everyday theme hides a wealth of creativity.
Here's an example from the garden level. Cody and May enter an area and find a large group of moles sleeping. A common household pest, but in their shrunken state, the couple are dwarfed by the creatures. As you approach the restful rodents, a meter appears at the side of the screen indicating how much noise the two of you are making. You crouch to muffle your footsteps, but to get past the creatures, you still need to jump between stones, over the noisy red mulch in between, and manage how loud your landing is. Easy enough.
We made it through this section on the first try and, when I noticed that the noise meter had disappeared, I assumed that this brief, one-off stealth section had come to a close. But then we moved into a second shady area, this one populated by a few dozen more dozing moles and substantially fewer rocks to help traverse the mulch. In this garden section, Cody has temporarily been granted the ability to turn into a plant at certain key moments, and that ability comes into play here. I morphed into moss, moving in time with May's movements, providing a rolling carpet of greenery to muffle her footsteps as we snuck past the moles. Eventually, we made it to the other side and the coast seemed clear. But then we heard the sound of a stampeding mole in the distance, and the splitscreen perspective merged into one shared screen with the camera in front of us framing a Crash Bandicoot-style run-at-the-camera chase scene. As the chase stretched on, the camera shifted perspectives multiple times, introducing new challenges each time. We escaped down a pit and found another mole who, startled by our appearance, fell on its back, blocking our path downward. So, we ground-pounded the poor creature's belly until it fell out the bottom and we scrambled through one last bit of sidescrolling. At the end, we found a pair of frogs, saddled up, and hopped on to the next challenge.
This is It Takes Two's impressive loop. You are constantly doing something new and novel. Each chapter has moments like that moss moment, where the game introduces a new mechanic, briefly iterates on it, and then quickly moves on to something completely different. Most surprisingly, each new mechanic feels good. The game is built around a framework of Ratchet and Clank-style platforming action, merging running and jumping with left trigger, right trigger shooting. But everything that Hazelight has built on top of that structure can change on a dime. You might be holding the right trigger to pilot a flying fidget spinner, or you might be using the same button to cause a plant to grow, creating a bridge for your co-op partner.
Hazelight is exclusively interested in making cooperative experiences. Creative Director Josef Fares previously explored familial relationships in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which gave a solo player control of two characters, and odd couple pairings in previous co-op game, A Way Out. It Takes Two, similarly, gives each player one half of a full toolset and forces them to communicate and work together to solve problems. Part of the reason It Takes Two feels satisfying to play is that you constantly get to feel useful, building the set-up for your partner's mechanical punchline and vice-versa. You are frequently reminded that you are reliant on your co-op partner, providing a pleasing ludonarrative harmony with the game's story of rediscovering what made a failing relationship work.
It's impressive stuff. It Takes Two is the best 3D platformer I've played since Super Mario Odyssey, and like that game, it has a flair for variety. You may ride a frog or fly a plane with wings made from Cody's boxers or hack-and-slash through a Diablo-style castle. Despite the downright wild amount of things to do, It Takes Two manages to handle every mechanic well. This is the second release from Hazelight, and while A Way Out had plenty of fans, it seems that it may just take two to make a thing go quite this right.
|It Takes Two is featured on our lists of the best Xbox co-op games, best split-screen PS4 games, and the best Xbox games for kids.