At this stage in my life I am both a child of divorce and an owner of one, so the concept of a two-player co-op game that gamifies an about-to-be-divorced couple's relationship was very intriguing to me. Obviously divorces aren't fun when you're in the midst of them, but they're also incredibly common, and quite often (as was the case with my own) actually the best solution. At a very reductionist level, a divorce is just a breakup with more paperwork, and God knows we've made everything else into a game at this point. Normalise divorce.
So, here we have It Takes Two, the latest game from Hazelight Studios, wot did A Way Out. Bickering couple Cody and May are turned into little doll versions of themselves, and puzzle and platform around different bits of their home in an effort to become real again. To save disappointment I will let you know off the top that the song It Takes Two does not actually feature in the game at any point. I know; I was upset as well. Fortunately the game makes up for it by being a very good, very playful adventure.
Cody and May's divorce is admittedly more complex than my own was, because they have both property and a child to divide up. The latter I found quite unsympathetic and annoying, if I'm honest, but if they weren't parents then there would, in effect, be no jeopardy to Cody and May's impending divorce. Who cares if two random losers break up? Nobody, that's who. But their prepubescent daughter Rose does. It is her tears, plus intervention from a self-help book whose magical personification is inexplicably pervy, that precipitate Cody and May's transformation / intense and athletic marriage counselling.
It is very pleasing to scamper about their home at Borrower scale, and the imaginative way that different parts of the house are repurposed as surreal backdrops for adventure are an actual joy. My favourite levels were the ones where it felt like I really was lost in a once-comforting home environment, now rendered obstacle course by my new size: the workshed ruled over by a hostile vacuum; the garden full of angry plants and cute fuzzy spiders. Other settings go on more magical flights of fancy. In Rose's bedroom a cardboard castle with a miniature train set running through it becomes a huge obstacle course, and her space-themed stuffed toy Moon Baboon transports you to an orbital command centre full of portals and lasers.
You and your co-op partner will get different abilities in every level, so there's a sense of anticipation when you come to a new area. "What do I get to do this time?" you think to yourself, hoping it's something cool like the explosive nectar gunk, or mini-bazooka that fires matches, which were your tools in the level set inside a tree. Some are a bit less fun than others (see: a water gun in the garden level, or a small cymbal as a shield in a music-themed attic), but they have a more interesting purpose in how you solve puzzles.
The constant changes to style, ability and even camera angles - with levels referencing top down RPGs, beat 'em ups, and Mario Kart - aren't disorientating, and none of them end up feeling under-developed, although anyone playing It Takes Two will struggle if they're not pretty familiar with games in general. But flying on levitating fidget spinners feels, somehow, just as satisfying as bouncing on mushrooms or grinding on loops of wires. We didn't even run into any annoying problems brought about by the split screen camera. It all just worked.
And there's almost nothing in It Takes Two that you don't need your co-op pal to help you with. It is, in fairness, a game with great nominative determinism. The water gun is needed to moisten bits of soil, so that Cody can use his own ability to turn into various helpful plants (like a cactus that spits spiky bullets); the cymbal shield allows Cody to walk in front of May and protect them both from aggressive blasts of sound. Both will, at times, have to move or operate platforms for the other player, calling for great patience and great communication. It remains the most co-operative co-op game I've ever played.
You're forced to be your most co-operative during boss fights, where you have to use what you know and execute it all quickly, and together. You can only ground Moon Baboon's spaceship by using Cody's size change ability and May's anti-gravity boots together. You can only defeat the corrupted plant if May uses her water gun to clear the way for Cody. It's fun, it's playful, it's full of unexpected moments. It's like a bedtime story a parent is making up on the fly: "And then your dad turned into a potato and charged at the enemy."
Almost everything in It Takes Two represents the humorous yet relatable discord in Cody and May's relationship (he the dreamy, sensitive stay-at-home parent; she the no-nonsense practical scientist working overtime). So I suppose it's fitting that the game itself feels like two slightly different concepts, mashed together in a somehwat mismatched way, when you look at it as a whole. You start off trying to make your way back to the main house, and your daughter. This is strong, understandable, and clear.
Then, maybe two thirds of the way through, this is replaced by the dickhead book making you complete four magical therapy sessions to collect four torn bits of a letter. He transports you inside a clock, a snowglobe, and at one point a kaleidoscope. This is also strong, understandable and clear, and these levels aren't less fun, but the switch in focus makes the story feel less focused as a whole. Bosses are sometimes metaphors for flaws in the couple's relationship, but other times they're just an angry stuffed toy.
Most annoyingly, despite the inclusion of plot points that are surprisingly dark and very very funny because of it, It Takes Two is a bit disappointing in how conventional the story is, when thiis was surely an opportunity to do something a bit different. The way you explore Cody and May's story is playful and imaginative, but their story itself isn't that interesting. It doesn't ruin the whole experience - It Takes Two is a tremendously fun game to play - but stacked up next to riding giant spiders, exploding wasps and surfing mic aux cables the actual relationship thing at the heart of it is a bit of a whimper compared to the bang of everything else. Much like my own divorce, WAHEY.