Here's something I wasn't expecting: It Takes Two is pretty difficult. I didn't think it was going to be a piece of the proverbial, exactly, but considering that Hazelight Studios' last co-op game, the gritty two-lads-escaping-prison split-screen adventure A Way Out wasn't all that challenging in the end because both players were able to act pretty independently, I assumed It Takes Two would follow in a similar vein. This is not the case.
I was also lulled into a false sense of security by the contrasting design of It Takes Two, which is a cartoony, colourful toy box built on a Borrowers scale. I assumed it would be a fun run-about you could play with a kid, or your partner who isn't into games because they do normal adult things like eat poached eggs. But the two sections I played in preview were the most couchy, co-operative thing I've played in years. And they were hard.
Josef Fares, game director and he of the sweary soundbite about the Oscars, isn't trying to sell it as an easy game to play with a non-gamer pal, though. When asked in a Q&A if the game was suitable to play with someone who has no real experience with games, he said that if your partner isn't used to controlling a third-person camera with a thumbstick, it might be a tough one. "I believe it could work, but it would be some challenge," he said. "Try it out! You'll have fun, anyway."
(Fares, by the way, is still kind of effortlessly charming in how he refuses to engage with the concept of traditional media polish - which is arguably now his own form of media polish. The Q&A included a moment where he realised in real time that they should have tried to launch the game for Valentine's Day, and a bit where he summed up the global pandemic with the phrase "shit is so sad". It is. Shit is so sad.)
But the difficulty is also down to just how co-operative It Takes Two is. It's built into almost every interaction. Playing as two parents who have been magicked into doll versions of themselves by the sorrowful child-of-imminent-divorce tears of their daughter, players choose either Cody or May and are challenged to make it from their frankly structurally unsound workshed back to the main house, via a tree full of militarised squirrels.
You start off with the usual if rather unimaginative co-op fare of jumping on things at the same time to further your progress (prompting familiar conversations with your partner along the lines of, "One, two, three, g- you went early! No, when you say 'go on three' it means on the beat after three."), but It Takes Two quickly ramps up the complexity of its interactions. In fact, you could say it really takes its title to heart, as there's not much you can do at all in the game unless you do it together. Cody and May have their own unique abilities for each section of the game, you see, and each one dovetails beautifully with the other. In the second level, for example, which sees you navigating the mostly-hollowed out inside of a tree and fighting a swarm of wasps, Cody has a portable pump that sprays out sticky nectar, and May has a match launcher to ignite it. You need both to take out the wasp, see?
This reliance on both players extends to the traversal as well. In the first area May has an anthropomorphic hammer head and Cody has nails that he can throw and stick in certain surfaces. May can then swing on them with the hammer. Or there will be platforms that only Cody can reach, but that May has to raise by smashing a button. Even the boss fights, each a kind of totemic representation of problems in their marriage (a vacuum is extremely angry because May never fixed it; the wasps have taken over the tree because Cody forgot to get rid of the nest), call upon both players to coordinate different tasks.
Fares describes It Takes Two as a romcom, and said that "the romcom hasn't really been tried in gaming", which is one of the reasons why Hazelight have gone in such a different direction following A Way Out. But despite A Way Out being mostly gruff lads with guns occasionally shouting their emotions at each other, my abiding memory of it is splashing about in a pond trying to catch fish - the most playful moments, essentially. I wouldn't say it was a laugh a minute, but the few hours of It Takes Two that I saw were full of play. May and Cody are adults, but they're versions of themselves as designed by their daughter. They bicker. They fly a biplane made of Cody's pants. They surf on copper wires and encounter magical flying spirit fish.
It Takes Two could still do with some polish to the plot, though. Some of the framing for the life lessons Cody and May live through is pretty on the nose, to the point that I'd be surprised if, in the full game, May doesn't just yell "Jeepers, Cody, your imaginative daydreaming and my non-nonsense practicality are really putting us at odds here!". I also judge Hakim, the sentient therapy book guiding the couple, to be incredibly weird, and kept muttering, "Why are his eyebrows so purple?" to myself whenever he was on screen.
On the whole, though, it was really fun, and I'm looking forward to the full release. That said, I can't really imagine playing It Takes Two with someone I don't know very well. It's the most co-operative co-op game I've ever played; Colm and I were communicating the entire time, and I don't think you could get away with playing this off-mic if you weren't in the same room. It'd either be a good idea or a catastrophically terrible one to play it with your partner if you were annoyed with each other - but hey, you know your own relationship, I'm not here to judge anyone. Apart from the sentient book with purple eyebrows. I'm watching you, Hakim.