It takes a bold man to risk thousands of dollars on the promise that no-one will find their game boring. But Josef Fares is just that brazen. After watching the credits roll on his latest co-op adventure, it's clear that his confidence was well placed (and plentiful), as It Takes Two is anything but dull. The latest title from Fares' studio, Hazelight, It Takes Two explores themes of relationships, divorce, and parenthood, with you and a friend taking control of a husband and wife duo at the end of their tether - sometimes quite literally.
May and Cody, buckling under the pressures of balancing work and family life, have decided to get a divorce. However, the moment they tell their young daughter Rose, she enlists the aid of a self-help book to get her family back together, and manages to trap her parents inside two small dolls. Cody becomes a chubby clay man with a leaf for hair, while May is a little wooden figure with knitted clothing, and neither of them can be reunited with their daughter until they learn to work together.
Like Fares' previous titles - A Way Out and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons - It Takes Two relies solely on co-operative gameplay, with the game being impossible to play unless you team up with someone either locally or online. Handily, there's a Friend’s Pass feature that allows you to invite a friend to join you for free, meaning it's very easy to enjoy the co-op action without having to rely on your pals' purchasing decisions. For this review though, I played the game with my partner on the sofa, with both of us thoroughly enjoying every moment of It Takes Two's circa 15-hour runtime.
That enjoyment is derived largely from It Takes Two's constant experimentation with new gameplay mechanics and ideas, resulting in a campaign that never feels like it's repeating anything. It's part of Fares' elevator pitch, and it works a treat. Co-op puzzles aren't just about good timing and watching each other's backs, they're about using the skills each of the game's sections gives to you. At one point May has a hammer, but Cody has the nails. It's not always as straightforward as that example (although It Takes Two never does quite what you expect it to), either, as later you'll be given more obscure powers like the ability to change size or turn into various plants as Cody, and anti-grav space boots or the power to create a clone of yourself as May.
It Takes Two always manages to surprise you, using each mechanic in a multitude of ways to the point that almost no ideas are used moren a handful of times. Working out how the game keeps innovating by using the various elements in isolation and as a partnership is incredibly rewarding - and a seriously impressive feat of game design.
Then there's the fact that the world keeps changing around you. Because you are a pair of dolls, there's very much a Honey I Shrunk The Kids meets Toy Story vibe to how the game plays out. It Takes Two excels in its ability to make the mundane exciting. Rose leaves the pair of dolls in the shed hidden away, so initially, your task is to get back to her in the main house. Between the two lie plenty of perils, including a particularly irate aging vacuum cleaner that's equally annoyed with Cody for sucking up debris he shouldn't have, and May for not fixing it sooner. tha
Later on, you'll get back to the house and your focus will change. You're back with your daughter but you're still dolls, so the focus shifts from Rose to the couple themselves. Thus, your anthropomorphic - and strangely sexual - book-shaped love doctor guide becomes a more prominent presence in the game, leading you through various sessions to help fix Cody and May's marriage. To match that more introspective shift, the gameplay moves to locations that are a little more fantastical and themed around their life together, like the inside of a snowglobe or the ever-shifting insides of a cuckoo clock.
Two halves make a whole
That structure can make the game feel a little like it's split into two halves, its mid-game shift potentially leaving players with a mild case of tonal whiplash. But, regardless, everything continues to be larger than life and utterly beautiful throughout the entirety of It Takes Two, consistently sticking to its promise to keep innovating and delivering with each new level and mechanic. Each chapter offers plenty to discover, too, and there are moments where the story takes a step back to simply let you explore.
Whether it's Rose's bedroom or an overrun greenhouse, start looking off the beaten track and there are secrets to uncover, including wonderfully quirky mini-games tucked away to discover. Look out for a gently tingling tambourine noise and you'll find them easy enough, each offering a competitive experience that balances nicely against the co-operative nature of the core game. And like the game's ever-changing mechanics, they've got fantastic range too, offering things like snail races, whack-a-mole, and even a fully-fledged chess game.
But the thing that holds these two halves together perfectly is the game's realistic presentation of human relationships. Speaking as a child of divorce, I've seen first hand the little bickering molehills that turn into the mountains forcing a couple apart. They're perfectly captured in May and Cody's story, which highlights the often simple things that can ruin a good relationship. Whether it's the argument about the vacuum or the bigger discussions about May's job as an engineer, you see so much of their lives play out in between solving puzzles or riding frogs.
It may not be an entirely smooth resolution at the end, but it's that journey and their portrayal as real characters. They're people that could be your neighbors, or even a relative. They live simple lives (at least before the antics of It Takes Two, anyway), and worry about real, tangible things, and that's refreshing. It may deal with those against a backdrop of fantasy and spectacle, but the issues it tackles are familiar - and sometimes a little too close to home. Plus, there's a particularly harrowing scene with the attempted murder of a cuddly toy elephant that may well stay with me for many years.
It Takes Two is a unique experience that makes the most of what it means to offer truly co-operative gameplay. Your relationship with whoever you're playing with is just as important as that of May and Cody, as you'll get nowhere without robust communication and teamwork. But its blend of reality and fantasy is also refreshingly different, especially within a framework that offers the kind of unique gameplay that never stops surprising.
Reviewed on PS5. Code provided by the publisher.