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It Takes Two hands-on: Impeccable co-op platforming—on mute, at least

The team at Swedish game studio Hazelight has spent nearly a decade making cooperative adventure games—and doubling down on the “co-op” tag by requiring two players for their games to work. But where 2013’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons offered a refreshing morsel of co-op adventuring, 2018’s A Way Out buried its most clever moments in an overwrought story and slow mechanics.

Trailers for the company’s next game, March 26’s It Takes Two (published by EA; coming to Steam, Origin, PS4, and XB1), got my hopes up in both of those critical categories. The footage seemed to turn a new Hazelight storytelling page in terms of a “rom-com” plot, while its always-cooperative gameplay looked bouncier and more action-packed. I optimistically attended an online preview event last week to see what the fuss might be about, which allowed me to install and test the game’s first two hours on my PC (and link up with Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland as an online co-op partner).

In the game’s first two hours, we discovered a real surprise: EA’s best-controlling 3D platformer since 2007’s The Simpsons, and a remarkably fun co-op spin on the genre in terms of solving puzzles and battling enemies with asymmetrical, often-changing abilities. What wasn’t surprising, sadly, is Hazelight’s persisting shoddiness at telling a story worth investing in.

Hammer, nails, nectar, matches

I’ll start with the good stuff, which requires a yadda-yadda-yadda of the plot: each player controls either the husband or the wife in an unhappy couple. Additionally, you’ve been transformed into handmade dolls. Getting yourselves back to normal requires adventuring through a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-style world: ordinary objects and environments become all the more dangerous when you’re pint-sized.

After the game’s introductory sequence plays out, a solid line splits the screen (even when played online). That means players can see each other’s perspective while 3D-platforming. Both players get a tutorial-like chance to run, dash-roll, double-jump, rail-grind, and crouch-walk around an attic, and this quickly confirms that Hazelight has mostly nailed the basic sweet-sauce foundation that Super Mario 64 built. Blobby jump physics feel powerful and predictable, and it’s easy to reach and maintain a high running speed without feeling slippy or imprecise. The game’s behind-the-back camera system generally keeps up, except when the system occasionally fails to auto-adjust for high-jump landings—and makes players squint to find a hard-to-see landing shadow.

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With that core established, IT2 transitions into an asymmetrical adventure where husband Cody and wife May each receive one special, temporary ability for the duration of a “chapter.” The first chapter gives May a hammer and Cody a magical nailgun. When that chapter concludes, the items change: Cody gets a squirt-gun full of nectar, and May gets a funky little launcher that shoots tiny, barely lit matches.

You will need your partner’s unique help to proceed, and vice versa.

The hammer-and-nail chapter plays out logically enough: May’s hammer can whack nearby objects in need of blunt force. Meanwhile, Cody’s nailgun can shoot distant targets and switches. This dynamic becomes more clever by the chapter’s end, in that May will use the hammer to swing from platform to platform, while Cody will have to alternate between shooting nails at switches and giving May veritable “hooks” to swing from, all while managing a limited nail supply.

This is the weaker of the game’s first two chapters, in part because the person with the nailgun mostly stands still while managing nails and looking for switches to hit, all while the hammer-user does more of the active running and hustling. (A brief “protect me from enemies” sniping challenge for the nailgun might’ve helped here.) But for the most part, you will need your partner’s unique help to proceed, and vice versa—and this often requires proper timing or “shoot the door… now” levels of coordination. These moments feel pretty good, thanks to clear level design and clever puzzles that usually require mild conversations to solve.

Promising asymmetry, fun rides

Once you enter a wasp’s nest (literally—your team is teeny-tiny), the second chapter’s new pair of abilities (sticky, heavy nectar and flammable matches) kicks into satisfying gear. Sometimes, you simply need to destroy a flammable object, so one player gets nectar stuck to the object, and the other player shoots a match at it. Other puzzles are a matter of physics—like when you see a swing that can be weighed down. Once you’ve situated on the swing, put a pile of nectar on one half, and set that nectar on fire, the weight-changing momentum will send players the way they need to go.

Plus, this chapter introduces co-op combat, which fits comfortably into the game’s aforementioned bouncy-platformer control scheme. IT2 is at its best when it alternates between clever puzzles and screen-filling combat, which feels fun and requires productive communication with your teammate. In the case of nectar-and-fire combat, usually a weak point must be doused in nectar, then set on fire to harm a boss, for example. This might be why the second chapter felt more thrilling than the first, since the hammer-and-nail portion includes nothing by way of combat and a few redundant puzzles.

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From the look of things, every chapter in this “12-hour game” (according to director Josef Fares) introduces a new pair of asymmetric abilities. I have a sneaking suspicion the nectar-and-fire combo will be among the final game’s best (and thus made it an ideal gameplay sample for the preview version we played). I’ve spied additional abilities in gameplay trailers: a top-down, Gauntlet-style level where one player wields a fiery sword and the other shoots beams of ice; a chapter where the players hold opposing-polarity ends of a magnet to move each other around; and an ambitious-looking time-reversing sequence, in which one of the players can make and manipulate a clone.

These are interspersed with higher-speed sequences on vehicles, and I’ve already played a couple of those. One involved both players sliding-and-grinding on a series of rails. Meanwhile, another involved players splitting up the pilot and gunner duties on a tiny biplane (which uses Cody’s adult-sized underpants as a basis for wings). These also control well, and I’m hopeful the game’s frantic swaps between gameplay styles remain as steady in the final 12-hour version.

Rated G for gaslighting

Here’s another reason for optimism thus far: IT2, more often than not, is happy to let an idea or gimmick expire before it gets old. Sure, the hammer-and-nail chapter could’ve been shrunk by one or two puzzles, and some of the mini-bosses could have died a cycle or two sooner. But my two-hour test felt dense in terms of puzzle and action variety, and so much stuff to do was really good fodder for my back-and-forth banter with Orland as a testing companion.

The game’s plot and characters also proved to be fruitful as conversational fodder… but not for pleasant reasons.

We were dropped into the final game’s opening sequence exactly as it will play out for the game’s retail buyers, and that meant we saw exactly how Cody and May’s relationship and personalities unfold for new players. They’re on the verge of divorce, we come to learn, and the game opens with them bickering while their daughter Rose spies on the fighting from afar. She cries onto a pair of dolls and pleads for her parents to become friends again, at which point they wake up as confused, terrified dolls.

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Cody quickly makes himself known as a manipulative and downright toxic husband. In multiple sequences, May (the family’s breadwinner and an accomplished engineer) makes clear that Cody failed to uphold his responsibilities as a co-parent, and he responds with passive-aggressive deflection. “You broke the vacuum cleaner,” May points out in one sequence (when their shrunken-selves encounter said vacuum as an impediment on their miniaturized adventure). Cody replies: “Yeah, well, you didn’t fix it!”

Elsewhere, May chides Cody for failing to pick up their daughter from school on time recently. The only response he can muster is that May is too busy at work to contribute.

This becomes the plot’s common refrain, and we’re forced to watch May repeatedly give up on advocating for herself—without either her voice actor or the character’s animation acknowledging what a scumbag Cody is. Sadly, the person who controls May doesn’t get a button-press prompt at any point that says “ditch the mother____r already.”

Hokey Hakim

Not helping matters is the game’s utterly dark tone in its opening hours, with a crumbling relationship and a traumatized daughter as the storytelling anchors. The second chapter sees the dual protagonists work out a trade for assistance, in which they invade a wasp’s nest to help some talking squirrels, and these anthropomorphized creatures are in their own states of emotional disrepair, as well.

For most of our session, Orland and I joked around by describing any tragic or angry moments as “classic rom-com stuff,” since the game is loudly advertised by its director, Josef Fares, as a “romantic comedy.” By and large, of course, it’s not. EA and Hazelight might have been better off describing the game’s story as a freakish adaptation of Grimm’s Tales. In that respect, darkness, suffering, and perseverance fit well into the context of classic folktales.

But if they’d done that, Hazelight would have struggled to shoehorn Hakim, a romance-obsessed narrator, into the proceedings. Hakim is definitely going to be a matter of taste. This character—who appears as a talking relationship-advice book—is advertised as a master of love and romance, though most of his advice is hokey, boilerplate dating-column fluff. His vocal performance is best described as a low-rent imitation of Jack Black’s character in the film Nacho Libre. I mostly found myself laughing at how this character’s exuberance and optimism in no way read the room (but also cringed at how Hakim, in at least one instance, took Cody’s side for seemingly no good reason).

Worst of all, the game doesn’t bother establishing Cody and May’s origin story or seeds of happiness. We enter their lives with zero reason to find either character likable, and thus zero interest in rekindling whatever romance they ever had. The only good part about that issue, honestly, is that IT2 may turn out to be a fine game… so long as players mash the “skip story” button whenever humanly possible. No backstory? Great, let’s skip ahead and pretend these two people are stuck in a generic “escape the mystical curse” premise.

Cautiously optimistic

It Takes Two: Gameplay trailer

By ignoring the broken-marriage premise (or, quite honestly, muting it via the game’s options), you and a friend can instead focus on IT2‘s breadth of co-op platforming challenges, all humming along at 60fps within a handsomely rendered engine. We’ve seen other games opt for a similar shrunken-world aesthetic (LittleBigPlanet, Yoshi’s Crafted World), and this article’s galleries are made up entirely of in-game footage. I think it’s proof that Hazelight has risen to the challenge of applying its own polish and artistic design to the well-worn concept.

In recent years, couch co-op has often boiled down to frenetic, arcade-y fare like Overcooked and Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, but we’re bigger fans of carefully crafted two-player fare like Portal 2. Thus far, IT2‘s best moments resemble the latter—and in shining fashion. So if you’re anything like us, consider girding your plot-skipping loins when Hazelight’s new game launches March 26 on Windows PC, Xbox, and PlayStation.

Listing image by Hazelight / EA

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