Swedish-Lebanese director Josef Fares is largely renowned for two things: making fascinating if flawed cooperative video games and going off on excitable, foul-mouthed tirades at award ceremonies. It is perhaps unexpected that It Takes Two, the latest co-op mandatory adventure from Fares’ Hazelight studio, is a spin on family-friendly animation complete with magically animated dolls, anthropomorphic squirrels and a talking self-help book.
Less surprising, perhaps, is that this all turns out to be like Pixar on LSD; a brilliant and bizarre confection that mixes superb two-player mechanics with a uneven yarn that is broadly saccharine but has you sucking the eyeballs out of a talking vacuum cleaner. And that’s not even the half of it.
You and a partner –either in split-screen or online co-op– take the roles of May and Cody; a married couple at the end of their tether who have decided to get a divorce. Their young daughter Rose, upon hearing of the news, withdraws to the family workshop. Her tears for her parents’ predicament fall on two dolls she has made, magically transferring May and Cody’s pysches into the small wood and clay figures.
Miniature Mum and Dad then need to navigate a surrealist spin on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; working together through pretty gardens, toy-filled bedrooms and remembered moments of relevance between the pair while egged on by the disturbingly lascivious Dr Hakim’s Book of Love.
The asymmetric challenges It Takes Two poses are engrossing, thunderously clever and delivered with a bewildering hyperactive frequency. At its heart, It Takes Two is a 3D-platformer, with your characters able to sprint, jump, slide and butt-bump their way around beautifully constructed jumbo environments. A pillow fort becomes a labyrinth. A stream beneath a tree becomes a broiling river rush. A cuckoo clock becomes a heaving mechanical obstacle course
But it is the co-operative wrinkles the game is constantly adding that elevate it to something else entirely. As you start out in the workshop, May gains access to a claw hammer which she can use to swing from the nails fired from distance by Cody. Me and my wife yapping instructions and encouragement at each other across the sofa as we each navigated our side of the world we had to traverse on screen. Cody firing nails onto spinning platforms and May leaping to hook onto them in time. (Rehearsed counts of “one… two…. three!” were the norm.)
While the make-up is very different, the dynamic briefly recalled Portal 2’s excellent, if short-lived, co-op section. But any reference point quickly dissipates as you move between It Takes Two’s ever-changing buffet of ideas, with the pair afforded new gadgets and abilities in each section. It Takes Two grabs inspiration from all over, with tributes to dungeon-crawlers and fighting games, but always has its own spin on well-travelled mechanics. As well as plenty of its own invention.
In one instance, Cody wields a bazooka that fires gooey sap which May can then ignite with launched matches. Another section lets Cody grow or shrink to access different areas while May swirls around him with gravity boots. Another lets Cody control time, while May can position clones of herself and instantly teleport to it. These mechanics are smart enough on their own, and the hit-rate is remarkably high considering the speed at which they come, but what really impresses is how they interlink together with the challenges of the environment. ‘Col-lab-o-ration!’, as Dr Hakim often intones, is key with you and your partner needing to put your heads together, chatting through solutions as you put them into action.
It is an absolute delight to play through its chunky dozen or so hours. All of which are filled with ever-shifting invention. The tale it spins is rather less successful, however. Its concept is problematic in and of itself, with the inherent and simplistic suggestion that struggling relationships can be salvaged just by, you know, working together and that.
Not that struggling and worthy relationships cannot be saved, of course, and perhaps in different hands its sentiment could be handled with delicacy and style. But It Takes Two is exactly as subtle as a Latin-inspired anthropomorphic self-help book thrusting his groin at two bickering parents.
Tonally it is all over the place, never seeming quite sure what type of game it wants to be and audience it wants to court. At times it as sweet, warm and sharply enjoyable as any family film. May and Cody’s jibes at each other swerve from affectionate to cutting in a believable and often touching way as they pick at the rifts in their relationship. You may even start to root for them, until the game swerves into a task involving the excruciatingly drawn-out murder of a toy elephant to make their daughter cry.
This is a thing that actually happens. And the grins and chattering turn to uncomfortable exchanged glances from across the sofa. Maybe it is another metaphor in a game obsessed with them, but what it represents was lost on us. Much better is when It Takes Two focusses on using those metaphors as mechanics, conjuring up some of the finest co-operative gameplay in memory with spectacular regularity. Just don’t say you were not warned about its weirdness.