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‘It Takes Two’ tests your ability to save a marriage and fly a fidget spinner

“It Takes Two.” (EA)
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It Takes Two

Developed by: Hazelight Studios

Published by: EA

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S

Several hours into “It Takes Two,” the new co-op puzzle-platformer about a married couple on the brink of divorce, my cousin and I gave up guessing what creative, out-of-left-field game mechanic might next be thrown at us. (I think we hit that point while using fidget spinners as airborne vehicles to coast past waterfalls of colored balls — after we had trapped wasps in wax, then shot them with rockets, but before we started to manipulate time and use clones to get through a clock tower.) Not since “Nier: Automata” have I encountered such an encyclopedic game that handles so many play styles with aplomb. Alas, what should be a runaway creative success for the game’s director, Josef Fares, is marred by a tone-deaf narrative element which shows that asinine ethnic caricatures unfortunately still exist in video games.

At the start of “It Takes Two,” players choose between Cody and Mae who find themselves unwilling participants in a marriage rehabilitation program. The fun kicks off after they let their daughter, Rose, in on their plans to divorce. Upon hearing their declaration, Rose retreats to her bedroom then sneaks out to her parents’ toolshed where she unwittingly casts a spell that causes Mae and Cody to fall asleep. She does this by crying over two handmade dolls that are fashioned in the image of her mother and father while invoking the aid of Dr. Hakim, whose self-help guide “The Book of Love,” she has been reading for clues to save her parents’ marriage.

When Mae and Cody awaken they’re shocked to find themselves transformed into the aforementioned dolls. Their confusion is redoubled when they are confronted by a mustachioed book who pops onto the scene and, as a Latin guitar theme trills in the background, introduces himself as Dr. Hakim, “worldwide best seller, and expert on love!” Dr. Hakim’s over-the-top affect and taste for cliched wisdom calls to mind the heavy-handed, lamentable ways minorities have too long been portrayed in popular media.

Mercifully, apart from the silly doctor, “It Takes Two” is a rollicking celebration of game design. Cody and Mae spend the first part of the campaign ranging over the obstacles that lay between the toolshed, where they initially find themselves, and their house. Along the early parts of their journey they battle both a sentient vacuum cleaner and a quarrelsome toolbox and face off against wasps and treacherous squirrels. The brilliance of the game comes from the way that each player is regularly assigned their own special skill, making them interdependent partners. Early on, for instance, Mae and Cody must use their respective hammer and nail gun to solve platforming challenges where one player shoot nails into different surfaces while another uses the back of the hammer to swing from them. (This setup makes for a thrilling boss fight against the toolbox.)

“It Takes Two” also has a couple of delicious narrative beats to go along with this superlative method of introducing new actions to its players. My cousin and I cackled to no end over a bit where Rose’s parents endeavor “to kill” their daughter’s favorite toy — a benevolent elephant — so that she might cry and reverse their enchantment. (Spoiler alert: the plan doesn’t work.) As we dragged the pleading critter up to and over the edge of a bookcase we marveled at the dark, twisted, absurdity of the scenario that seemed straight out of a coldhearted fairy tale.

“It Takes Two” is one of the best co-op games that I’ve played, which makes it particularly unfortunate that it is also a poster child for what the gaming industry should avoid at all costs.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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