This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews It Takes Two.
People often say to me, "Yahtzee, why is it that you avoid multiplayer games? And when will you let me off this red-hot grating?" Well, you know, it's just that I prefer playing games to relax and unwind at my own pace, and not be disappointed once again by other people and their unwillingness to learn how to tap-dance properly. But as I said in my Outriders review/widdling session, I can appreciate a multiplayer game that actually designs itself around an essential multiplayer experience, and isn't just chucking three extra players into the adventures of Captain Scowlybuff and his many identical friends for the sake of maximizing user engagement, the way one maximizes the food order of an unpopular restaurant critic with the addition of bogeys and spit.
So when my editor asked me to check out It Takes Two, a two, and strictly only two-player game, I was like, "I'm down with that, as long as it's not like that last strictly two-player game I played, the laughably awful A Way Out by Hazelight Studios, which played like if David Cage tried to adapt The Shawshank Redemption, realized it wasn't long enough, and filled in the rest of the time with three random DVDs he found in a bargain bin." Who's this new game by, anyway? Oh, Hazelight Studios. Well, that might've been embarrassing for someone capable of shame! Same director as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, of course; what is it with this fucker and dual protagonist gameplay? Does he just have really wonky vision?
I'm teasing; put away those widdle umbrellas, audience, because, to my not inconsiderable surprise, It Takes Two is actually pretty fun. A Way Out was shooting for gritty crime drama and fell flat, because its rampant cliches, terrible writing, and secondary protagonist with a nose so big, he can't swim the backstroke without setting off shark alerts made it impossible to take seriously, and so It Takes Two embraces a lighter tone and a more abstract setting so that we're more laughing with it than at it, and it's full of enough over-the-top gameplay and visuals to keep me distracted from the frankly still terrible writing.
The premise is, a married couple whose relationship is bottoming out so hard, it's getting carpet burns, inform their friendless, presumably homeschooled, and probably on-the-spectrum daughter that they're getting divorced; said daughter proceeds to cry on some dolls she made of her parents for Christ knows what reason, and the parents' souls get magically transferred into the dolls. Blimey, lucky she didn't cry into some bog roll or the sandwich she was eating; that would've been a bit Kafka-esque. The parents must then work together to find a way back to normal by navigating abstract puzzle-platforming fantasy worlds based on aspects of their family home, which appears to have been about the size of Windsor Fucking Castle, harangued from start to finish by an omnipotent self-help book with a slightly racist accent whom you and the protagonists will swiftly want to murder; in fact, I'd have given the game's story more points if it had ended with the family finally coming together over a cheerful backyard book-burning.
What should be as obvious upfront as a drastically botched tit-job is that this story arc is going to center around a divorced couple reconciling for the sake of the kid, and I don't know if that's a healthy message to bring across to troubled families: that divorce only happens 'cos you didn't try hard enough. Honestly, I kept wondering what the fuck these two ever saw in each other, 'cos the mum's bitchy and uptight and weirdly reminiscent of Su Pollard, and the dad's whiny and ambitionless and apparently did nothing with his time other than constructing increasingly elaborate playrooms for his emotionally-stunted offspring. So the dialogue's a bit cringe... worthy - cringeworthy. Worth cringing about. That is the word. Who's this fuck who's been going around, telling you you can use "cringe" by itself as an adjective?! - because the characters are grating, and we have the Sonic Boom problem where the game is constantly complimenting itself. "This is amazing! This is fantastic! Wow, the artist of this should definitely be earning a living wage!"
But none of this is a dealbreaker, because 1.) you're playing with a friend, so when it starts getting sappy, you can lean back and take the piss out of it like the emotional ghoul that you are, 2.) it has occasional darkly hilarious moments, like the extended sequence where the protagonists set out to drink their daughter's tears in the literal rather than edgy-coffee-mug sense, and end up trying to murder her favorite toy in the most ineptly drawn-out way imaginable, and 3.) the game design is actually really good. At its core, it's an exaggerated Mario-esque 3D platformer with a decent enough feel, but it also layers on puzzles where the two protagonists are given different, complimentary abilities and have to work together to proceed, and they're generally very well-designed, making the most of the strict two-player setup while relying very minimally on "door is very heavy, needs two people to lift", the multiplayer gameplay equivalent of white noise.
Also, the mechanics are constantly changing; first, she's got a hammer and he's got a nail, then he's got a spooge gun and she's got a gun that detonates spooge, and I guess we're a fucking third-person shooter now. It's almost impossible to be bored, as the gameplay never becomes unintuitive enough to break up the constant flow from scenario to scenario. The quality isn't quite consistent; there's the odd boring rail-shooter bit, or we get dropped into an open area full of pointless toys and minigames where we're tacitly invited to fuck around a while, but that'll force me to spend more time in the presence of the main characters, and frankly, if I'd met them at a dinner party, I'd be fobbing them off to make small-talk with the fucking aquarium. But these moments never last, and three minutes later, you're standing on an aeroplane's wing kung-fu fighting a squirrel, and your engagement jumps back up again.
It does mean that the plot feels like it's pinging around all over the place, and is more a pile of unrelated ideas strung randomly together than a cohesive journey with a beginning, middle, and end, but at least it's always pulling out something new and interesting, which is all the more impressive 'cos it's such a long game at around 10-12 hours; obnoxiously long, I'd say, but then, I'm a professional reviewer with deadlines to meet, who can't even last two hours around another person without completely alienating myself. Which tangentially brings me to one awkward overhanging question that I have: who the fuck is this game for? It's designed for couch co-op, and there's outwardly a family-friendly vibe, but I couldn't picture myself playing through it with a child of my own; tonally, it's all over the place, and it might lead to some awkward questions if your own family has seen some drama. "No, of course Mummy and Daddy didn't split up because of you; we just never quite figured out how to get past the boss fight with the vacuum cleaner!"
The bottom line is, it's a game throwing an awful lot of shit at the wall, a lot of which doesn't stick, but enough of it does, and moment-to-moment gameplay's as tight as a gnat's arse. I just wrote a compliment that included the words "arse", "shit", and "bottom"; and that's why I'm a professional, kids.
- Family's doing well, thanks for asking: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
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