If you can ignore the story, It Takes Two has some of the best co-op gameplay in years.
I almost turned it off. Genuinely, after 10 minutes, I'd had enough. A story about a girl's divorcing parents who are magically shrunk so they can go on an adventure together, and in doing so work out their differences and get back together? Do me a favour. People divorce and families move on. It's a normal part of life and shouldn't be construed as anything but. Are children supposed to play this and believe their parents could have rescued their relationship? Are divorced parents supposed to play it and feel bad? It's a dangerous idea to play with and I wish It Takes Two hadn't.
Moreover, the story is excruciatingly told. Your daughter finds a book about love at school, and it manifests as some all-powerful, passionate latin love guru, an over-the-top love therapist for shrunken Mum and Dad. All they - you - need to do is to learn to work together again! Rediscover your passion! Hhhhrrr. Pass me the sick bucket. It's like being pitched a condescending, sugar-powered seminar on marital relations by the Cartoon Network. Every time a cut-scene pops up to tell more story, the game suffers, particularly when that book appears.
However, there's also a lot about this game to love. Mechanically, it's wonderful, and one of the best co-op experiences I've had in years. It seems like just last week I was lamenting the dwindling amount of local co-op experiences, then along comes this, a game you can only play with someone else (and which gives you 'Friend's Pass' to play online with someone for free). What this means is that the co-op isn't just superficial, it's not an extra thing the game offers: it's fundamental, and the entire experience is designed around it.
Take, for instance, a level early on. It's a DIY-themed level where you're adventuring through a gigantic tool box-inspired land. For this adventure, like every adventure in the game, you're given a set of special toys. May, the mum, slings the head of a claw hammer on her back and uses it to whack things as well as swing on nails stuck in walls. Cody, the dad, gets the ability to throw nails into walls and then recall them like Thor does with his hammer. Cue puzzles with wood for Cody to sling nails into, so May can swing on them, and platforms which need nailing up after May finds ways to whack them higher. The entire level is a never-ending variation on this theme, overlapping and interlocking so you have no choice but to talk and collaborate with the person you're playing with, the screen splitting and then sharing as it ebbs and flows around the puzzles at hand.
Each level follows the same idea, though themed around a different thing, and there's a new set of toys to play with each time. And it's exciting getting them. They're fun! On one level, May gets a kind of rocket launcher while Cody gets a sap gun, which gloops onto enemies and surfaces, and makes May's explosions even bigger. Boom boom boom! They are intensely satisfying. On another level, May gets gravity boots while Cody gets an Ant-Man-style grow-and-shrink belt. And at one point, she's pinging Cody around a pinball. On another level, you can mess around with time (I'm trying hard not to spoil them). They're all very imaginative.
But they're not the only toys. Levels are filled with lots of other things to play with, things to bounce off, things to slide along, things to fire yourself out of or even pilot and ride. This isn't a game that likes you standing still. It delights in motion, and its motion is delightful. Not only can you sprint, double-jump and dash in mid-air, you can also wall-jump and wall-hang as standard, and swing around on ropes, rail-slide and bum-slide. And you will need to do all of it all of the time.
There are bigger toys to play with too. My favourite are the two-player, competitive games you'll find in nooks and crannies around levels. These are games you play against the person you're playing with, like extra injections of multiplayer to perk you up, not that you'll need it. There's a whack-a-mole, shooting ranges, snail racing, toboggans, swing-jumping... There are dozens, and I challenge you to limit yourselves to only one go!
This is a game that constantly finds new ways to keep you entertained, sometimes to its detriment, but more often it's a marvel to behold. The base game is a 3D platformer, but levels can change suddenly to become something else entirely instead. I've had endless runners, Diablo-like hack-and-slashers (complete with two character classes), side-on platform games: it never lets up. Nor does its imagination for a set-piece. I've had rides on spirit whales on the inside of trees, been on wooden-railed coaster rides through an impossibly large castle I apparently built for my daughter; and been to space. It's a wild ride, only loosely tethered to reality, and I have "wowed" more over the course of this adventure than I can remember.
What really makes all of this work is how well it runs on Xbox Series S (the platform I played it on, in 1080p). Mostly, it's smooth as silk, the action whipping along fluidly. It's only in some bigger environments with particle effects, like blizzards and smoke, that the frame-rate dips a bit. But generally it's snappy and responsive, and brought to life with great charisma, colour, animation and care.
But it overstays its welcome. What I thought would be only a few hours turned out to be about a dozen: more like five evenings rather than two or three. Perhaps it seems odd to criticise that but the game feels like it finished long before. It feels like a second-half was tacked on for the sake of making it longer, for the sake of going to some other environments, which are, admittedly, beautiful, and the toys fun to use, but did they need to be there? Because with every new level my overall enjoyment stretched thinner and thinner.
And into this growing weariness, the love-book appears, and the story reappears, and I wonder why I'm still playing. Okay, there's warmth to the story, and I don't begrudge the idea of rekindled love. The bickering pair are even somewhat likeable towards the end. But if divorce is in any way a sensitive topic for you, or for your co-op partner, then please go with care.
Having said that, if you can swat the story away to the background, and consider it a slightly ill-chosen set-up for an adventure, then there's a lot about It Takes Two to enjoy. This is a rare kind of co-op experience, with an energy and imagination and playfulness that sometimes rivals Nintendo's. As a toy, it can be a joy, and it will create some co-op moments to remember.