Josef Fares is smiling in Stockholm, brimming with his usual confidence as he prepares to brief the press on his studio’s latest game, It Takes Two. “The romcom hasn’t really been tried in gaming,” he says, as he walks us through the premise. “We should have released it at Valentines,” he adds, before glancing past the camera. “How did we miss that?”
Following on from Hazelight’s R-rated co-operative smash hit A Way Out – which saw two convicts escape from prison and get up to all sorts of ludicrous capers – Hazelight’s latest is decidedly more Pixar. You play as a pair of homemade dolls based on the parents of a little girl caught in the middle of a nasty divorce. “Let’s stay together forever” she mimes in a secluded corner, before her tears give life to these wood and clay manifestations of mum and dad.
As the questions start to fly in, the natural showman notes how frustrating it is that he can’t see our faces, before launching into a quick rant about the games industry’s focus on replayability. “Who’s even replaying games?” he says, referring to statistics showing that players barely even finish games, never mind repeat them.
As such, he doesn’t see the need to pad Hazelight’s unique co-op games with filler collectables or any of that guff. Like a good movie, he wants games like It Takes Two and A Way Out to be a one-and-done adrenaline-pumping thrill rides. And as someone who rarely replays games, I can’t help but agree with his sentiment. Fares gets that our collective attention span is at rock bottom – and he knows just the recipe to keep us tapped in.
“Corona ain’t got shit on Hazelight,” Fares jokes while lapping some parting effusive praise on his latest. He’s previously said that he’d give each player $1,000 if they sincerely didn’t like It Takes Two, and he reiterated that guarantee before signing off. I’m pleased to say that I won’t be invoicing the man, because based on the three hours I’ve played, It Takes Two is by far and away Hazelight’s best effort, and one of the most ambitious and instantly impressive games I’ve played in years.
One of the demo’s finest moments is a boss battle with a sentient toolbox. In the run-up to it, I had already been introduced to the puzzle-platforming mechanics, travelling through tweaked vacuum cleaner tubes to reach new heights and using our bodies to create electrical currents. It was already superb fun that coaxed communication and evoked Portal 2 co-op comparisons, but then I was given a tool.
My co-op partner got a hammer to slam down buttons and break stuff, while I received a set of nails that could be thrown to stick in walls, creating swings for my co-op partner to hang on. In both of the missions we played we were given special tools that elevated the gameplay. The tools are split between the duo but only work in tandem, offering precision and support mechanics that alternate between players per mission. For example, in the next level, I got a goo gun that made enemies and environmental assets vulnerable, and my partner had a sniper that finished the job, if they could land the shot. It creates this great back and forth where you never feel left out.
Anyway, on to the toolbox. With our hammer and nails in tow, we take on the big bad, who is throwing everything you might find a typical garage at us. We stood precarious on a flimsy wooden platform, as saws cut random shapes into the table and boring tools forced holes in our immediate vicinity. This forced us to call out danger and move constantly, jibbering and laughing as nails rained from above. It was pure co-op euphoria, and we hadn’t even figured out how to beat it yet.
As the battle shook out, my co-op partner realised they could use their hammer to slam down on the shovel-tipped hand the toolbox was slapping us with. If I stood on it, this would flip me into the air, at which point I could slow down time and throw nails at a can of lighter fluid in the top of the toolbox. It felt a lot like Link’s most famous bow-based move in The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. It was truly awesome, some of the most fun I’ve had in co-op in years. After that, I was convinced – Josef Fares definitely doesn’t owe me $1,000.
Every five minutes you’re presented with a new and exciting co-op challenge, and there are even cute, optional competitive minigames to find that test reaction speed and precision between players. The tally is handy for bragging rights, and we realised some missions were weighted in favour of one player over the other, which creates this brilliant underdog spirit where those with the odds against them can still triumph.
Visually, this game is a marked upgrade from A Way Out. Material details like the tufty, frizzy hair of our protagonists and the detailed bags of birdseed they swing between stick right out on my rig. I’d cranked the settings to their maximum on an RTX 3080, and even at 1440p it was smooth sailing all the way through, with the high-fidelity textures making a huge impression.
As for the art direction – I mean this in the best way possible – but it looks like the kind of game I’d love Rare (Conker’s Bad Fury Day, Donkey Kong Country) to still be making instead of its current live-service affliction. It’s got googly-eyed toolboxes and other sentient household appliances, spouting tongue-in-cheek, innuendo-laden dialogue. Later in the demo I met a set of battle-scarred squirrels engaged in a tree-based civil war with an armada of mindless wasps. It’s perfectly silly. The premise is chock-full of endearing imagination and propped up by genuinely funny, often-irreverent jokes. It gets you hooked right from the start and the superb pacing never lets up. “You ruined my bowels with all that crap,” says Sid the vacuum cleaner.
On a more serious note, It Takes Two is essentially gamified couples therapy for the two leading dolls, who war with each other as they try to get back to their bodies. The pint-sized pair solve petty disputes, air out long-held dirty laundry and come to crucial compromises while fighting the inflated horrors of their own home. They do this out of a selfless need to get back to their young daughter, who is dishevelled and alone in the wake of the news of their planned divorce.
It’s such a smart idea for a co-operative game, and its aloof brilliance balances well with a thick coat of emotional resonance. While I was laughing for most of it, I was definitely moved by It Takes Two on multiple occasions throughout the demo. From what I’ve gathered so far, I expect it will hit real close to the bone for those who also come from broken homes.
Mo-capped by Fares himself, comic relief arrives thanks to Dr Hakim, a sentient ‘book of love’ that offers everything from vinyl sticker quips to existential idioms. As you may be able to tell, It Takes Two retains the serious emotional stakes of A Way Out but it swaps the overwhelming grit for some animated charm, and the result is really pleasing. The bonkers premise yanks open the gates for all kinds of absurdity, and I can’t wait to dig into the more nuanced later levels closer to launch.
I played all of my preview demo in one feverish sitting with my co-op partner and we were gushing with praise for it all the way through. The highest award I can bestow upon it is this: my save will most likely be wiped and I’ll have to do it all again in a few weeks, but I don’t even care because I had so much fun.
I can’t think of many games I’m more excited to play this year than the full version of It Takes Two. It is absolutely brimming with wit and innovation, and I expect it will land with the same unique thud that A Way Out did, providing a seriously special aside for gamers fed up with the typical AAA. We also can’t look past the value of a game like this In a year where social connection has been strained, especially with the Friend Pass that lets a pal play for free as long as one person owns the game. I predict it’s going to be even more powerful than A Way Out was back in 2018.
The industry regrettably gave up on dedicated story-based co-op games a long time ago, but Hazelight is admirably carrying the torch and I sincerely hope these dreamweavers never drop it. Roll on March 26, because It Takes Two is something special. I can’t wait for you all to get your hands on it!