GOTY 2021: Nicest surprise – It Takes Two

by on December 20, 2021

When you listen to our GOTY 2021 deliberations for Nicest Surprise – and you absolutely should – you’ll notice that we don’t actually talk very much about It Takes Two before crowning it the top spot. On the face of it, that might seem strange, but really it’s for two key reasons. The first was the unanimous agreement we all had that it was the nicest surprise we’d experienced all year, and therefore no need to argue or discuss it. And the second was that to really get into the nitty-gritty of why it’s so special – and therefore surprising – you need to really delve into the detail. And given just how special It Takes Two is, we didn’t want to blow our proverbial load mid-way through Day 1.

It Takes Two begins as, ironically, a story of realism and sorrow. A couple at a crossroads in their relationship, discuss separation, only for their daughter to beg for their love to be rekindled. Through a moment of true sadness and a sprinkle of Pixar-type magic, the parents find themselves turned into toys, and have to work together to get back to their daughter. And they’ll do that by way of anthropomorphic books, vacuum cleaners, squirrels, and even toy elephants.

But the devil, as I mentioned before, is in the detail as to why this game is so special. Wry smiles begin to form right from the off, as you notice the silly way Cody moves or the bizarre way he performs his double jump. You’ll notice the little tit-for-tat exchanges between Cody and Mae, occasionally funny, but always believable for a couple at this point in their relationship. The incredible detail in the environments, elevate them from otherwise rudimentary levels to mini-worlds that feel alive, lived-in, almost illogically real.

And then these tiny details bubble up, to create something more. Dr. Hakim is introduced, to his soon to be recognised trademark guitar-string sound, complete with a thick accent and overbearing puns. But before long you realise his role is not just attempted comic relief but a conduit to change. For Cody and Mae to be at this point, the point of separation, simply needing to work together won’t change anything. They need a supporting nudge, maybe even a shove in numerous directions and the wonderful Hakim does this with panache.

So on to the adventure we go proper, and Cody and Mae have to work together. We’re treated to the first of many “dual abilities” which showcase Hazelight Studios at their very best. The first is a hammer and nail, but there will be numerous others to find on later levels. Each has their own unique mechanics, that affect the world around you in different ways as you progress. But they also work cleverly together to provide different traversal options and puzzle-solving ideas. And then they also allow for varied boss fights where they are used in different ways to overcome them. They’re then abandoned for future levels in a boldness you’d expect to see in a Nintendo game, so confident are they of their ideas, and so polished are they in their execution.

But there’s more. Smattered throughout It Takes Two is so much content that is borderline inconsequential. But it’s done in such a way that it brings a smile to your face every time. By creating varied and interesting worlds, it’s a game that begs to be explored. And often will reward players that venture off the beaten track for a while. You might find anything from a switch that does nothing, despite begging to be pushed simply for existing. You’ll find random machines that exist simply to kill the other player in jest. And then there are the minigames which serve no other purpose than to provide a joyful respite from your adventure and try and better your coop partner in a variety of wacky scoring scenarios.

As well as all that, it’s also full to the brim with gaming references. But just to be clear when I say gaming reference, I don’t simply mean a poster in the distance, that if you squint at it hard enough, it kind of looks like the Triforce from Zelda. No, I mean full-on playable sections of the game that pay homage to classic genres and recognisable moments throughout gaming history. Myself and others here at God is a Geek were left literally speechless (perhaps aside from the odd exclaimed expletive) at some of these. And what’s more, they were enjoyable, well-executed sections in their own right, which added to the overall experience, rather than feeling tacked on for fan service.

It’s also clear that Hazelight Studios know what it’s like to play a game. It’s clear they know how to delight and surprise, and also have an eye for different ideas and what makes different genres or minigames fun to play. But other little touches also made a big difference too. A generous checkpoint system meant mistakes weren’t punished, and you could get right back in the action. And levels were often so well designed, that there was rarely any need for backtracking, and if there was, there was always a speedy way to do it, that was considered by the developers.

GOTY 2021 Nicest surprise

If it feels like at this point that I’m simply listing a lot of separate little plus points of It Takes Two, it’s because that’s exactly what this game is. It’s the very definition of a game being more than the sum of its parts. The difference here is that every single one of those parts is glorious, enjoyable, smile-inducing, and fun. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, it throws something else at you and you’re there again, dumbstruck at what is unfurling on screen, in the best possible way.

And the thing to remember on top of all of this is you didn’t expect any of it. No one who begins It Takes Two knew what to expect, not really. Not the detail to which the game goes to, and that’s what makes it so surprising. Often the question you keep asking yourself of Hazelight Studios is “Why did they do that?” and often the answer is “Because they wanted you to have fun.” Which, whilst sounding reductive, is 100% on the money. It Takes Two was the Nicest Surprise of 2021 by far, for all the unexpected joy it brought, over and over again.

Honourable mentions also go to Tales of Arise, Scarlet Nexus, Psychonauts 2, and Knockout City