It Takes Two (Hazelight/EA, 2021)
ITT is a cooperative adventure that takes that descriptor to its very limit, and also a game that I took a terrible screenshot of. Alas, I was focused on actually playing the game after this early moment and was never paying enough attention to take a second one that didn't suck.
Anyway, this is a game that can only be played in co-op and that designs nearly every moment around both needing to do something in order to succeed. Each chapter introduces a different set of mechanics and often an entirely different genre. The first level has you solving physics puzzles with hammer and nail abilities while the second is a war movie parody that drops you into a garden battle between squirrels and wasps. Later levels continue alternating between puzzle and action themes, and although some are stronger than others, that variation makes sure you never get tired of any mechanics.
The writing is both the best and most underwhelming part of the game. You're playing as Cody and May, a couple who are transformed into miniature dolls after telling their daughter they plan to divorce and can only return to their normal bodies with the help of Dr. Hakim, a magical talking book of love. The end result is immensely predictable and doesn't really build up the characters enough to deserve its ending, but this is a comedy, and the individual moments along the way are so funny and well-written that I wasn't too bothered by the ending.
ITT falls just short of being a Game of the Year contender because of some weaker chapters and the ending, but I'll be shocked if it's not in my yearly top 10. There's almost nothing else out there that's quite like it, and I'd strongly recommend anyone who can find a gaming partner for 10-15 hours give it a look. Other studios could learn a lot about how to make meaningful co-op from these guys.
Platforms: PC, PS4/5, Xbox One/XSX (free via Gamepass, only one copy needed for online play)
Time to beat: 10-15 hours
Phoenotopia: Awakening (Cape Cosmic, 2020)
Man, this game makes me sad. I was all prepared to write about how it was a brilliant mix of Zelda II and metroidvania. It has a huge world that's jam-packed with secrets, fun sidequests, and often great writing. I have a higher completion percentage for this than many games I've actually finished, and I loved almost all of the 33 hours I spent with it. Sure, the clunky combat got in the way of a few boss fights and almost made me quit early on, but it wasn't so bad 90% of the time and it's all fine once you get the boss patterns down, right?
Unfortunately, this game has possibly the worst final area I have ever seen. It's a series of corridors full of enemies that either have lock-on and high health or are kamikazes, and often you're fighting both sorts at the same time. If you're not being pinballed around the room by explosions, you're hiding behind walls advancing at a snails pace, and then you get to do it all again on the way back thanks to respawn. It's unfair, it's unfun, and it should've been obvious to all involved that the game's limited combat and movement mechanics simply were not up to battles requiring this kind of precision. I probably could've finished this in another hour or two if I'd wanted to, especially since it's possible to edit your save and get enough health to ignore the garbage enemies, but even with cheats it would've been so miserable that I just couldn't be arsed.
I highly recommend this game if you're okay with stopping at the final hurdle or are willing to suffer through some absolutely dire level design to reach the end. The best parts of this game are as good as the genre gets, but there's no avoiding the occasional crap mixed in. Personally, as much as I want to love it, the final level is so unacceptably terrible that it dragged down the entire experience. A real shame.
Platforms: PC, Switch
Ender Lillies: Quietus of the Knights (Live Wire/Binary Haze, 2021)
This has received some extremely positive reviews from critics and users alike and, to be honest, I really can't tell why. It's a metroidvania made by people who have clearly played Hollow Knight, from which it takes its UI and mechanics, and Bloodborne, from which it takes its atmosphere. There's nothing wrong with taking ideas from other games, of course, and neither of its influences are wholly original games themselves. But you have to do something new or better if you're going to copy another game this thoroughly, and EL just doesn't. It's HK combat but stiffer, which is not great when stiff movement was already one of HK's main criticisms. You get extra offensive abilities from bosses like Mega Man, but these are usually of limited utility and don't seriously shake up fights.
Still, the combat is fine. My real issue with the game is navigating the world. Everything is so dark and bleary that it all blurs together and remembering where you saw that funny shaped lock you can open now is almost impossible. It tries to fix this by marking unexplored paths and unfinished rooms on your map, but since it doesn't say why they're unfinished and doesn't provide map pins like HK, there's no way to know which ones are actually open now without going back and checking them all. And sure, you could write things down old school-style to handle that, but even that's only so helpful since it's not always obvious where the locked paths even are.
Lastly, I believe the game was translated from Japanese, and the English version reads like what I get when I'm translating a Japanese game myself as I'm playing it. I'm not fluent and I'm certainly not a translator, so this is very much not praise of the game's unnatural-sounding text. It's not grammatically flawed or nonsensical, but it's also just not quite right and doesn't feel like how a real person would ever talk.
I'm going to come back to this eventually when I've finished some of the other more immediately likable games I'm playing because it feels like I must be missing something. There are professional reviews out there calling this one of the greatest metroidvanias ever, and all I'm seeing is a decent first pass at the genre that's too derivative to stick with. Surely there's something else here that I've missed.
Mini Motorways (Dinosaur Polo Club, 2019)
The sequel to Mini Metro has apparently been out on iOS for two years, but the Steam version finally launched this month. It's a conceptually very similar game that has you building roads to allow the cars in each house to commute to same-colored buildings. You get traffic improvements lik