In an industry where the biggest hits tend ever more toward complex mechanics, convoluted plots, and just cramming in as much content as possible, puzzle games remain one niche where developers can take simple ideas and iterate on them to perfection. That's the case with DYO, a co-op puzzle game about two minotaur best buds trying to escape a labyrinth through the power of friendship and split screens.
Growing out of a student project, DYO was created by just four people, a fact that shows in both its tiny scope and its extreme focus. Levels are constructed from a pretty limited set of basic parts, often just a few repeating floor tiles. The graphics are equally understated, but have a painterly charm to them. Your minotaurs are cartoonish and cute, and their animations effective but minimal. Sound design is subtle as well, with lots of quiet echoing that does a good job of selling the enormity and emptiness of the labyrinth the minotaurs are trapped in. This low-key presentation keeps the focus tight on the game’s clever mechanics and puzzle design.
DYO can be played solo, but it’s built from the ground up for co-op. Its flexible control scheme allows for any setup from two controllers to one keyboard to control both characters. Each of the game's 30 levels sees the players guiding their respective minotaurs to separate exits. The thing is, the architecture of the levels makes these exits impossible to reach by simple traversal. In order to escape, players must use a handful of tricks based around manipulating the game's split screen.
Each minotaur lives in one half of the screen, with the camera following closely as they move around the level. At any time, either player can "lock" their half of the screen in place, effectively erasing anything that's not currently in view. If both players lock their screens into position with nothing separating them, their minotaurs can the move freely about the entire screen. You can use this trick to remove walls, turn a series of solid floors into staggered platforms, and pull off plenty of other shenanigans by the game's end. The only other real "powers" you ever receive are the ability to swap the horizontal positions of the two split screens (a situationally useful maneuver that I became obsessed with using in every level once it was introduced) and a rewind ability that's used to reverse mistakes you've made.
Later levels feature special qualities built into the environment that further complicate things. One series of levels centers around pushing blocks, another has walls and platforms that exist on your screen only when your partner can see them on theirs, and a third plays with scale by making everything on one side of the screen dramatically larger than the other. This last set of levels led to some moments of wailing laughter between my fellow player and I when a tiny minotaur got up to some Honey I Shrunk the Kids-style hijinks, like being forced to carry its gargantuan comrade around.
These simple building blocks combine in continually surprising ways as the game progresses. Hard-won solutions to earlier puzzles quickly become part of the game’s lexicon, to be pulled up without a thought in later levels. DYO’s logic is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, but it became second nature so quickly that I swear I could feel it rewiring bits of my brain as I played.
Despite the beautiful simplicity of the mechanics and the excellent way levels are constructed around them, it's the interaction with your co-op pal that really makes DYO shine. Again, the game can be played alone, and it still functions as an interesting puzzler, but it shines when you're playing on the couch with a friend. Being able to work things out together, each player experimenting on their own and in concert with each other to find the way to the exit, is a magical experience.
My DYO partner and I would often get stuck, only for one of us see the path toward a solution and walk the uncomprehending other player through the steps until we were back in sync again. Nearly every one of the later levels saw us almost giving up before we came upon the answer together, the logic of the level suddenly making perfect sense. It was all the more satisfying because the game offers so little in the way of clues, trusting you to work things out as a team. And without fail, every time we found our way through a tricky level, we would erupt in cheers as our two minotaur friends celebrated with a triumphant high-five.
If I have one complaint about the puzzles, it's that a little too often we stumbled on the answer through stubborn trial-and-error, sometimes not knowing exactly what we were even trying to do. On the other hand, that also left the door open for the numerous thrilling times when we finished a level absolutely certain that we'd done so in a way the developers didn't intend.
DYO constantly surprised me. Belying its humble presentation, it unfolds into a truly unique puzzle game and one of the best co-op experiences I've had in a long time. It's short but satisfying, and a level editor currently being beta-tested may end up adding hours of content to the game. But even if you only ever play the four or so hours of content currently available, it's an easy recommendation. The only things you need are a good partner and some patience. If you have those, DYO's inspired mechanics and dazzling simplicity make it an essential experience.