Platforms: PC | PSN | XBLA (reviewed)
Price: 1200 MSP
Developers: Starbreeze Studios
Publishers: 505 Games
There's a moment in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons where everything comes together in a single moment of such beautiful unity and complementation that I want to applaud or, if I could wear the damn things, take my hat off to Josef Fares and Starbreeze. It's a moment that makes you question the nature of the game that came before and irrevocably shadows everything left to come, not to mention any returns to the game that you might make. It arrives at the perfect time too, the game's pacing -- previously rather loosely handled up until that point -- suddenly kicks up a notch and the action builds to a stunning climax.
Before we get there, though, the game starts off with two brothers setting out on a quest to find some medicine for their ailing father. He's coughing up all kinds of disgusting things, and so it's up to his offspring to make things right. You begin by controlling the older, taller, stronger brother with the left stick, and his younger, leaner sibling with the right. The triggers take the form of blanket interaction buttons here: hold to grip a winch or pick up an interactive object. Platforming becomes a series of timed trigger releases -- hold to grip, release to fling -- whether you be flinging yourself or a makeshift basketball or whatever.
I'd like to say that the initial novelty, let's call it that for the moment, of using each stick to control an individual brother becomes comfortable after a while, but to be honest it always seems to be just on the verge on fiddly: it's all too easy to lose track of which brother you're controlling, absently smashing one into a wall every so often, but it never really becomes all that irritating.
Part of the reason for that is that Brothers refuses to really challenge the player, aiming to provide a more accessible experience through the inventive use of simple mechanics and puzzles that necessitate a solution that involves two characters. So you'll wiggle a long machine part through a small maze of boxes and rocks, or perhaps utilise the unique abilities of each sibling. The older brother can shift heavy levers and carry weighty items and creatures, but the young one can slip between bars and through small gaps. Often you'll have to send one across a bridge or through a gap to fetch back an item to open a route for the other.
It's not just their differing approaches to puzzle-solving, the characters of the two brothers are fleshed out in the manner by which they interact with the world of the game. Though decidedly linear, there are many optional objects and people with which to interact. The older brother tends to be a little more socially conscious, the younger one has an affinity for woodland creatures. Their little mannerisms, they way they move, they sprightly manner in which the younger brother lands softly on his feet even as his elder clumps like a sack of potatoes, it's all keenly observed and finely detailed.
The world of Brothers is aesthetically striking: a watercolour rendition of a Scanadavian Albion complete with an endearing nonsense language that might remind some of the murmuring of the Sims. There's a cinematic touch to the camera work, too, and I don't use that word in a derogatory fashion. It tilts slightly as the boys crest the top of a hill, it swings about to let the player observe the stunning vistas of the mountains, the valleys, rivers, and castles with their battlements iced by clouds. The draw distance is particularly admirable; early on you find the brothers running away from a particularly large dog, a few minutes later and you're halfway up a mountain but you can still see the animated animal tearing about the field.
Fares and Starbreeze do a good job of introducing themes and beats of diverse action, before swiftly moving on to enjoy that nothing outstays its welcome. Brothers owes more than a little to Journey, indeed there's a scene where the music picks up as the boys are flung down a waterfall's rapids that reminds me of the brisk jaunt spent surfing the sand river in thatgamecompany's opus (not to mention a cheeky camera pan to a mountain's summit), but it's less inclined to let the player simply be in the game world. Though Fares proudly boasted that no two puzzles would be the same, and actually that's more or less true in Brothers, too often the game falls back on repetitive platforming and incessant climbing.
The best bits in Brothers come in the form of the optional little vignettes and cameo moments. There is one that sees the two boys come across a figure preparing to hang himself. You can walk on by, stop to see what's happening, dive on in and cut him down, the choice is yours. Some of these little choices lead to brief scenes of consequence later on, some are simply left, hanging in the air, all intrigue. The triggers themselves become personalities in themselves -- the characters of the brothers ascribed to left and right -- and the reactions that they can yield outside of the gentle puzzles are what make the journey through Brothers worthwhile.
Then The Moment comes, arriving after a dramatic peak. It's so perfectly done that it completely changes one's perspective on the the previous three hours, and every little ingredient of what came before suddenly appears as a step on the way to this one moment. It's incredibly powerful, beautiful in its simplicity, and it elevates an inconsistent experience into the realms of the deeply striking. There aren't enough of those really thought-provoking optional interactions, the controls never quite shake off that feeling of discomfort, for the latter especially it's a high risk strategy. But this one moment makes it all worth it, even if that wailing sound in the game's otherwise fantastic score threatens to trigger a laughter outbreak at the most inopportune point.
Crossover projects are rarely met with great optimism, but this isn't just a filmmaker patronising (in all senses of the word) an upstart medium, and don't write off Starbreeze in the wake of the MachineGames exodus and the disappointment of Syndicate. The journey itself may be slightly inconsistent, but Brothers is easy to recommend, added to the slowly growing number of games offering up immersive, emotional interactive experiences that use the medium to tell stories and affect audiences in bewitching ways. It's a simple tale, told with simple tools, but it's artfully constructed and conducted, and its final quarter is spectacular.
- Cracking characterisation through action
- Watercolour world is fascinatingly detailed
- The storytelling as a whole is wonderful
- The finale is nothing short of masterful
- Optional contextual interactions are a delight...
- ...But we need more of them
- The excellent soundtrack is almost ruined by the vocal shrieking
- Dual stick controls are a bit fiddly at first
- Some inconsistent pacing
The Short Version: Another gaming experience that demands to be played all in one sitting, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons ends up being a triumph in storytelling through unconventional means. Conveying characters without words, co-operation without multiplayer, and daring to construct mechanically polarising game in the name of an emotional climax, Brothers shouldn't really work. But its final act stuns and satisfies and proves something to savour.