Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons Review: A Bold New Direction Of Adventure
When I first head about Starbreeze’s new downloadable title, Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, I wasn’t sold on the game’s premise.
I’m a big fan of Starbreeze’s earlier games. Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay being one of the only examples of a film-licensed game which was actually good. And it wasn’t just good, in my opinion it is one of the best first person shooters ever made.
The fact that Starbreeze were moving onto a fantasy adventure game, and a downloadable one at that, wasn’t a move I felt they could pull off with their lineage. All of their games up till now had been first person action games, with a gritty sci-fi edge, released at retail. Brothers looked gentle and colourful. A potentially worse aspect was that Brothers was going to be yet another adventure game based around a pair of protagonists, of which we’d had a deluge in the last few years; The Last Of Us, Bioshock Infinite, The Walking Dead, Lara Croft And The Guardian Of Light, Resident Evil 5, the list goes on…
But Brothers isn’t like that. Brothers uses it’s double-protagonist storyline to feed directly into the gameplay, in often surprisingly original ways.
The game is part Fable, part Ico, part Journey, and part The Last Of Us. Basically, with bits of those-games-above. And it is remarkably powerful, elegant, and enjoyable.
The plot of the brotherly tale is thus: the two brothers’ mother is dead. We don’t know how long for, but presumably not long, as the game opens with the younger brother grieving at his mother’s grave. They live with their father who is falling desperately, fatally sick. The two boys go on a journey inland from their home- a seaside cottage on the outskirts of a jolly fantasy village, the type common among games like Fable- to find the one ingredient, the one thing which can save their father from certain death.
So it’s a pretty emotional set-up. Unlike a similar recent game, thatgamecompany’s Journey, here we have a solid, grounded story. The boys have an obvious, human goal. They live in a relatable, non-abstract universe. We know exactly what is at stake. We know where they are going. And we know what we’re in control of. Put simply: the two boys, manoeuvred using the one controller in your hands.
The left stick controls the big brother, clothed in blue. The left trigger makes him interact with stuff. The right stick moves the little brother, clothed in orangey red. The right trigger makes him interact with stuff.
That’s it. The game has literally four buttons in use. Not including a camera-moving buttons on the shoulder bumpers. But using these four buttons, the player navigates the two boys through many unique and lovely fantasy locales, working out nice, enticing situations and overcoming picturesque, often striking obstacles. It’s like a twin-stick puzzle game. Carrying the sick father in a wheelbarrow, you move the two boys around to angle them correctly as they move him down the hill to cross a moving platform bridge. Later on, you sneak the little brother through a barred metal fence to sneak to the other side of a ravine, while the big brother pulls a heavy lever to get the bridge ready. A remarkable and innovative run of puzzles sees the two brothers tied waist-to-waist by rope, the player swinging each of them in turn to the next climbing grip point.
So many little, emergent puzzles… And every single one of them is unique. That’s one of the incredible things about Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, which makes it a real achievement, more so than most downloadable titles. Nothing is reused. There’s no filler. Every situation and puzzle includes one-off, unique objects and elements. The mechanics are almost all unique; be it closing giant cages, being lifted around by a troll, fooling blood-worshipping tribes. The brothers gently make their way through situation after situation in little ingenious ways which will please you to no end. Every little solution and object is unique over the games ten or fifteen scenarios.
The world itself, and your exploration of it, is the game’s mastery. You know achievements? Those things which you get for completing levels of a game, or the whole thing? Point-giving milestones to let you measure yourself against other players? Brothers has the greatest achievements I’ve ever seen in a game. The player isn’t rewarded for completing it. Or reaching certain levels, or points of progress. Because really, those things are a given for a player who will buy the game to complete it. Of course you’re going to finish the introductory section, of course your going to reach the end-credits, if you just play the game. No, Brothers only gives you achievements for minor, sideline interactions. Little, meaningful vignette moments. Interactions with passing characters, distraction puzzles or examinable items. Stuff which adds to the game’s universe.
The game’s distinct lack of a heads-up-display and it’s pure, sweeping camera angles function to keep you focused on the aesthetic and mechanical journey at hand. In a great nod to Ico, the boys can sit on benches scattered throughout the world, looking over brilliant vistas. There’s no save mechanic or incentive to do this- it just immerses you.
It all adds up to something which I would never have expected from the creators of Chronicles Of Riddick. Brothers is an experience which is beautiful and quite elegant, a pure blend of adventuring and puzzling. The story and world unfold gently in front of you, in no rush. The leisurely universe which the boys live in infects your mood like placid, candy gangrene. There are rolling hills, picturesque villages and farms, gothic castles, a sprawling battlezone which I shan’t spoil.
Even when things get inevitably dark, Starbreeze aren’t heavy handed with it. Unlike thatgamecompany’s previous title Flower, where the experience is suddenly gothic and oppressive, or The Last Of Us where already serious shit suddenly gets way serious; Brothers‘ dark undertone is very subtle. It’s not trying to shock you, it’s just showing you that part of this mythical world is natural violence. Like violence in the animal kingdom. The whole world is so benevolent and frank, it’s impossible not to love it. There’s an internal logic and beauty even to the nasty events.
Pacing is another strength of the game: its peaks and troughs of delight and melancholy match only Uncharted 2 in its pitch-perfect design. When things get dark or gritty it’s never long before some beauty or life-affirming event comes along to taint it nicely again. Like Journey, it’s mesmerisingly beautiful to play. The world slides by, opening up for your adventure. This is one of those games which is entirely linear, but it doesn’t matter; the world feels open and soft and existent.
Yet the lack of inherent challenge and drive to it’s narrative is a bit of a pity. You aren’t really pulled through the game, which a great story usually does, and while you know the stakes, in reality you know that nothing bad can happen. No matter how quickly or slowly you take it, either the father will live or he will die, and one of the story’s only missteps is that the player doesn’t have any previous investment in him or the boys. The stakes are high for the boys; but for the player? There’s a distinct sense of story apathy to begin with. Though as an experience, and considering some of its later clever developments, it’s a mini-masterpiece. The fact that the thing crams into 600 megabytes and more than five hours is magical, too.
Rare bugs and quirks of movement touch the game’s edges, but these are few and far between. The game’s soft beauty of gameplay and wonderfully good story makes it a joyous experience from start to finish. It’s quite emotional too. As it goes on, it clearly becomes a study of trauma and loss, and probably one of the only games I’ve ever seen which manage to make the gameplay function as an enhancer and catalyst for the drama and emotions which are ongoing. An act as simple as skimming pebbles stops being a boring momentary distraction and instead acts as a moment of respite in denial and grief.
You owe it to yourself to play Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons. Perhaps it’s a little too short and easy, but as a tight, highly original experience, it’s brilliant. Well done Starbreeze on breaking into new territory, and providing a more immersive, moving fantasy story than Fable ever managed to.
(Also, the game works as a co-op title if two people play it with one controller. I tried this with my little cousin- me with a left hand on the controller moving the big brother, my cousin with his right hand moving the little bro.)