Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Brothers loves to play with your expectations. The developer Starbreeze is best known for the violent Riddick action games. Here working with acclaimed Swedish film director Josef Fares they have created a warm, emotional and restrained adventure puzzle game with some genuinely innovative mechanics and thematic resonance.
Set in a gorgeous fantasy world, the story of Brothers is told almost silently. All the characters talk in Simlish-like sound bites, which helps add to its fable-like nature. In the game you take control of two brothers, tasked with heading out of their small village to find a cure for their father’s illness. On paper this seems like a set-up ripe for co-operative play but instead the game, brilliantly, gives you direct control over both brothers at once. Controlling the younger brother with the right analogue stick and the elder with the left is a novel, and somewhat disconcerting, experience at first. The only other buttons used in the game are the triggers on each side, which activate context-sensitive actions for their respective brother.
The controls definitely take some time to get used to, but the game never throws any difficult platforming or jumping puzzles at you and is well designed to stop any potential frustration. The really clever part though is the way that your familiarisation with the controls grows as the story progresses and the Brothers’ relationship evolves. Starting out the younger brother’s movements, via the unfamiliar right stick, are clumsy and slow you down, but as you progress they fall in sync, echoing the reliance the brothers must place on each other as they progress ever-further from home.
Travelling through many stunning looking landscapes and situations, from underground mines, to snow-capped mountains and the evocative remains of an epic battle, the game never overstays its welcome. Coupled with these changes in scenery come new mechanics, which are also used sparingly and never for long, but help the game from getting too familiar. Be it using a rope that ties the Brothers together to help you swing between handholds on a cliff-face, to having the brothers each providing distractions to help you sneak past a vicious guard dog. There are also some more standard co-op style challenges such as having both character rotate levers to open bridges, or using one’s abilities to reach a higher ledge before opening up a way forward for the other. None of the puzzles presented in the game are particularly challenging, and you could level a complaint that the game never quite takes full advantage of its unique control scheme. Each section is interesting, but never quite reaches the depth that seems possible by the set-up.
However as counterpoint it can be argued that the streamlined nature of the game helps the story progress smoothly, and removed the possibility of frustration. Despite its focus on mechanics Brothers is ostensibly a game about character and story. Using its various tableau’s to hint at the wider nature of the world, presenting an increasingly dark and melancholic atmosphere as the brothers get further and further from their home. The change is subtle but effective and leads to the games focus as its close. To spoil what happens would be criminal, but suffice to say that it brings all the element of the game together wonderfully and organically. The culmination of this is a poignant moment of great subtlety but profound meaning, you’ll know it when you get there, and it’s a moment that really validates the gameplay choices made throughout the game. It’s rare to see a game nail its conclusion quite so smartly as Brothers does and it goes a long way to make up for any of the somewhat run of the mill gameplay that precedes it.
Adding to the impact of Brothers is the way it marries its visual and audio presentation to its story. The storybook landscapes and pastel quality to the textures evoke the game’s Nordic heritage, and Gustaf Grefberg’s score effortlessly underpins the emotional beats of the story without overpowering it. Caught somewhere between ThatGameCompany’s gameplay-light, aesthetically led oeuvre, and some of the more gameplay focused indie titles of recent years, such as Braid or Bastian. Brothers falters slightly by trying to please both masters. However it also manages to step out of the shadows of its influences by utilising its unique control scheme to enhance its story. It’s a wonderful example of tying mechanics to theme and its easy to imagine elements of what Brothers does being copied and iterated on in the future.
It feels like another example of smaller games stepping out into unique and interesting directions and telling smaller, more personal stories in ways only possible through the medium. It’s easy to overlook a lot of what makes Brothers unique from first glance, its unassuming style belies a title with a lot more on its mind. But stick with it and you’ll be rewarded with something really quite special.
Reviewed on PC; game was purchased by the reviewer
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