With its elegant fantasy world, remarkable sense of scope and variety and 6 button control scheme, Starbreeze and Swedish film director, Josef Fares have crafted a magnificent adventure that is both a welcome change of pace and almost serves as a thesis on the language and the over complication of the general design of video games. Starbreeze’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons uses the simplicity of its design woven with the gamer’s understanding of the language of video games to amazing effect and deliver one of the most pleasurable, poignant and memorable gaming experiences I have ever had.
Something wicked this way comes….
The premise of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is as simple as it gets. After their father takes ill, two brothers must set off on adventure to retrieve the “Water of Life” from a mystical tree in a far off land. Along the way the two brothers will need to work together to navigate the treacherous landscape and use their ingenuity to solve environmental puzzles. Aiding them in their quest are various characters of all shapes, sizes and species.
I was immediately taken back by how mature and dark the story actually is. While brotherhood is certainly the central theme, themes of loss, sacrifice, guilt, abandonment, fear of betrayal permeate every thread in Brothers. The game is also an emotional one. On more than one occasion I felt deep pangs of sadness while playing through the adventure and all without an ounce of understandable dialogue. Everyone speaks an in-game, fantasy “language” that sounds like nothing more than gibberish and yet so much is conveyed with so little. The animations and sound design truly bring the world and the characters to life and I never felt like I didn’t understand what was going on.
A new kind of co-op
This minimialism applies to the story as well as the gameplay. At the very start of the game the player is given one on-screen button prompt – which stick and trigger controls which brother and that’s it. The left thumbstick and trigger control the older brother and the right thumbstick and trigger control the younger brother.
The brothers have two distinct personalities that are showcased through your interactions with the other NPCs in the game. For example, the elder brother is a kinder, more respectful individual and the younger brother is far more mischievous. Using the left stick to guide the older brother to a woman that is sweeping and pressing the left trigger makes him take the broom and help her sweep. When you move the younger brother to the same woman with the right stick and press the right trigger, the younger brother then takes the broom and starts performing tricks with it, causing the woman to get irritated with him and demand it back. It isn’t a particularly helpful mechanic in this particular situation but it does a great job establishing the characters of the brothers and fleshing out the world in an extremely simple way.
The elegant and simple control scheme is mostly used to solve the games many environmental and navigational puzzles. None are truly difficult, but I do think that it was by design. An extremely early example would be when I reached a farm with hay bales strewn about and a guard dog between point A and point B where I needed the brothers to navigate. Pressing the left trigger, the older brother started whistling to get the dog’s attention. Keeping the dog distracted I used the right stick to move the younger brother to the next hay bale. After automatically climbing a top the hay bale, I then pressed the right trigger to make him start yelling at the dog. Now with the dog’s attention focused on the younger brother, I was able to move the older brother with the left stick to the next bale of hay and repeat the process. Another is as simple as the brothers tied together at the waist and using each others’ swinging momentum to alternate grips to ascend a tower. It’s simple, intuitive and a remarkable approach to co-op single player gaming and puzzle solving.
The only instances in which the controls proved an issue were when I needed to navigate the brothers at the same time and they crossed paths due to the camera swinging around. Keeping the older brother on the left or top of the screen and the younger brother on the right or bottom was key for me because the moment they crossed my brain would short circuit and would start moving the two brothers in opposite directions. I would have to stop and move one brother at a time in order to correct the issue. During puzzles this is fine but during the game’s few action sequences it tripped me up and I had to look at a loading screen several times due to the death caused by the mentally crossed wires. I suppose this issue had more to do with me since the controls work as intended more often than not.
What a wonderful world
There is an ample amount of variety to the puzzles that never felt repetitive or wore out their welcome. Each area offered something unique and interesting both in terms of gameplay and world building. It’s a truly remarkable design that is a welcome change of pace to the often “sameness” of games set in one world. From hillside villages, to troll inhabited caves to a giant’s guard tower, there is always something new to see and do and each area has it’s own story to tell in which the brothers will either assist or merely serve as a witness. The last third of the game goes to one of the most interesting and macabre levels I’ve ever seen in any game. The story it tells is never more than an allusion to something far greater and gives a sense of the world that exists outside of the brothers’ point of view.
The game is simply gorgeous to look at and each area looks as if it was hand painted I was able to manipulate the canvas in real-time. While the perspective is top-down, using the right and left bumpers moves the camera so I was able to take in the wonderful art direction from various vantage points. The flow and seamlessness with which the game takes you from place to place and the aforementioned environments are various and plenty.
Do you speak my language?
After all of this praise the most striking thing about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is the way Starbreeze and Creative/Game Director Josef Fares use the language of video games in such an effective way. There are never any button prompts, no breadcrumb trail, not hints of any kind – and not a single one of these handholding assistants are needed. Simply understanding the controls, the concept and the general understanding of the language of video games is all that is required.
Examples such as a rock with a small portion of a bridge dangling off the side, where I would use the left trigger to boost the younger brother up atop the rock, then walk the younger brother over to the rope left from the bridge and kick it down to the older brother. Or levers and cranks to move platforms across chasms or as an elevator to reach a higher platform. To go on further would be to spoil the many surprises of the games design, but I will say that I found Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons to be one of the most intelligently designed games I have ever played in my 31 years of gaming. And that’s not hyperbole once you’ve played the game.
If I can level any real criticisms towards the game, it would probably it’s length as I completed it in about 4 hours and the game offers little to no replay value beyond missed achievements or trophies or to simply experience it again. While I definitely plan on playing through Brothers again, I can see how these issues could be off putting and bring the overall value of the game down for others.
Genius game design, a beautifully realized world full of remarkable characters, and a surprisingly, refreshingly dark and mature story make Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons one of the best games I’ve played this year and one I plan on revisiting for years to come. Bravo, Starbreeze, 505 Games and Josef Fares for taking risks and delivering in such a wonderful and masterful way.
Sean completed Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons in approximately 4 hours. 505 Games provided a review code for the Xbox 360 version of the game.
+ The story is surprisingly mature and dark
+ A wonderfully realized world
+ Environments and puzzles always offer something new
+ Brilliantly simple controls
-Crossing the brothers’ paths shorted my brain
-A bit on the short side
-Little reason to replay it beyond wanting to experience it again
Available on: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360