Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is not a very difficult game. It’s not a very long one. But it’s delightful, and one of the best downloadable games of 2013.
It is an adventure-puzzler for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC starring–you guessed it–two brothers. The game takes place in a fairy tale world, and in your travels you’ll meet various folklore-inspired creatures, but this is just a backdrop for the story–Brothers often seems more like a movie than a game. This is unsurprising, as it is a collaboration between Starbreeze Studios and Swedish film director Josef Fares. White-on-black credits roll at the end of the game, and you’ll feel like you just sat through a drama.
Brothers is not afraid to tell the hard story, and after that, the gameplay and setting is only secondary. At the beginning, you find out that the mother died in a boating accident while Little Brother watched helplessly. Not long afterwards, the dad becomes sick and the brothers are given a map to a cure and immediately set off. Details in the game are sparse–there’s no dialogue, save for some subtitle-lacking, Germanic-sounding speech. However, the voice acting is executed well enough so that you’re never left wondering what the characters are talking about or how they feel, and that’s what is important.
The game doesn’t need any dialogue anyway, as everything is written in the characters’ actions and tone. Despite his fear of water, a crux that requires his brother’s help when crossing rivers, Little Brother is fun-loving and carefree. On the other hand, Big Brother is caring, helpful, and strong, if a little stubborn and single-minded. Big Brother would tap a man politely for his attention. Little Brother would slap his butt and laugh it off. At times, Little Brother’s rudeness pays off, and is necessary to advance. His small size is also useful for squeezing into areas inaccessible by Big Brother, who, on the other hand, has the strength of body and mind necessary to get them through their travels. Brothers truly is a cooperative adventure; you cannot have one without the other, and that we are given simultaneous control of both is empowering.
The story, while the focus of Brothers, is not heavy-handed. It is told through brief cut-scenes intermittently throughout the journey. Gameplay is never interrupted for too long, which is good, because the trials you face as the siblings are real and important. While there are very few developments to the characters, the story is powerful. It is really Little Brother’s tale. Big Brother is always the rock throughout, but it is Little Brother that goes through emotional trials. By the end you can see how the events have changed him, and it’s chilling.
Fortunately, the gameplay is just as good as the story, if a little easy. Similar to the Nintendo Land attraction, Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, Brothers gives you control of the two boys at once–one with each control stick. The feeling is dizzying at first, but once you get the hang of it, you can become quite the productive multi-tasker. Each brother also gets an action button, assigned to the trigger. Big Brother gets the left side of the gamepad, Little Brother gets the right. This trend is present throughout gameplay–you’ll often find Big Brother taking to the left side of cooperative tasks, even if he’s closer to the right–no doubt to keep you oriented.
This control scheme is wonderfully simple. While it is a gimmick, and doesn’t mark any changing trends in game control, it is perfectly suited for Brothers. It allows you to complete a number of different tasks with a minimum of means, and makes you think to do it. The developers thankfully avoided the potential mishap of using the mechanic to repeatedly solve the same puzzles. They constantly introduce new environments to interact with, so that each new area, each obstacle, gives you something new to do and a new way to think about the possibilities. Although some of the puzzles can take some thought, much of the game will feel automatic to the experienced gamer–Zelda fans will feel right at home with the puzzle design in Brothers. Still, it is rewarding each time you overcome a challenge or discover a new way to use the action buttons.
Although the gameplay is very linear, the Brothers world feels real and alive. When traveling through villages, there are many interactions you can have with NPCs that have no impact on your progression, but immerse you deeper into the world. The landscapes, which are vast, diverse, and beautiful, lead seamlessly from one area to the next, so that when edging along a cliffside, you can catch a glimpse of an area in the distance you passed ten or fifteen minutes ago. Unfortunately, the linear nature of the game and story means that there is very little exploration and freedom. This would be a wonderful setting for an open-world game, but our time with it is limited.
The music of Brothers is particularly noteworthy. The stirring theme sets the mood for the entire game, as you realize this is not going to be a fun and carefree tale. The music’s best feature, however, is that it knows when to quit. Some of the best moments in Brothers are the sudden, calming silences after an intense moment, leaving you to reflect with no distraction. Alternatively, the quiet leading up to an exciting twist or joyful excursion is just as satisfying. It always complements, and never detracts from, the moment.
Brothers is just another example of video games creeping into the realm of art. Along with oft-cited games such as Journey and Dear Esther, the game gives players an interactive experience that has value beyond its pure entertainment factor. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a short, relatively easy game if it has a meaningful story and engaging gameplay. Brothers has both of these and more, and it is one of the most rewarding games of the year.
This review is based on a review code for the PC version of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons published by 505 Games and developed by Starbreeze Studios
- Engaging story
- Beautiful Setting
- Not Very Challenging