Developer: Starbreeze Studios | Publisher: 505 Games | Played On: Xbox 360 | Price: $14.99 | ESRB: Teen [Violence, Blood, Crude Humor]
Gripping character development is a simple idea that’s extremely hard to master. Crafting characters that are relatable and compelling is no easy feat—especially when you can rely on archetypes to fill in the blanks. But for the developers over at Starbreeze Studios, character development became the center of their newest game.
The story of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is one rooted in sorrow: two brothers are assisting their ailing father to the home of a caretaker. The father can barely move on his own, groaning in pain even as he rests. Frantic for a way to help their beloved parent, the caretaker shows the boys a map to a tree that seems to have healing effects. Having already lost their mother in a tragic event earlier, they go on a quest to retrieve the remedy before it’s too late.
The names of the boys are never mentioned, as dialogue is exchanged in an artificial language. An exact location for this magical place is never clear, since the older brother just shows a map to passersby and they point in a general direction. There are no signs to really provide any type of information; you just follow the path, trusting that the brothers are heading the right way. And this parallels the relationship between the brothers: although you can’t understand what they say to one another, you know they love and look out for one another. They don’t know how to get to their destination, but they know they’ll be okay because they have each other.
And all that is relayed without uttering a single real word.
Gameplay-wise, each brother is mapped to one side of the controller: the left analog stick, and left trigger and shoulder buttons control the older brother, then vice-versa for the younger one. The controls take a bit of time to get used to—even when I neared the end I found myself trying to use the right stick to control whoever is on the right side of the screen.
This can lead to some annoying scenarios if you’re not careful, but it never brought the game to a halt. And that’s because of the failure structure of Brothers, which is to say that there isn’t one. You can’t fall if you happen to get too close to the edge, but if you do manage to miss an important jump you’ll simply restart the puzzle. There’s no real penalty to failing, as game director Josef Fares made clear the game is not meant to frustrate. That works in delivering the story, but dangerous predicaments are left without much impact.
This was especially evident during boss battles, a term I use loosely. As the brothers make their way through a barren town, an invisible monster begins smashing buildings and trying to track them down. The only way to hide from this being is to pose behind some snowmen; thankfully there’s a guide to let you know exactly when to pose. This was an interesting situation with the potential to ramp up the danger, but unfortunately it just fell flat.
The twist on the twin-stick mechanic leaves room for some interesting puzzle variations that test dexterity, such as when one brother distracts a giant troll while the other pulls on a lever to trap him, both brothers cling to each other by a rope to swing from one rock to the next, the boys carry a heavy bar between narrow passageways, etc. These scenarios are spread out enough to not overstay their welcome; even when they’re reused.
Each brother has unique traits, appointing them different tasks during puzzle sequences. The oldest is stronger so he pulls on heavy levers and carries animals around, while the youngest is small enough to fit through bars. Even their personalities play a role, such as the older brother asking politely for a bridge to be lowered and getting ignored, while the sillier younger brother just throws a bucket of water on the lazy man to get him up. Then there’s the realistic side to it, as realistic as a scenario with a life-saving tree can be: the younger brother saw his mother drown—rendering him scared of bodies of water—so he clings to his brother when swimming for support. Details like that are commendable; it showcases the brothers’ devotion and unites a movie-like delivery flawlessly with its game mechanics.
It would seem this game should have co-op, but the experience itself is one to experience alone, especially since the game’s puzzles hinge on the twin-stick dualism.
The world of Brothers is a character itself. The stunning environments are worth marveling at, which is why there are benches scattered around that let you simply sit back and take in the view. Even the barren ice setting and bloody battlegrounds are eye-catching—which brings me to the lore of Brothers, or lack thereof.
The places the brothers travel are full of mystery that left my longing for a non-linear path to learn their history: at one point you walk in the middle of a field full of giants, dead and garbed in soldier gear. It looks like a horrible war took place that claimed the lives of all who participated, and I just wanted to explore to piece together what might have caused it all. At another time you enter a village full of snowmen and all are posed doing daily tasks like cutting wood and tending the ground. The more snowmen you see, the more you realize they may have at one point been human beings. There’s so much depth to this world that is unattainable, and understandably so since the focus must remain on the brothers—still, I feel it’s a missed opportunity.
Unfortunately, the character design does not match the beauty of the world. Compelling narratives don’t need astounding graphics, Gone Home is just the most recent example, but in the case of Brothers the models used for figures like their parents just broke me out of the sentimental moments. Even the beginning scene of the younger brother watching his mother drown loses some of its impact because of her form.
The soundtrack is also a bit of a disappointment; although the Swedish vocals are remarkable, they were used a bit too much… so during the moments where there was no soundtrack at all, it was quite noticeable. The fake language also got a bit tiresome, but the charm behind the brothers’ relationship wouldn’t have been the same otherwise.
Brothers is a touching story that strays from the cookie cutter formulas we’ve come to expect from the industry. The brothers’ journey is full of raw emotion, even if it borders on the line of pretentious at times. At three-and-a-half hours, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons presents a relationship purer than most games with the triple the production. That’s definitely a praiseworthy achievement.
+ Stunning environments
— With no sense of danger, some battles lose their impact
— Twin-stick controls can be hit and miss
7.5 / 10