Review - Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Summer is winding down once more, thank God, and there’s no better way to celebrate this hot, dismal season’s slow passing than with the Xbox’s Summer of Arcade promotion. Starbreeze Studios’ Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is the first of four games to see release this month. Set in a vaguely Norse, medieval land (assuming the former based on Starbreeze’s Swedish origins), Brothers follows a pair of male siblings as they venture across country to find a cure for their widowed father’s ailment. Though simple in concept, it’s now one of my favourite puzzle-oriented adventure games as well as one of the few in any gaming genre to affect me emotionally.

Remember how hard it was to learn how to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time? How about whistling and humming all at once? Heck, some of you reading this might not yet have mastered either of those feats. Brothers is practically built on that kind of borderline paradoxical mechanic. You control both siblings simultaneously: the elder brother’s movement and actions are bound to the left analogue stick and trigger, respectively; the younger is likewise maneuvered with the corresponding joystick and trigger on the right side of the controller. Basic actions like having both run in the same direction are fairly simple, especially when each brother is on the side of the screen corresponding to their half of the controller. But having them take either end of a cart and wheel it down a winding trail is probably as, if not more, difficult than doing the same in real life.

And so the game’s difficulty arises not from the puzzles in and of themselves—timing and lateral thinking aren’t as much a necessity here as they are for Portal and Limbo—but from mastery (or at least basic comprehension) of the central gameplay mechanic. Consequently, the severity of punishment, i.e. death, isn’t as high as in those other puzzle adventures, but you’ll find yourself accidentally guiding one brother or the other face first into a wall on no less than ten occasions. And that’s a generous minimum.

But as with Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line, the relative simplicity (emphasis on the “relative”) of the game’s mechanics allows the player to pay more attention to the story and character dynamics. Initially, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of either: the cast is minimal, restricted to just the two playable characters for the bulk of the game’s duration, and what little dialogue there is takes the form of monosyllabic gibberish. And yet you see the relationship between the two siblings develop the further you progress in the game. I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly nuanced relationship, certainly not compared to the ones we have seen in other mediums, but Brothers accomplishes what few other works can and allows you to experience that dynamic firsthand as not one but both halves of the duo.

My Spec Ops comparison is even more apt than I originally thought, because Good Lord does this game get dark. Brothers contains basically nothing in the way of exposition but the deeper you get into the game the clearer the turmoil which is gradually enveloping the siblings’ land becomes. This world’s darkness is first hinted at, later overtly depicted, but never explained, and the game’s overall atmosphere benefits from showing but not telling in this regard. I won’t spoil these moments, though I will say the first notable instance is a disquieting combination of small and horrifying, and one that almost singlehandedly subverts the fairly conventional fantasy mood the designers had established up until that point.

(I’m sad to say the mood wasn’t maintained all the way through, though that’s not so much the fault of the storytelling as the actual programming. Roughly an hour and half into my first playthrough a cutscene failed to trigger, and as a result I couldn’t progress any farther. After restarting the last checkpoint a few times and even rebooting my 360 I ultimately gave up and went back to the beginning of the chapter, which I eventually learned I had been 90 per cent of the way through at the time of the glitch. It also turns out this bug was fairly widespread. To be perfectly honest, I almost gave the game a scathing review because of it, agog that something so heavily promoted by Microsoft would feature such a catastrophic glitch. A night’s sleep put me in a better mood, but regardless I just know someone in Starbreeze or publisher 505 Games’ QA department is going to lose their job over this. I do not want to be in their position right now.)

Brothers is a truly Gestalt production, its overall quality—which is significant—attributable to a combination of individual factors rather than any standout one. The dual controls are immersive, and probably the game’s biggest selling point, but it would just be another gimmick were it not for the art direction (evidenced by the screenshots throughout this review), the viola-centric musical score and the occasional heart wrenching slaps to the face courtesy of the writers. It’s short, roughly four to five hours in length, but as someone who thinks Portal 2 and the GameCube remake of the first Resident Evil are just the right length this wasn’t even close to being a problem. It’s a brief but memorable and certainly emotionally involving game that’s worth the 1200 MS Point cost (roughly $19 Canadian). And for a twist on gameplay, I would try playing with a sibling and have both of you use just one side of a controller. That should heat up familial tensions some.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is currently available on Xbox Live Arcade, and will be released on Steam August 28th and PlayStation Network September 3rd.

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