I first heard about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons via TotalBiscuit’s twitter. He was raving about how good the game was and stated that every single gamer should play it at some point. That’s quite a favorable review from a man I so rarely agree with! Ordinarily I’m more likely to play a game he says he hates because our views are so opposing. A few days later I saw Jesse Cox play through the intro to the game. Now that I knew a little more about it and the intriguing gameplay that set it apart, I was far more interested. But it wasn’t until I saw multiple people talk about how it had made them cry that I knew I had to give it a go. You mean, the game made you feel things on a deep emotional level? This I gotta see!
I’d like to take this opportunity to say that this will be a two part review: part one is free of spoilers while part two will take a closer look at plot*.
What stands out the most in Brothers is the fascinating and, at times, difficult gameplay. While in some games you are able to play as two or more characters by rotating between them, in Brothers you play as both characters simultaenously. I played the game on PC with an Xbox controller and let me tell you, there were plenty of times when I found my characters like this:
I often found that I would get one character on the opposite side from the hand controlling him and soon enough both characters would be running aimlessly into a rock until I could get it sorted. Once I became aware of how bad I was failing, it made for some pretty humorous moments. The amazing thing about this game is it makes you think in a way few games do. There were times where I really had to concentrate on making the right character do the right thing. At times it felt like the whole pat-your-head-and-rub-your-belly thing: hard to do at first, but a breeze once you get the hang of it.
While the general mechanics were often fairly simple and intuitive, there were times where panic made them more difficult to do. When things are going swimmingly and you’re merely completing a puzzle, the hand coordination isn’t all that hard. But when things get dicey and shit starts to hit the fan–that’s where I found myself panicking and performing poorly. Suddenly I lost basic motor control and had to think even harder about what I was trying to do, which in turn made my task all the more difficult to complete. I’ve heard some people criticize the game for the simplicity of it’s mechanics. While it’s true that once you understand the basic mechanics of the game it’s usually fairly simple to figure out, I didn’t find that that took away from the experience in any way. The puzzles and story came more to the forefront than whether you needed to climb a ladder or pull and lever and push a crank at the same time.
What did feel weird at times was the world design. Right at the start of the game you have to enter town, and the method for doing so is fairly absurd. Instead of having a regular, static bridge, or even a drawbridge controlled by a guard, you had to step onto the bridge and pull a lever to slide across the gaping cliff-face. Weird, I know. I get that this was designed to give you a taste of common mechanics, but who on earth builds a town like this? Additionally, why were there so many man-made devices throughout the world that required two people (of different strengths and abilities I might add) in order to get through? Does everyone in this world have to travel in pairs?!? I wish they had put more thought into these mechanics because I just found them illogical and it took me out of the moment which was disappointing.
Ahhhh, my favorite part of any game. When people said it made them cry they were certainly not joking. I sobbed and sobbed throughout the final act, and every time I thought I was going to be fine, something else would make me start all over. One of the most beautiful aspects of this game is how perfectly they string you along. So often danger will follow a beautiful moment, heartache will follow levity. The game is short, only about 3-4 hours, but it is one hell of an emotional rollercoaster. One minute you might be chuckling at something the younger brother did; the next moment you’re holding your breath with fear as you try to guide these boys out of danger, only to find something else terrible has happened. The game also did a fantastic job of presenting a very dark world in a way most games don’t. While most “dark” games try to slap you in the face with how edgy and gritty they are, something about Brothers was different. Sure, there were plenty of dark and creepy moments–the chapter with the giants was one of the first to make me stop, look around, and wonder what in the hell I had gotten into–but you were more of a passerby than a participant in these strange environments.
I don’t want to say too much in this post about the story because, while it was wonderfully crafted, I do have some issues with a few of the tropes (yes, unfortunately) and with some of the thematic issues, so I do want to put up a spoiler filled review in the future. But for those of you who may not have heard of this game before now, I’ll give you a brief rundown of the story:
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is, obviously enough, a story about two brothers. The eldest I would wager is in his early teens, while the younger one is probably 10-12. Somehow in the near past, their mother drowned while out with the youngest brother. He now harbors a deep seated fear of water, and one of the most touching moments early on is when the older brother helps him across a river. The game begins with the two brothers carting their sick father to the nearby doctor. There they find that nothing can be done for their father unless they seek out a magical tree with health restoring properties. Determined not to lose their father like they did their mother, the two brothers set out on a journey through a magical yet dark world. Along the way they meet numerous fantasy characters and while many of them must be saved in the traditional sense (help! save me from the baddies!) others are not so typical.
I wish I could say more but there are so many parts of the game I don’t want to spoil for you that I’m going to stop here. Just know that the story is amazing in that it contains all of the elements that so many games lack–primarily, a wide range of emotions for the player to experience.
One thing that is made immediately clear from the start menu is that the game is absolutely gorgeous. The landscapes and lighting makes it one of the most beautiful games I have ever played.
While the world around you is completely breathtaking in its design, the character models leave a little to be desired. I think they were perhaps going for a somewhat cartoony look, but in that I would say they failed. The characters move stiffly, they look like balloon characters, and they don’t really fit the overall aesthetic of the game. To me they feel out of place, which was unfortunate given how wonderful the rest of the game looks.
Despite looking like characters from at least a generation ago, the developers did a brilliant job depicting emotions. The characters in Brothers don’t speak any recognizable language. Instead, their tone of voice and body language are used to alert the player of their thoughts and feelings. I’ve long been a fan of silent films, so for me this wasn’t a problem. Sometimes in visual art, words only get in the way.
Another thing you notice right at the start screen is how beautiful the music is. The haunting theme is beautiful and sad and sometimes even uplifting. It’s not Trine 2 or Journey, but it is definitely one of my top video game scores.
I have to agree with TotalBiscuit on this one: I don’t care what kind of gamer you are, you need to play this game. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a glimpse into what games can be. It’s clever, the gameplay is engaging, the story is put together beautifully, and most importantly, it makes you feel so many things! Sure, I had some issues with it, but there’s no such thing as perfection. That said, Brothers is pretty close.