Title: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows PC, iOs, Android, and Windows phone. Reviewed on the PS4.
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: Out Now
Family Friendly: Click here to read more
Verdict: Worth it for the price.
This game is somewhat of a media darling. Critics have been praising it left, right and centre, and truthfully, it’s not hard to see why. It’s a beautifully haunting game with a chilling soundtrack and eerie visuals that leave you on edge if you look too long. I was constantly hearing it marketed as being like a faerie tale, an adventure full of whimsy and wonder, and perhaps a dragon or two. Well, I sort of got what I expected.
This game looks like your standard fantasy game; go get water from a magical tree, to save your father’s life. You’ve got the typical dead mother, drowned in a tragic accident while our token, helpless baby brother watches. You’ve got the stereotypical medieval village, the stoic older brother, and the classic fetch quest.
But now it gets interesting.
There’s no dialogue in this game that we can understand, unless you’re fluent in what sounds like some offshoot of Simlish. It’s all very reliant on emotion, tone of voice and body language, and it’s something that works really well with the art style of this game. It’s cartoonish and more than a little exaggerated, which lets them get away with over acting a little more and is unfortunately totally necessary for the sake of player comprehension. It forces you to use your imagination and a little bit of guesswork to figure out what’s going on, and that’s not a bad thing.
Secondly, the gameplay is unlike anything I’ve ever played before – controlling two characters with each joystick, when it can be played as a single-player game. This invokes a lovely dynamic; you physically cannot play this game alone. You won’t be able to get past the obstacles anyway – the Older Brother can only do some of the more physically demanding tasks, and the Younger Brother can squeeze through small gaps to access different areas. The whole narrative and gameplay experience is reliant on trust and love, and it’s a refreshing bond to see. We have too many brooding anti heroes that wander down the lone wolf path because they can’t trust anyone and they only get them hurt – you know the drill. This is something different, something new, and something very touching.
The aforementioned puzzles are really well implemented, too. You all read my Talos Principle review, which mostly consisted of me swearing at the puzzles for thirty hours, but Brothers made it much simpler. They’re simply obstacles blocking your path rather than a time consuming thing; the solutions are right there in front of you, and honestly don’t require much effort to figure out. As someone who loathes puzzles with every fibre of their being, this was nice. I wanted to know the story, not spend an hour Googling a walkthrough. It takes a tiny bit of brainpower to solve the puzzles, then that’s it. My kind of game.
The soundtrack is one of the most beautiful parts of the game, and rightly deserves a lot of the praise. It’s eerily haunting, and injects so much emotion into a game that hasn’t got a word of English spoken in it. Again, like most of the game, it’s very simplistic, with no vocals, but it actually conveys tone a lot better than the narrative does at times, which I’ll get to later. Visuals, too, are the highlight of the whole thing; they’ve obviously put a lot of work into making storybook landscapes picture perfect, and my God, does it show:
It genuinely feels like a living, breathing world whose inhabitants actually matter, and it’s so refreshing to see, when most games opt for empty wastelands. Likewise, it was a nice touch that both brothers could interact with the people they come across, and the NPCs will respond differently to the older or younger one, which does a lot to cement their personalities. The small moments you can spend bonding with these people, or watching the brothers interact is very well done, though I wish there had been more on screen interaction between the pair. What little we do get tells us a lot about their relationship, but in a linear, three hour long game, it’s always going to be minimal. Basically, what we have works well, but the lack of elaboration doesn’t really do much to make the narrative anything special. They’re two brothers who love each other, but what else do we know? Not all that much, unfortunately.
Gameplay, though, is really what makes this one stand out. you use L2 and the left stick for the Older Brother, and the opposite for the Little Brother. It’s physically impossible to move one and not the other – each boy will stop and call for the other one if you try. Puzzles have to be solved together. Obstacles have to be navigated together. Walls have to be climbed, you guessed it, together. The boys will scramble up vines in tandem, swing each other between ledges, carry various objects to get to the next area; it’s truly a game about two people, with two main characters, and while the controls can be somewhat frustrating at times, it’s a really cute idea that helps make the game stand out.
My main complaint is the jump button. You see, any time you want either character to interact with something, you have to hold down the respective action key. So if you’re dangling from a ledge, for some reason, you have to quickly tap the action button twice in succession, before slamming down on it again and praying you haven’t just sent a small child tumbling to their death. It’s a really stupid place to map the button – L or R1 would have worked just fine, well within the same finger span. Aside from that, the gameplay is smooth and polished, with only the odd graphical glitch here and there – neither of the boys’ fingers or hands change when climbing, so they’re just laid flat against the obstacle, and OB’s arm went straight through a cliff fairly early on. But other than that…
Be warned – the last handful of paragraphs contain story and ending spoilers.
My main issue with this game is the narrative. It seems jumbled and unfocused, as if it can’t decide what story it wants to tell, or what theme it wants to settle on. Throughout the game, death is shown starkly, frankly, and is completely uncensored. The boys’ mother drowns at the start of the game. Their father is inching ever closer to death. You witness a man attempting to hang himself. And three of the game’s levels are set around a graveyard, a blood sacrifice ritual, and wading through a valley of dead giants, pushing their corpses aside to get past. It jars harshly with the picturesque setting, and it really comes out of left field; I had to check the rating on the box after the hanging man incident, and I was so surprised to find out it was a 16. For some reason, I was assuming this was rated 3 or something, but hey ho. Faerie tales are meant to be dark and morbid, since their primary use were fables to keep children in line, right?
Most faerie tales have a moral, basically. Red Riding Hood is not talking to strangers, Three Little Pigs is something about thinking logically and planning ahead, The Ugly Duckling is about inner beauty being more important – you get the idea. And we get plenty of set up for that kind of thing with dark imagery scattered along the way: this game feels the same. It uses death as a motif, but it doesn’t go anywhere, the same way the theme of brotherhood doesn’t go anywhere, even though it offers up the idea of a pair all the time, whether it’s the two troll siblings or the owl griffin things. They each have happy and sad resolutions, but nothing that can be considered foreshadowing, because I was never sure what point it was trying to make. All this does it make the story an ultimately frustrating experience.
This all comes to a head during the ending – the Older Brother is stabbed during the out of the blue boss fight, and doesn’t get the magic tree water in the end. He just dies. ‘Okay,’ thinks me. ‘So maybe the water isn’t magic. Maybe the dad’ll die too and it’ll be some sort of fable about not putting faith in faerie tales, maybe learning to accept the inevitable.’ Nope. The final shot is the father crying at the graveside. In the same vein, learning of the mother’s death at the start feels pointless; the only time it ever comes up is to establish that Little Brother is afraid of water, and clings to the older one. Does he feel guilt? Does his exposure to death through the things he witness allow him to overcome it? Not that I saw. If the Older Brother had been killed off halfway through, allowing Little Brother to carry on alone, learning to cope and using the skills his sibling taught him, and returned changed, I could definitely like this game more. This is done (pulling that L2 trigger during the swim back was a fantastic idea) but only in the epilogue. Similarly, if he’d died while ignoring his brother and breaking the bond? Would have made sense and created a theme, but alas.
It just feels like there isn’t a lot of point to the narrative. Dad is dying. They go on a quest, encounter a few trolls, go underground, wander through a graveyard, interrupt a sacrifice, rescue a girl, kill a snow monster, girl turns into spider and big brother dies. Then Little Brother goes home, heals Dad, and… that’s all. There’s no resolution, and no closure in a way that makes sense. If the spider hadn’t died and had escaped unpunished, or the Dad had died anyway and they both were affected by it, forcing them to re-examine their culture and beliefs, that’s a good way to write lack of closure. This just feels like it tails off into nowhere, and it’s a crying shame. The apparently emotionally charged ending left me feeling nothing, rather than sadness, because I was more confused at what message the game was trying to convey, rather than getting lost in the moment.
In all honesty, this was a good game for £15. It’s pretty, it’s got a lovely soundtrack and fun gameplay, but the narrative lets it down. Even so, I would definitely still recommend it.
So, in summary:
- Beautiful visuals
- One of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in years
- A genuinely unique game
And the Bad:
- There’s not much of a coherent narrative
- Frustrating jump button
- The odd animation glitch here and there
While this may look cartoonish and fun, it’s got a lot of disturbing imagery that jarred me a little, let alone anyone younger. I think the 16 rating is pretty apt here.