Successfully tugging on the old heartstrings is something that very few games successfully achieve. Starbreeze Studios, it seems, have a knack for it. 2007’s The Darkness simultaneously being one of the most romantic and violent games I’ve ever played.
With Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, they’ve done it again, (wipes away manly tear) the bastards.
In Brothers you play as two sons who embark on a journey to retrieve a cure for their father who has fallen gravely ill.
The game opens with the younger of the two brothers knelt at the foot of a gravestone on the top of a cliff, a flashback reveals that it is the grave of the boy’s mother who drowned in front of his eyes as he desperately attempted to pull her out of the water. In the distance, his older brother helps their terminally ill father onto a stretcher. The ghost of their mother begins to talk to the boy before vanishing as his older brother calls him over to help carry his father to the village healer.
At this point control is handed to the player.
What makes Brothers unique is that the game is a cooperative single player adventure in which the player controls two characters simultaneously, the older brother with the left analogue stick and trigger and the younger with the right stick and trigger.
Although on paper these controls are incredibly simple, in practice, to begin with at least, they feel a lot like trying to rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time: slightly disorientating and awkward. Put simply, your brain does not agree with what the game wants your thumbs to do.
But for the love of god fight through it, once your brain finally figures it out and it clicks you’ll be rewarded a million fold as Brothers is a game on a par with PlayStation classic ICO in its emotional impact, presentation, and playability.
The first thing I noticed when I started to play the game was that there is no traditional vocal track to speak of, instead the character’s interact with each other by exaggerated gestures and a weird dialect made up of several different languages. Despite not understanding a word anyone said, the tone of the speech and urgency as well as a lot of arm waving helped convey the characters emotions in a very open ended but weirdly personal way. Since there wasn’t a script I found myself subconsciously filling in the blanks.
The game’s minimalistic but highly emotive score does a wonderful job of setting the mood, at times with only a single instrument and a simple melody deftly conveying the kind of emotional impact and tone that some other games can’t manage to produce with a full orchestral score.
Visually, Brothers feels like an odd blend of Fable and ICO, the brothers themselves are fairly plain to look at; one tall and brunette, the other short and slightly impish,
The game’s environments are simply breath taking at times. The isometric camera showing off the game’s varied landscapes wonderfully, at times you’re even given a chance to just sit on a bench and take stock of the of the world around you.
This is a welcome respite from Brother’s whistle stop tour of Scandinavian mythology, as the pleasant surroundings of the Brother’s home village complete with farmer’s fields and vicious guard dogs are soon a fleeting memory replaced with mountains: home to friendly trolls, mines filled with vicious ogres, and frozen lakes full of deadly killer whales and battlefields littered with the corpses of giants.
As you travel through these beautiful environments the tone of the game becomes progressively darker, especially if you take a little time to go off the beaten path, as I found out when I came to a fork in the road in the mountains. One path took me to a fantastic example of the games intricate and ingenious platforming/puzzle sections involving building a bridge by making the younger brother squeeze through a set of railings the older brother is too big to squeeze through, then traverse a chasm by jumping between the rotating blades of a pair of windmills, before sliding through another pair of bars and eventually rotating a crank handle which pulled out half of a bridge whilst the older brother pulls a lever on the opposite side of the chasm, which is too heavy for the younger brother to pull, lowering the other half of the bridge on top of it, securing it in place and allowing the older brother to safely cross.
Down the other road you find a man attempting to hang himself from a tree next to a burnt out cabin, under blankets next to it, are I assume, the corpses of his family. If you do cut him down he just sits on the floor and rocks. You don’t even have to save him if you don’t want to, you can just walk on by and let him die.
As the game progresses these unsettling moments begin to become unavoidable, as what starts off as a light hearted adventure through the countryside slowly transforms into a desperate battle for survival against increasingly dangerous foes in a desolate frozen wasteland, the changing landscape in many ways a metaphor for the state of health of their father.
This culminates in a boss fight, which has left me feeling incredibly uneasy, even days after finishing the game. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it’s something that is bound to be a talking point for months after the games release.
The only problems I could see some people having with Brothers, aside from the controls, is that it is a short game, taking only about 3-4 hours to complete and once you’ve finished it, aside from trying to accomplish an odd achievement based challenge, or diversion you may have missed, there’s no particularly compelling reason to play through it again.
But in those four hours there’s as much action as there is in many games that are twice the size because there is absolutely no filler at all and zero repetition. Despite its brevity, Brothers never misses a beat, jumping from one fantastic set piece to the next, through varied and beautiful landscapes each bustling with life, character and danger.
As heart warming as it is haunting, Brothers may be a short ride, but it is certainly one worth taking. It’s a charming, thought provoking and wholly unique experience which doesn’t out stay its welcome for a second but will stay with you long after the credits roll.