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Review: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

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Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is powerful. It’s a stand out release this year that shows just how special video games can be. 

Developer: Starbreeze Studios

Publisher: 505 Games

Platforms: Xbox 360 [version reviewed], PlayStation 3, PC

Release Dates: August 7, 2013 (Xbox 360), August 28 (PC), September 3 (PS3)

Current MSRP: $15 (1,200 Microsoft Points)

The first downloadable release of this year’s Xbox Live Summer of Arcade, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons comes from Swedish developer Starbreeze Studios and film director Josef Fares. Fares is the director for Brothers. Starbreeze Studios also made The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (2004), The Darkness (2007) and last year’s Syndicate.

Brothers is a cooperative-based game where you control two siblings in a single-player mode. There isn’t any online or local playing with a friend. You simultaneously play as two brothers throughout the game and there’s no AI for either of them.

The game starts with one of the brothers kneeling at their mother’s grave. Through a flashback you discover how she died, which still haunts one of the siblings. Now their father is suffering from a mysterious illness and is near his death. Since there’s no pharmacy around the corner, the two go on a wild adventure to retrieve the cure and save their father, armed with only directions and themselves.

Take a look at what Brothers looks like:

Hand in Hand

Brothers is a mental game. It plays with your head in a weird way. The game uses a dual stick control style. When playing you don’t use the whole controller. The left analog stick and trigger controls the older brother in blue, while the same configuration on the right side is for the younger in red. Playing the game trips your mind in different ways, especially if Blue is on the right side of the screen while Red is on the left side. It takes time to get comfortable controlling them both at once.

You hold the left or right trigger to continue through with specific actions, whether it be rotating a lever or jumping up to the next ledge. Both brothers need to be close by and their movements in sync, otherwise you’re going to run into problems. While it sounds like the game would be difficult to play, the controls work surprisingly well. They feel unnatural at first but over the course of Brothers it becomes a fluid mechanic.

The gameplay shows how hard it can be sometimes to cooperate in real life, especially among siblings and other family members. Simple tasks that you take for granted in other games feels like an accomplishment when completed in A Tale of Two Sons.

Two Personalities

Each brother has their own way about them. The older is more serious, logical in almost every move. The young one is more playful, silly and creative. Red is terrified of water. He slowly falls below the surface if he tries to swim on his own. He needs to hold on to his brother’s back to get across bodies of water that stand in their way, otherwise it’s game over. Blue is the rock of the two, the strength that keeps the brothers moving.

The language and dialogue in Brothers is unintelligible and native to the world within the game. The only way to decipher what anyone is saying is by reading their body language and tone of voice. Most talk with their arms and hands. It’s surprising how much you can still understand just by observing their physical reactions. A revelation, sense of urgency or crippling fear is instantly recognizable.

You can interact with objects and NPCs in the environment that shows the differences between the two siblings. Each brother will have a different reaction depending on what you come across. Blue straightforwardly looks down a well while Red playfully spits into it. Blue asks an old woman sitting in a rocking chair for directions but Red will push her back and forth as they both laugh hysterically. Red pats and holds a villager’s cat while it purrs. Meanwhile his older brother tries to give attention to the same cat and it scratches him in the face.

The various interactions gave a lot of depth to each brother through such simple tasks that only lasted several seconds.

Enjoy the Scenery

Brothers is filled with beautiful environments. The game’s world is brimming with nature. During the adventure you move through small villages surrounded by water. There are forests and canyons with rivers flowing through them. You explore a world filled with wild life, from trees to native animals. Like the brothers, these animals have their own circle of life interrupted by the wrenches thrown their way. As the game progresses you discover different settings hidden away in the world, like underground stone structures masking a prison, or a winter landscape leading to a mysterious ghost town.

brothersworld

The brothers will find unique ways to continue their adventure, like using a friendly giant to cross over gaps. (Image by 505 Games)

The game’s atmosphere is tranquil with a feeling of danger always boiling underneath the surface. Some areas are just creepy, with fog covering the landscape. A battlefield marked with giants and rivers running with blood shifts the mood dramatically. Other people and creatures become part of the platforming, helping or obstructing your way. The world goes from peaceful to frightening the deeper the trip goes.

The music contributes to the atmosphere’s feeling. The soundtrack can be upbeat, saddening or reflective depending if you’re jumping from cliff to cliff or encountering more misery. The few acoustic guitar tracks sound fantastic and are some of the best in the game.

The game’s camera angles are a big reason for the cinematic feel to the gameplay.  Rotating the camera shows the landscape in its glory in relation to the two boys. When reaching a new area it pans out on the world to focus on the previous section you just left. It makes the last area where you felt on top of the world seem so small and insignificant, like you’re so much stronger and further along.

Teamwork

Throughout the game the two brothers solve a variety of tasks to continue moving forward, from simply hoisting a sibling up a ledge to crossing a gap while one brother hangs on for his life. A Tale of Two Sons gets better the deeper the traveling goes.

There are constant sections involving the necessary duality of the brother’s relationship. Some of the puzzles replicate everyday tasks, like the experience of moving furniture or cutting wood. It sounds trivial but actually comes across well. One section has you maneuvering a metal pole around blocks and other obstacles in order to jam it into a machine to open up the next area. Others are a bit more complex and involved, like crossing a field filled with danger while each brother moves to safety one block at a time. Some areas only Red can sneak into while his brother has the physical strength to make assists when moving or carrying heavy objects.

Brothers is filled with plenty of amazing sequences. It’s exhilarating when you’re flying Da Vinci-style and not having both brothers in sync during the flight will land you face-first into the side of a mountain. Climbing up to a tall, looming tower by swinging their bodies one at a time is another terrific sequence. These were the perfect use of the dual control system and just intense to play. Moving fallen warriors out of your path and using their weapons to do it are more great elements of the puzzle solving and exploration experiences. The two brothers get so far away from home that it feels like ages since you first left the town to start the journey.

brothers co op

Crossing this field is just one of the many ways you use a strategy with the two brothers.  (Image by 505 Games)

Brothers has no combat in the traditional sense, but there are boss fights that require attention from both siblings. While you’re not doing any attacking, finishing them uses both of them to trick the enemy into defeat. There’s only one instance where the controls were irritating. It happens when you’re trying to row a small boat in water surrounded by blocks of ice. It took a few minutes to get the hang of it while I kept smashing into a frozen roadblock. This is a minor frustration as you learn how to row.

Even with a simple premise, nothing in the game ever gets stale. Brothers isn’t that challenging but it continues to gradually build up throughout the game, making you feel like a rock star adventurer with each test passed. The gameplay strengthens the brothers’ relationship, creating a connection with the player that puts so many other titles to shame.

A Complicated Trip

Brothers will make you laugh, feel depressed and maybe even shed some tears. There are many heartfelt moments throughout the story. A simple act of a reunited embrace has more impact in this game than it would have in most others. Even animals separated by nature get this special treatment when they join together again.

A Tale of Two Sons is filled with contrasts, from its surface appearance of two adolescents on an adventure to the dark undertones of the game. Gorgeous environments with violence and bloodshed hidden between them is another contrast within the world. On the outside the younger brother is innocent and carefree, but he grows into a man well before he should. The game portrays Red’s grief of losing his mother while also trying to save his father. There are several instances from his perspective that unravel some of the inner turmoil he’s facing, where you’re not sure if it’s taking place in the game or a hallucination. Later tension arises between the siblings, just like they would in the real world. Few games portray this sibling relationship in such a serious manner the way Brothers does.

Brothers can be open to many different interpretations. There are some real mature themes in the game, such as dealing with grief, betrayal, loss, regret, spirituality and the afterlife. You can feel each brother’s emotional pain the more you play and the harder the obstacles become. These themes pop up not only in the story but especially in the process of discovering and unlocking some of the Achievements. One shocking side trip depicts the sorrow that unfortunately leads some to take their own lives. Helping that person recover in a small way through the two young brothers is another remarkable moment in a game packed with them.

brothers together

The bond between the two brothers is unbreakable. (Image by 505 Games)

The gameplay mechanic between the two brothers comes together full circle with the story during the ending in a perfect but unexpected way. The final sequences in Brothers are something I’ve never experienced in a game before. It was so incredible, so stunning in its execution it leaves you almost speechless as you’re playing through it. Brothers can only work as a video game. If this was just a movie it wouldn’t come close to triggering the same strong responses. A Tale of Two Sons is relatable and deeply moving no matter what your background is. It tells a shared human experience through devices and a world that include many similarities to our own, regardless of what it may appear like on the surface.

During a commute this week I saw a teenager with his younger brother, who was maybe 7 years old, on the same bus as me. Both were wearing colorful sunglasses, the younger looking like a miniature version of his sibling. As they got off at their stop, the older one held the door open for his younger brother. Walking down the street they held hands, the older brother protecting him. Seeing them instantly reminded me of A Tale of Two Sons.

It’s remarkable how a game could have that kind of impact on a person after you’re done playing it. Being an only child, I didn’t experience what it was like to have this type of special relationship with any brothers or sisters. The bond between the two in Brothers can make you regret that you didn’t.

Brothers can be finished in 3-5 hours. In total there’s seven chapters, with a prologue and epilogue on top of those. Usually such a short length would be a turn off but it’s the perfect amount for what Brothers accomplishes. None of the 12 Achievements are story-related but are obtained by seeking them out. They’re worth doing for the experience each adds to the game.

Final Thoughts

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is an outstanding experience. It’s one of the best games of the year. The way the gameplay mechanics are woven into the storytelling is absolutely incredible. Brothers is a must-play game that will leave an unforgettable impression long after the adventure is over.

Score: 4.5/5

Positives

  • Gameplay mechanics tell the story
  • Relationship between the brothers
  • Sequences build up to a grand finale
  • Changing atmospheres
  • Beautiful environments
  • Puzzles never feel dull
  • Good use of Achievements

Negatives

  • Controls take time getting accustomed to

 

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was purchased for 1,200 Microsoft Points ($15) on the Xbox 360. As of publication, 5 /12 Achievements were obtained for 160 Gamerscore.

Logo image by Microsoft

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