Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons: review

  • Format: PC, PSN, XBLA (version reviewed)
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: 505 Games
  • Developer: Starbreeze Studios
  • Players: 1
  • Site:

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is immediately confusing, saddening, and promising. Two young villagers load their deathly ill father into a handcart and make the slow downhill walk to the local doctor. The controls are fiddly– illogical, even– until you make an important connection: each thumbstick corresponds to a different brother. The brain will need adjusting before this makes sense, but the lack of a second player isn’t the missing feature it appears to be. This is co-op without the co-op, so to speak, and you’ll eventually find yourself moving the brothers together as one. And really, that’s what the whole story is about.

Their father has next to no chance of survival, the doctor pantomimes through a mixture of gestures and make-believe words. Only a mystical, faraway tree can revive the dying man’s sickly body, and so the two brothers embark on the dangerous road alone to recover an elixir of life. The deliberate, almost stilted conversations between characters threatens to stamp out the very emotion they’re trying to get across, but as time wears on, it’s hard to believe so much can be said without a lick of English. The personality of each boy becomes apparent as you interact with the rustic townsfolk, watching as their different reactions become strengths instead of weaknesses.

Using both sons in tandem forms the crux of each challenge, and unlike the similarly thought-provoking game Journey, Brothers channels its vision quest into traditional gameplay mechanics. The younger boy is terrified of water, for example, and clings to his older sibling’s back through rivers, but he’s the perfect size for slipping through small gaps; the older brother, meanwhile, is strong enough to budge heavy levers.

This may be the least frenetic twin-stick game of all time.

Despite beautiful vistas and a novel control scheme, these traversal-heavy puzzles– played from an overhead perspective– quickly grow tiring. Exploring caves full of moving platforms and switches is less than inspiring, as the past thirty years of video games have made clear. But then, at a leisurely pace, things begin to happen. Strange things.

Typical environments and sweet but predictable fairytale stories melt away into new horizons of surprising darkness. Unafraid to delve straight into the concept of death, war, and even suicide, the adventure seamlessly twists its way through simple yet striking landscapes; some of them are inhabited, others are empty, and many seem to have been freshly abandoned. The mournful soundtrack finds its own in these later chapters, weaving sadness into the minimalistic tale.

Putting hand to controller and actually playing the game improves with time as well. Puzzle solutions increase in cleverness as the world around you does the same, and you’ll often be prompted to think in new ways. Devoid of combat and never difficult, the gameplay is largely there to reinforce the bond between the brothers, but not much else.

The has a grand, folksy sort of beauty about it, often displayed through conveniently placed benches.

In fact, it’s that haze of blandness– a slightly dull, slightly stiff triteness that pervades the entire game– that lets Brothers down. While evocative, the old-fashioned Simlish comes across as forced, fitting in with a cast of overused archetypes. Your heart may be warmed and broken at the same time, but like the exceptionally smooth camera, there’s a distance between player and characters. When the spell is broken, there’s not a strong argument in the gameplay department to back it up.

That doesn’t stop Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons from being a brave, surprising quest that will probably tug at every emotion inside you. It does stop it from attaining the same power as a Journey or Dear Esther, yet at the same time offers a solid (if rudimentary) gameplay experience on the side. Give it time and Brothers will pull you along until the very end, lift your spirits, and bring you to a dark place. It’s a place worth going.

critical score 7

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Written by Stephen K

A lover of video games in general, Stephen will happily play just about any sort of game on just about any sort of system, especially if it's a platformer or an RPG. Except sports games. Sports games are boring.

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