Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons PC
As my particular generation of swede, it’s easy for me to have a blind spot for Swedish things. You wouldn’t think so, perhaps, but it’s true. It stems from a somewhat juvenile notion that foreign things are simply more authentic and more cool. At a meaty (and sometimes disconcerting!), 30 years old, that mindset is something I’ve abandoned a long time ago, but the blind spot, to a degree, remains.
So it was actually to my great surprise that prolific Swedish film maker Josef Fares turned out to be involved with Brothers. That – and developer Starbreeze’s pedigree of doing some really clever storytelling with their ostensibly shootery games – had me intrigued, to say the least. So I sit here, minutes after playing it, and I can say that it all makes total sense.
Brothers feels exactly like the type of game you’d make if you paid attention to how mechanics feed into narrative, and grew up surrounded by Swedish folk lore and the writings of Astrid Lindgren – author of books like Pippi Longstocking and Emil of Lönneberga, and the more pertinent to this game; The Brothers Lionhart and Ronia The Robber’s Daughter. That’s not to say that Brothers feels derivative – far from it. It’s just evocative of those things, which actually makes it stand out, more than anything. Have it all be coordinated by the steady storytelling hand of Josef Fares, and it’s no mystery why this tale of two sons actually turned out pretty fantastic.
The game opens up with a little kid at his mother’s grave. He sees an apparition of her, and we’re shown a flashback where she’s drowning in front of him. As we snap back to the present, another, older kid appears, supporting an old man on his shoulders. He lays the man down on a wagon and signals the other kid to help out. They’re brothers, and the man is their father. They take him to a doctor, who explains that their father has fallen ill and that he needs a cure. The cure, however, is located far, far away, and in order to save their father, the two young boys have to go on a long, perilous journey. I’d say “this is where you come in”, but you’re already playing. There are no actual words; it’s all pretend-speak (no, it isn’t Swedish – Swedish isn’t pretend-speak, I promise), but it’s all communicated with perfect clarity anyway.
I won’t go into too much detail and I’ll keep this review deliberately brief. I have to step carefully because discovering and working out the things put before you is intrinsically tied to the enjoyment of the game. In the most concrete of terms, however, you control two brothers – one older and one younger – separately but simultaneously, using the two analogue sticks. You press the corresponding shoulder buttons to contextually “interact” as that brother. It can mean anything from pulling a lever to petting a cat, and nearly every one of these interactions happen for as long as you hold the button down. When you release the shoulder button you leave the point of interaction immediately and seamlessly. This feels consistent throughout the game – everything about it feels intuitive, fluid and organic.
Since you always have two characters on the screen at once, it’s basically a one player co-op game – and though that may initially seem like a point of critique, it almost immediately becomes apparent that it’s pretty much the entire point of the game. As you become more and more comfortable with the controls, you eventually get a feel for how these characters are in sync – a true sense of relation that isn’t just fed to you through a cutscene. In fact, the way the game conveys how these brothers help each other out is one of the simplest yet most powerful things I’ve seen someone do with the medium.
The bulk of the game feels a little bit like ICO. You do some platforming, some puzzling, some light navigating through perilous situations. It’s never difficult, and certainly not mechanically stressful – but the crux isn’t so much in nail biting challenge, but rather in the interplay between the two characters. The element of doing things in tandem keeps you involved and engaged in a way that doesn’t require the obstacles themselves to be overly convoluted. You’ll guide one character to turn a wheel, while guiding the other to ride an elevator. You’ll move a vine sideways while the other character is climbing up and down to avoid danger. You’ll control the paddles in a boat separately, or operate a see-saw to cut a tree down. There are more elaborate examples, but that would be telling!
Although the aesthetic reminds me a little of Fable, it would be a disservice to the art direction in Brothers to merely reference another game. It’s rare to see a game come together so well, visually, and although it’s not a technical marvel, it’s still absolutely beautiful, intriguing and full of life. Each step on your journey that guides you away from home and toward your goal is perfectly communicated by the changes in environments. It gets subtly more outlandish, slightly more skewed and harrowing the further you go – I dare say what I’m describing may be an actual sense of adventure.
The time exclusive Xbox 360 version of Brothers dropped in the middle of the Summer of Arcade promotion, which, any other year, would’ve been a nice boost to its profile. This year, however, duds like Flashback and TMNT: Out of The Shadows just served to turn people off the whole thing. That is a crying shame, because Brothers is easily one of the best games of the year. My only real criticism is that there wasn’t more of it. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t feel short – I’d even venture to say it’s the perfect length, but I just wish there was more of it. That probably doesn’t make any sense, but it’ll have to do.
In Starbreeze’s latest – and Josef Fares debut as a game director – storytelling and mechanics fuse together to the point where either on its own would be utterly meaningless. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a true marriage of gameplay and narrative, and it is frankly a complete triumph.