Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a bold game. An unexpected project from Starbreeze Studios, the developers of Syndicate and The Darkness, that continually surprises and delights. Sincerity is not often a quality attributed to games, however it’s the most appropriate word one could use to describe Brothers.
Fashioned in the likes of a Swedish fairytale, Brothers tells the story of two siblings who set off on a quest to procure the magical and rare medicine needed to rescue their father from a sickness that has brought him to death’s door. Their journey takes them across ancient battlefields where rivers run red with blood, dank caves that are home to dangerous trolls, and cliff-side castles that pierce the heavens all are gorgeously rendered. The environments capture one of the most exciting aspects of the fairytales or yore, in that they transport us to enchanting and preternatural locales, which are a joy to explore. The game exudes charm through both its locales but also its characters.
The brothers are fairly archetypical in their presentation, which works well given the fairytale setting. The eldest, donning blue, is stronger, more practical, and more worldly. The younger in red is more mischievous, with a gift for music and an animal lover. Minor side activities highlight these differences, in one instance the elder brother awkward picks up a hissing cat, only for it to melt and purr in the younger brother’s arms. The lack of any real dialogue facilitates these broad character strokes, as the characters only speak in gibberish.
While largely non-violent (which is commendable given killing is the core mechanic in the overwhelming majority of games), the brother’s journey is fraught with peril. The brothers have to trust and rely on each other in order to progress and achieve, and this is directly reflected in the core gameplay mechanics in a manner stronger than most other titles. The two brothers are controlled simultaneously through the two analog sticks, one with each. Each trigger also corresponds to each sibling as a universal action button. While awkward at times, it’s easy to get confused which stick controls which brother when they cross paths, this is an incredibly unique and bold design decision by Starbreeze which pays off in droves.
The dynamic set by this core mechanic works incredibly well at simulating the trust and synchronicity between two close brothers. Left and right hemispheres must work in harmony to coordinate the brothers and overcome puzzles that require synchronization to solve. Sometimes this is as simple as having the elder brother boost up the younger to a ledge, but more often solutions to puzzles require more refined levels of coordination. None of these challenges would be very difficult if this was a two-player game, however, the slight strain your brain will incur trying to perform two sets of actions simultaneously keeps the challenges interesting. There are only a few duds in the mix, with most of the puzzles working well and several being surprisingly interesting.
More importantly however is that this design decision is one of the clearest examples of gameplay communicating the fundamental design of the game, and being incredibly congruent with the story. So often what the actual player is doing in a game is utterly disconnected from its characters, narrative, or tone. Often we praise or deride a game’s ‘story’ or ‘presentation’ when what we’re really talking about are its cutscenes. Few games are able to actually communicate narrative through gameplay in a meaningful manner. As you overcome the initial awkwardness of the controls, as your skills increase and you are able to perform tasks with the two brothers of increasing fluidity, the narrative implications of the brothers’ trust growing deeper as they overcome challenges plays directly into the story. For example I, like many, am left-thumb dominant. This resulted in the younger brother, controlled by my right thumb, was always having difficulty keeping pace and kept falling behind, which was true to the character. Realizations and moments like that feel sublime, and make Brothers stand out.
Also setting Brothers apart from your average brown game is the use of an art style reminiscent of Fable. The environments are gorgeous, which is critical as much of the game revolves around traversal and exploration. Characters models look good, but don’t hold up to as well upon closer inspection. Thankfully due to the exaggerated style of the game, the experience doesn’t suffer greatly here.
Some will take issue with the running time of the game, three to four hour long experience. However like the fairytales it takes cues from, Brothers is a well-paced short story that avoids needless padding of other games and spends its time well.
It’s rare for a game to devote so much of itself to a positive familial relationship, and unheard of to center the gameplay on managing and strengthening that relationship. Brothers is incredibly unique and refreshing, amd tells a story in a way that only games can.