Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons Review

Developer: Starbreeze Studios AB
Publisher: 505 Games
Played on: PC
Release Date: September 3, 2013
Time Played (Steam): 3.1 hours
Played with: Xbox 360 Controller
Paid: $4.49

As a storytelling medium, video games are something of a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, their interactive nature has the ability to create far more visceral and engaging experiences for players.  However, this also brings with it some inherent drawbacks.  Budgets need to be allocated not just to production design, but also to programming, QA, and more.  Bugs and glitches may spontaneously occur, sucking up massive amounts of time and energy.  I bring up this comparison, because Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons stands as a prime example of both.  It is hampered in many areas by the restrictions of the medium, with bugs, technical problems, and gameplay issues taking me out of the experience on a number of occasions.  Despite this, it manages to feel like a near-perfect pairing of story and gameplay, where each is able to complement and enhance the other.

Brothers opens on a young, blonde-haired boy named Naiee kneeling in front of a gravestone.  The game is quick to inform us through its visuals and fictional language that the deceased is none other than the boy’s mother, whom he was unable to save from drowning.  We are then introduced to Naiee’s older brother, a brown-haired young man by the name of Naia who appears far stronger and more confident compared to his younger sibling.  As the two head back to their house, we meet their father, who has suddenly contracted an unknown illness.  Informed that the cure comes from a distant, mystical tree, the brothers set off to retrieve the elixir.

In these opening moments, Brothers also introduces its core gameplay mechanic: you control both brothers simultaneously.  Each is moved with one of the analog sticks, and can interact with the environment by pulling one of the triggers.  While it may seem gimmicky at first, though, the game gradually unveils the assortment of possibilities for this.  For most of the people, places, and things that you can interact with, each brother takes unique actions that flesh out their character.  Naiee is quickly established as the more feisty, playful, and energetic sibling, while Naia is a strong-willed and supportive leader.225080_20170325144527_1Early on, this mechanic only really served to get me doing everything twice, just to see what the different reactions would be.  However, it soon becomes a necessity, as the brothers’ varying approaches to situations are often what allows them to progress.  Take an early example, where a tired and cantankerous bridge operator is asleep on the job.  Naia just walks over and shakes him awake, at which point the man waves his hand and passes out again.  Naiee picks up a bucket of water and dumps it on the man, immediately waking him up and allowing Naia to explain their predicament.  It’s a small thing, and one that could be done just as easily by allowing you to swap between characters on the fly.  However, being able to control both at once makes each brother feel far more dynamic and human, rather than just a conglomeration of tools and abilities that you switch between as needed.

As things progress, there are a number of such puzzles that get repeated.  By the end of the game, I was almost audibly sighing whenever I saw a broken ladder hanging off a ledge, signaling that I’d have to get Naia to boost his sibling up.  In spite of this, the system is explored to a great extent, with new ideas being introduced right up to the game’s closing moments.  One brother can be used to distract an enemy while the other sneaks by, or one can cling to the other as they swim through a river.  And while I want to be vague to avoid spoilers, I’ll say that the controls are used in incredibly clever ways towards the game’s ending, connecting the story and the gameplay in ways that enhance the emotional impact of the conclusion.

This makes it all the more unfortunate that the controls can be so freaking awkward.  Maybe it’s just me; maybe this is one of those “right-brain, left-brain” challenges that only certain people are able to do well.  You know, like patting your head and rubbing your stomach.  Regardless, I often found myself fighting with the controls, even towards the end of the game.  Far too often I found myself getting into situations where each brother was mindlessly running around in circles, and I had to just stop, get my bearings, and reorient myself with their positions.  Sometimes instinct would take over, and I’d release the right trigger to get the brother on the right of the screen to release something, only to realize that I had just made the other brother let go of some ledge and fall to their death.  Plus, it really takes you out of the game’s more solemn moments when you’re trying to get each brother to slowly walk side by side, and instead they’re running around aimlessly, careening into walls and fences.  I tend to consider it a bad sign when one of my main thoughts is, “I’m so glad this game has invisible walls around the level edges.”225080_20170325145329_1The game’s tone came as a huge surprise to me; don’t be fooled by the cartoonish exterior.  I was genuinely shocked at how dark the game got at times, dealing with a number of themes surrounding death, and reflecting this in its visuals.  This is the last game I would have expected to be drawing comparisons to Alice: Madness Returns for, but it happened nonetheless.

Unfortunately, I found that the dark points in the narrative became overwhelming as the story continued, to the point where I almost found it comical.  There was a time where I was legitimately concerned that I would start laughing if another tragic event happened; not because I’m sadistic (I think), but because the game seemed to be throwing in every tragedy it could in the hopes of making me tear up.

Thankfully, the Brothers isn’t completely grimdark.  Moments of levity are interspersed throughout, largely due to the game’s side activities.  These range from reuniting a turtle-like creature with its children to helping a rabbit feel like less of an outsider.  While they are completely optional and have little in the way of an actual reward (outside of an achievement), their often heartwarming payoff more than makes up for it.

Brothers is also something of a mixed bag when it comes to its presentation.  The main area this can be seen is in its characters.  Main characters like the brothers have relatively detailed models that fit with the game’s animated style.  However, many side characters have noticeably muddy textures in places, with a prominent character in the latter half of the game landing firmly in the uncanny valley.

Also, for some inexplicable reason, all the game’s cutscenes are letterboxed.  There’s no good reason for this as far as I’m concerned; they’re all done in-engine.  It just seems like a complete disservice to the artistry on display to restrict it to a smaller portion of the screen.225080_20170325151614_1Speaking of artistry, Brothers’ environments are stunning.  A number of areas have benches that allow you to sit down and stare out at the game’s gorgeous vistas, and it’s totally worth it.  Mountains, forests, castles, and more all pop with vibrant colours and an almost painterly quality.  It’s a world that begs to be explored, while somehow managing to not feel restrictive in its scope.

The equally fantastical soundtrack is populated with a number of beautiful, tear-jerking tracks, most of which do an excellent job of complementing their accompanying scenes.  The exception to this is the closing theme, which stood in stark contrast to the tone of the game’s conclusion, making me think that there was going to be more, before leaving me disappointed that there wasn’t.

As a whole, that really speaks to the whole ending: I found it disappointing.  I find that odd, as it was a complete emotional climax for the game, bringing everything to a close while including some of the most inventive uses of the core mechanics.  Yet it all just felt so…contrived.  Early on in the game, you seem to be given the choice to either spare or kill an enemy.  Since I was still experimenting with the interaction options, I ended up killing the enemy, and quickly felt bad about how swiftly they had met their demise.  The game even followed this up with a scene of the father seemingly becoming more harmed by his illness, leading me to believe that perhaps my harmful actions were somehow harming the father.  As a result, I tried to spare my foe in a later encounter, only to have the game force me to kill them in the slowest, most painstaking way possible.  Not only did this clash with the game’s depiction of the brothers as being fairly mild-mannered, but their actions backfired on them, doing more harm than good in the process.  As such, this moment that should have had me looking on in horror instead found me getting upset that I had no choice in the matter, particularly when there was no real reason to do what was done.  It’s not so much that I wasn’t given the freedom to choose; it’s that I was given freedom early on before it was arbitrarily snatched away.

The game was also marred by some technical issues.  Some of them I can forgive due to it being a smaller title: minor clipping issues when grabbing things, some janky animations, and one instance where I got stuck and had to restart from the last checkpoint.  However, what was harder to overlook was when a strange black silhouette appeared in one of the ending areas.  It looked like it was an untextured version of one of the creatures from earlier in the game, but it was just sitting there.  I spent much of the ending being distracted by it, trying to figure out if it actually served some greater narrative purpose.  Ultimately, it didn’t.  It just sat there, letting characters clip through it all the while.  It was even in the way during what was supposed to be a heart wrenching scene, completely taking me out of the solemn moment as I walked back and forth through the black spectre.225080_20170325154427_1Brothers is a frustrating game to review.  I can see the passion and love that was put into the project; the game even had Josef Fares (an award-winning Swedish filmmaker) involved.  The time and effort put into making the world as beautiful as it is is truly something to be appreciated, and the marrying of story and gameplay is executed with aplomb.  Even the story itself may have only lacked some of its impact to me due to my inability to relate to many of the characters and situations.  Despite this, Brothers is held back by glitches at some of the most emotionally impactful moments, characters that sometimes just look uncomfortable, and a disappointing conclusion that so desperately wanted to be more.  Brothers is still a journey worth taking, but it’s definitely more about the trip than the destination.


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