Starbreeze Studios is a development team generally known for games that, despite being story-driven, are still propelled by guns and violence, such as The Darkness and Syndicate. Therefore, I was unprepared for Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, an arcade action/adventure title that is emotionally gripping from start to finish – a tale of death, familial love, and courage. The very first scene of the game takes place at a grave site, where the little brother recalls a harrowing memory – which hints at the tragedies and triumphs to come.
After the initial scene at the grave site, it is discovered that the brothers’ father is very ill. They immediately set out on a journey to bring him a cure: the Water of Life. The journey will take the brothers through mining caves to rescue trolls, up steep cliffs on the backs of mountain goats, down perilous river rapids, through wolf-infested forests, and into the nest of a deadly anthropomorphic spider woman.
Though there is dialogue, the brothers do not communicate in English, so their characters are masterfully developed through the way they interact with each other, the environment, and the people they encounter. When interacting with an older lady sweeping her front stoop, the goofy, carefree little brother will take the broom and balance it in his palm, while the polite and upstanding older brother will take the broom from her and start sweeping for her. When interacting with a well, the older brother peers into it while the little brother spits in it. Little details such as these give you more and more insight into the personalities of both brothers.
However, if it is a happy game you seek, this is not it. The story begins and ends with death, and I am unashamed to admit that I shed some tears. The game tells a story that resonates, and you will not soon forget it.
Mirroring the story, the gameplay revolves heavily around how much the brothers need and depend upon each other. Throughout the game, they must work together to overcome obstacles that they wouldn’t be able to do alone. The little brother is unable to swim and depends on the older brother to carry him across lakes and rivers. The older brother is too large to fit through narrow openings and depends on the little brother to get through and open a larger doorway.
In keeping with the idea that both characters are independent but must work together, the little brother is controlled with the right portion of the controller (right trigger and joystick), while the older brother is controlled with the left portion of the controller (left trigger and joystick). Not only a unique gameplay mechanic, the controls actually give your brain a workout when it comes to right side/left side independence. You have to actively focus and think about which hand should be making which move next.
The platforming and climbing in the game is incredibly smooth, intuitive, and – most importantly – fun. Some of my favorite sections involve the brothers being tied together by a rope, and one brother has to hang onto a ledge and swing the other to the next ledge. It sounds simplistic, but it is actually really fun in practice to work out a rhythm for swinging the brothers around while trying to remember which half of the controller moves which brother.
Since none of the dialogue is in English, you won’t find any directions or prompts about where to go in the game. Despite this, you surprisingly almost never find yourself lost. Some of the puzzles may stump you temporarily, but you can always tell which direction you should be heading. The only exception I found was a brief scene with a hang glider, which took me a couple of tries to get to the right place.
Overall though, the level designs are so carefully crafted that it is pretty difficult to get lost. The game is also incredibly beautiful. With soft lighting, vibrant colors, and soft textures, Brothers almost looks more like a watercolor painting than a video game.
Through a well-crafted and well-executed story and unique gameplay that manages to be challenging but not frustrating, Starbreeze Studios delivers an action/adventure title gamers will not soon forget. The only negative comment I can make about this game is that it is very short. However, while other games may depend on mechanics such as collectibles, multiplayer components, and open exploration to encourage replay, I can still see myself revisiting this game in the future if only to experience the excellent story and gameplay again.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is now available for Xbox 360 through the Xbox Live Marketplace, Playstation 3 through the Playstation Store, and PC through Steam for $14.99. Visit Starbreeze Studios’ official site, and follow them on Twitter.