2013 was an incredibly successful year for the Video Game Industry. We had several blockbuster hits such as The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V, and subsequently, the indie market also continued to gain in popularity as well, with titles such as Gone Home and The Stanley Parable. However, inbetween the commotion of both ends of this spectrum, we also saw success with several smaller games being released by larger studios; which should not be mistaken for an independently developed game. One such title was Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons, which was interesting because Starbreeze Studios were previously most well known for their work on The Darkness; which is about as far away from the theme and design of this game as you can possibly get. With that being said, for this particular project, Starbreeze hired Josef Fares, an award-winning Swedish film director, to take the lead during the game’s development. It was arguably a risky decision as this transition has often led to disaster (James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game). However, in this particular case, it was a charming, albeit heartbreaking surprise!
Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons is a remarkable adventure, which as expected, revolves around the story of two brothers, Naiee and Nyaa. Having lost their mother, the game opens with the youngest brother, Naiee, recalling the incident that lead to her death. It’s a sad moment as the young boy had failed to save her, but before we have a chance to reflect, the moment is further darkened when Nyaa calls out for help so that they can transport their terribly ill father. One thing players will immediately notice is that none of the characters speak English, and yet, despite the primary form of verbal communication coming from a made up language, the body language of each character never fail to convey a clear message. In my opinion, this is an incredible achievement as the emotion that subsequently follows is passed on to the player without words; speaking to us artistically instead of directly.
As the premise would have you come to expect, it is now the boys task to travel on a quest to find a magical cure for their father. This quest will take them all the way from a cave filled with trolls, to the bloody battlefield of giants. As mentioned above, there is no direct dialogue, but every location you visit and the characters you encounter are all incredibly memorable. It is not a long game, clocking in at around three and a half hours, but the amount of emotion the player will experience during this short time is somewhat remarkable. It should also be clarified that when I refer to the implication of emotion, I’m not making any comparisons to The Walking Dead as that is an entirely different type of experience. In Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons, you will become attached to the two brothers as the narrative has an interesting way of investing you through physical play. Most importantly though, the game is not subject to genre tropes and will often surprise, with little regard for the fairy tale method.
At it’s core, Brothers: a Tale of Two Son is a puzzle-platformer, which is made surprisingly interesting because the brothers are controlled at the same time; with each being assigned to a single analog stick and rear-trigger. This allows for a lot of unique puzzles to be integrated into the experience, and while they’re arguably not all that challenging at times, the physicality of the actions required are generally very satisfying. Importantly, the puzzles never appear to become too repetitive given the length of the game, implementing some ideas that are laughably fantastic; in a great way! As an example, I would reference the battlefield of the giants, where the game has you trying to traverse and move giant corpses around. It does sound awfully grim, but it’ll make sense once you get to experience it for yourself. In my opinion, the diversity in the design has been flawlessly executed, and never gives the player time to become bored. It also delivers many ideas that, otherwise, have not been seen in other games.
Mechanically speaking, the game plays very well for the most part; with maybe an occasional awkward segment here and there. More than anything though, this game is going to be hit and miss with some people because of the dual control scheme. Controlling both of the brothers at once can be incredibly satisfying, but I suspect for some players in particular that this might be far too intimidating for them to see past the initial stages. It’s understandable, but these are the sorts of ideas the industry needs, so it’s important to clarify that, despite a few hiccups, it works well. Although, with that being said, do not even attempt to play this without a gamepad of some sort. It is just not the same. Otherwise, the rest of the actions in the game work just fine. However, I would like to bring special attention to a fantastic tie-in of narrative, design, and gameplay. Specifically, the attachment the player builds for each brother and their specific analog stick. Essentially, if one brother is ever absent, you physically feel it, and this was an entirely new feeling that I have not quite experienced in any other game before.
I can’t help but feel they played it just a little too safe with the visual design. The artistic concepts are so incredible at times, almost as if they were pulled directly out of some bizarre Scandinavian fairytale. However, the graphical presentation also leaves something to be desired as it’s limitations somewhat clash with the ambitious fantasy ideas throughout various points in the game. Additionally, the game has quite a few noticeable low-res textures, and semi-regular screen tears from what appears to be a rather inconsistent frame-rate. It’s not game breaking, and the art of the game still manages to shine through often enough to wow the audience. However, a different graphical design could have delivered the director’s vision more clearly. With that being said, the soundtrack is incredible, and suits every moment in the narrative perfectly. It’s a flawed piece with many beautiful undertones.
Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons is the sort of game that the industry needs. It’s not indie, it’s not blockbuster, but instead, a small and expertly designed experience that’s coming from the minds of established studios. It’s arguably a bit steep with its pricing, costing around 20 dollars for just over three hours of gameplay. However, it is my opinion that this slightly higher cost is worth it. The narrative is simply outstanding and does not require dialogue to influence the player to heavily invest their emotions within such a short period of time. The puzzles are a little simple, but the satisfaction of the dual-controlled characters makes the general experience enjoyable as you traverse so many different and unique environments. It’s also incredible the way the player will psychically attach themself to each stick, which is noticeably uncomfortable when one brother is missing. It’s a little disappointing that the graphical design can’t quite live up to its artistic core, but in saying that, it delivers well enough. It’s a wonderful adventure that will keep you invested till the end, and leave you with a strong impression.