It all starts innocently enough with a pair of brothers making their way through town. Sure, there’s a task at hand, but urgency isn’t an issue. It should be, but it isn’t. Soaking in the warm glow of the sun and playing with some bunnies feel like more pertinent matters.
Before long, it’s not apparent where the siblings are, but it’s obvious that they took an unexpected turn toward Crazyville. Thinking back to just a few hours prior, it’s remarkable that this is even the same adventure — how far things have come.
That’s when it hits you. Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons isn’t about the destination; it’s about the journey, cliché be damned. And, oh, what a journey it is.
Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons (Xbox Live Arcade [reviewed], PlayStation Network, PC)
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Released: August 7, 2013 (XBLA), TBA (PSN, PC)
MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points, $14.99
Brothers follows, well, two brothers as they embark on a quest to cure their ailing father. Despite speaking in a language of gibberish, it’s easy to pick up on each’s character traits. The blue one is older, stronger, respectful, and more emotionally mature. The red one is younger, mischievous, and nimble. As expected, they play off one another, and the game does a good job depicting them as incomplete parts to a cohesive whole unit.
The most easily recognizable theme of Brothers is the bond between siblings, and Starbreeze turned this into the core mechanic of the game. The left analog stick controls the movement of the blue brother, the right analog stick controls the movement of the red brother, and the respective triggers function as each’s action button. The pared-down control scheme offers a level of simplicity that’s rarely seen in videogames, which would be nice if it worked fluidly.
Unfortunately, the dueling-stick approach never becomes consistently comfortable. It isn’t bad when the brothers are moving side-by side, but it’s difficult to replicate when they’re further apart. Throughout the three to four hour game, moments of Zen-like unity occasionally occur, which are quickly erased when the camera swings around and you’ve unwittingly made one brother run into a wall.
Surprisingly, the control issues aren’t game-breaking. In fact, they’re relatively easy to look past. They constantly walk the line between “kind of irksome” and “frustrating”, but never really cross it. It’s completely due to Brothers‘ structure that this is the case. A more challenging game might not get a pass, but Brothers makes it evident that it’s not here to challenge you.
Rather, Brothers almost always moves along at a relaxed pace. You’d be hard-pressed to qualify its puzzles as such, because nearly all of them have an immediately obvious solution that’s easy to perform and difficult to screw up. It’s less about skill, and more about carrying out the requisite actions to further the adventure. It’s possible to die, but if it happens, you likely won’t make the same mistake twice.
There’s a bit in chapter four where the brothers are tethered together by a rope and need to climb around the outside of a structure. As one brother hangs on, the other pendulums laterally to the next hold. It’s an uncomplicated section, and most will instantly identify the required strategy. However, when it comes to implementation, it’s tough to not feel a sort of guilty cleverness if you move through the area too fast, almost as if you’re somehow outsmarting the game.
That’s how Brothers lures you in — with its accessibility. It provides comfort with its simple puzzles, radiantly beautiful backdrops, and charming musical score. It’s truly immersive, especially in the first hour or so (I’m convinced that a heads-up display would provide no greater disservice to a game than to this one). Then, things go off the rails.
For a game that sets the tone with such serenity and a lackadaisical carefree attitude, Brothers turns dark and it does so quickly. I don’t wish to spoil a single instance, but Brothers certainly crescendos throughout the entire experience, as it all becomes progressively more bleak and somber. Everything from narrative points to set pieces to isolated incidents that you weren’t even necessarily supposed to find, they all ooze a positively depressing aura that seemed impossible from the outset.
All of this is made considerably more notable by the fact that Brothers is a love story, or, maybe more accurately, a collection of love stories. Regardless of how melancholy things may get, there’s always a love-induced spirit overshadowing everything, for better and for worse. Whether it’s a pair of cave trolls reunited, a man absolutely wrecked by the death of his family, or even a couple of birds that have been uncaged and found one another again, Brothers never lets the player forget that love is the primary motif for this tale.
That’s precisely what makes Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons so endearing — the undeniable contrast created by the highs and lows that come with the entire experience being driven by love. It’s so strong that it even dwarfs the game’s core mechanical flaws, making them feel trivial when they should sully the whole affair. It’s a powerful venture that isn’t necessarily about where you began or where you end up; it’s about everything that happened in between.