Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-09-15 08:11:05
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons Review - A Tale Worth Telling
Some games leave you buzzing long after the credits role. During this generation of gaming, there have been a few select titles that leave the player feeling as if they have undergone a sense of personal catharsis after finishing them: The Walking Dead; Journey; Dear Esther - these are but a few examples of games that perfectly capture a sense of wonder and emotional weight that pushes the limits of what a video game can do and mean to the player. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (PC/PSN/XBLA) is the next in a line of beautiful artsy games that, like the above, keep the player reflecting on them long after the console has been switched off.
At its heart, Brothers is one of the best examples of a Bildungsroman - a 'coming-of-age' narrative - that I have ever experienced in a video game. This is the tale of two brothers - a younger and an older sibling - on a journey to save their dying father by retrieving a life-giving liquid from a far away location. This journey takes the brothers from their idyllic village in the middle of a Norse-inspired countryside through a series of increasingly challenging environments that test their brotherly bond and speaks volumes about their commitment to their family. The lengths that these two brothers will go to in order to protect each other and save their father is a universal message, brought to life by actions rather than words - there is no discernible voice acting in Brothers outside of a made-up and expressive language, and the game instead relies on conveying emotion through how characters act and respond to one another.
It is a testament to the game's design that it is always clear and apparent what is going on, despite the lack of a single word on screen or phrase uttered that would imply where the story is heading. Brothers does a fantastic job of telling a story at the most pure and deepest level - anyone, regardless of language or location, can appreciate the events on screen, and every laugh, scream and tear is effectively conveyed through visuals and audio alone. Brothers is a thoroughly beautiful game - the art direction, inspired by an appreciation for Norse mythology and Tolkien-esque environments and lore, is superb, and every new location is an absolute joy to experience. The game relishes on its beauty, with camera angles ensuring that the best possible view is always being conveyed to the player. Moreover, Brothers knows who its audience is, and appreciates the time patient players will spend lapping up its wondrous world - benches are peppered throughout the game that the brothers can sit on; doing so softly shifts the camera into a position that shows the horizon for miles and miles into the distance. You can sit there watching the view and listening to the excellent ambient sound effects for hours.
As gorgeous as the visuals are, Brothers isn't restricted to impressing merely by how it looks; every location features myriad environmental objects to interact with, and this is where the heart of the game truly lies. Each brother can interact with characters and objects differently, and it's fascinating to take your time playing through the game examining every nook and cranny to see how the brothers approach situations in different ways based on their ages and individual perceptions on life. The older brother can strum a harp and make a complete racket; the younger brother can attempt to play and find that he's a prodigy. The older brother may observe a bird in a cage from afar; the younger brother may curiously open the door of the cage, causing the bird to fly away. The game is full to the brim with situations that each brother approaches differently, and this is where much of the personality of Brothers comes from. There are so many optional situations that the player can approach across the game's six-or-so hour story that it feels like you're wandering through a fairytale, reaching out to touch every last drop of creativity produced by the development team.
As different as the brothers are, they are united in their mission to save their father, and thus much of the core gameplay of Brothers requires the siblings to work together to solve puzzles. Some of these puzzles are fairly simplistic; others are incredibly clever. All, however, work in the context of the story and never feel forced, as they are all developed to facilitate the brothers getting one step closer to their goal. Players might need to make the brothers work together to saw down a tree; they may require the little brother to cling to the older brother as they struggle together through a fast-flowing river, as the younger brother doesn't know how to swim. Each new environment features increasingly clever ways for the brothers to work together, and while no puzzle will truly stump the player, they are all well-executed and engaging. Brothers isn't a hard game, by any means, and is rather an experience-based game that wants you to appreciate it and to make constant progress. While you can die, having another go at a puzzle is as simple as pressing a button; the game wants to immerse the player, and thus its puzzles are intelligent, requiring thought but being easy enough to solve without frustration.
The core gameplay of Brothers works so admirably because of its unique control scheme - each brother is mapped to a different analogue stick (big brother on the left; little brother on the right) and each brother interacts with objects with their respective trigger button. While it's difficult at first to get the hang of controlling two characters at once, it soon becomes second nature: there's a point where everything suddenly clicks, and what at first seems like a questionable design decision becomes an obvious choice for the nature of the game. When the brothers row a boat together, for example, the analogue sticks work together to represent each brother's rowing actions with their oars; when they use a hand-glider, the brothers need to position their weight to control the direction that it flies in.
As the game goes on, the masterful nature of its control scheme becomes more apparent. Without spoiling too much, right near the end of Brothers the control scheme reveals itself to be one of the most brilliant input methods that I have experienced in a video game. The younger brother, having spent most of the game learning from the older brother through story and dynamic events, finally begins to demonstrate the things his brother has taught him. When this happens in the story, the younger brother gains full control of the gamepad, including the left side of the pad that was once reserved for his brother, with both analogue sticks affecting his movement and both trigger buttons allowing him to interact with things. It's an utterly incredible experience when you realise that the game's control scheme changes to represent the things the younger brother has picked up from the older brother - rather than the single analogue stick method being a limitation, it is all part of the younger brother's coming-of age-process. When it hit me that this is the case, I picked my jaw up off of the floor and applauded the game for its ingenuity.
Brothers is an emotional experience that has to be played by anyone looking for something more in their video games. Over the last five or so years we have seen the birth of the art-game; the titles that really try, and succeed, in making the player feel something truly remarkable in the way that a significant work of cinema or literature might. Games such as Brothers exist to remind the gamer that video gaming is an art form that captures a level of interactivity on the user's part that no other medium can convey. Brothers is a true work of art - a game brought to life with stunning visual effects and an attention to detail that puts most games to shame. Its soundtrack is at a movie-level quality; its world invokes memories of the best fairytales from your childhood. Its narrative is a collection of unique situations taken on by two brothers who represent the polarization of young and old and 'family' in the purest sense of the word - each new magnificent creature met and every single location visited weaves perfectly into the enchanting tapestry that is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.