Stories about young boys undergoing severe trauma and fear are becoming quite the XBLA Indie theme isn’t it? I guess there’s some primal part of us that engages with children more readily than we engage with adults, and that we can form an emotional connection with the speed that these, often briefer, indie games require. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons falls firmly into the ‘artsy’ game category, and your ability to enjoy it will come with many caveats; namely, whether you can forgive distinctly iffy gameplay for the sake of ‘art.’
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons follows a pair of erm…brothers, whose father has been taken with a mysterious illness. Their mother had drowned not long before, so the two set out to retrieve a strange medicine from a magical tree which can save their father’s life.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons takes place in a faintly Nordic inspired fantasy land, which starts out with a pleasantly twee, Fable-esque tone to it. This doesn’t last long though, and Brothers takes a massive turn for the dark a bit later on, with some genuinely chilling and horrifying environments, and an unsettling feeling that the idyllic charm of the beginning village is a front for a brutal and violent world. Don’t get me wrong, this world is frequently incredibly beautiful, and the game knows it, offering you regular benches that you can sit upon and get a great glimpse of the surprisingly huge vistas on offer, but behind that beauty is some truly horrific and violent imagery.
Although there is voice acting in this game, they don’t speak in any language, instead in a garbled gobbledegook. Dialogue really isn’t needed though, and it’s not difficult to tell what’s going on, with the voice actors doing an admirable job conveying their feelings purely through the tone of their voice without any reliance on actual words. The plot is well told overall, and we genuinely get a real understanding for the characters of the two brothers based on their reactions to the world. The older is more responsible, tough and chivalrous, and the younger is more playful, more sensitive and has a slight cruel streak common in young boys. The fact that these characters end up so well defined with the limited tools they can use is very impressive.
A few reviewers have called Brothers a co-op single player game, and there really is no other way to describe it. Each brother is controlled with an analogue stick, with their interactions with the world mapped to the trigger buttons. Although this is initially a highly off putting control scheme, by the end I got the hang of it, and it’s a great case of using the basic mechanics of the game to reinforce your ideas. You’ll mostly be running around looking at stuff, and there’s a lot of reward in slowing down and exploring your environments; all the achievements are tied to optional little secrets rather than the main story, and I encountered less than half even while I was trying to take it slow. There are plenty of simple puzzles, although none are too taxing, with many being typical ‘co-op adventure game’ puzzles mapped to a single player game, giving the familiar a new spin. There are some great set piece moments too, with the highlight of the game being a section where the brothers are tied together and must swing each other up platforms to climb a tower. It’s a simple mechanic, but requires a fair bit of concentration and dexterity.
That said, this game is horribly clunky, and without the ability to control the camera with the right stick, seeing where you’re going is a pain. The best ‘artsy’ indie games have really great gameplay alongside their interesting narratives, such as Braid, but Brothers is more like Limbo, serviceable gameplay which is upstaged by its atmosphere. Brothers is frequently enchanting, moving and funny, but it’s not always a lot of fun.
Although the environments are gorgeous, the character models are actually quite hideous, but I suspect that resources were tight and they absolutely made the right call putting the world first. Brothers has a lovely soundtrack, which varies from grand and uplifting to absolutely heart wrenching.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a great piece of interactive art, but not necessarily a great videogame. If you’re looking for excitement or refined gameplay you won’t get it here, but you may end up with one of the most stirring and moving gaming experiences you’ll play all year.