Friday 15 November 2013

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

The Title Screen

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a singleplayer only, adventure platformer by Starbreeze Studios. Released in 2013, it is available solely via download on Steam, XBLA and PSN.

Disclaimer : Brothers is short and very story driven. Care has been taken to avoid spoilers, but that also means some points may not be fully explored.

The First Thing
Brothers is a good looking game. A really good looking game. Not in fidelity, but in style. The colourful and visually diverse imagery goes far in creating an air of mystery and fantasy about the world. It is a nice example of how visual style can trump realism and makes a very pleasing first impression.

Plot & Devices
In an unknown fantasy kingdom, two brothers live with their father. Their mother was lost to drowning and when the father becomes deathly ill, the two must travel on an adventure to find a mythical tree for the only cure. Along the way they will encounter monsters, wonders, dangers and explore the meaning of life and death.

Little brother, father and big brother
The story is the game and drives every aspect. Since the characters talk in Sim-style gibberish, events are conveyed almost entirely visually. The father coughs, and a local man has a picture of something that looks like a tree. Other than that we are essentially left to fill in the blanks ourselves. It is not a complex story and I never had any trouble working out the essence of what was going on. Character and story progression is mostly advanced through short, in-game cutscenes that blend fairly seamlessly with gameplay.

One should note that although the art style is cartoon-like, the themes conveyed are anything but childish. The story is ultimately about how death impacts life and is explored quite literally at times.

The Game
The control system of Brothers is central to the experience and important to address first. There are four controls (six if you count rotate camera left and right) and they are
  • Left thumbstick to move older brother, left trigger for him to 'interact' 
  • Right thumbstick to move younger brother, right trigger for him to 'interact'
This can be disorientating and quite often you may find one brother running in an unintended direction. Despite this, the controls elegantly tie into the story's emphasis of two brothers working together through hardship. Each half of the controller represents half of the brothers.

'Interact' is basically 'perform a context sensitive action'. It can be anything from 'hold on to a ledge/saw/end of a pole', to more precise actions. It is a little hard to explain, but the controls feel quite intuitive when thought of as reflecting 'two people working together'. Releasing 'interact' does have implications to gameplay and one of the primary challenges is remembering which controls apply to which brother when performing some of the more complex platforming. Releasing the wrong brother at the wrong time can have fatal consequences. I personally found it helpful where possible to keep the brothers on sides of the screen that match the controller layout.

Standard Brothers puzzles. Working together, and moving with thumbsticks

Although the controls are unconventional, the overall gameplay is very simple and amounts to "keep moving forward". The characters will jump over any obstacle they are supposed to, crouch for any hole and slow down where appropriate. Invisible walls prevent falling off most edges and the only time the player can 'die' from platforming is if they release 'interact' when clinging to a ledge/wall over a great fall. Dying returns the player to the most recent checkpoint and is a fairly generous system. There is no combat, although occasionally the brothers encounter enemies that will kill and must be dealt with in some fashion.

The puzzles are also simple and essentially boil down to discovering how to deal with each situation with both brothers. The puzzles themselves are quite varied and is easier to just list some examples:
  • Using both brothers to push or rotate an object aside by interacting with it
  • Fending off attackers with fire, and moving both forward inside in the circle of light; using the brother with the torch to 'interact' and wave the torch at the attackers.
  • Separating the brothers so one can perform an action that allows the other to proceed.
Its seemed to me that 'solving' the puzzles was not the primary point, but more the experience using two separate controllable entities. I found solving the problems in Brothers satisfying in a different way than standard puzzle games.

Graphically the game is not intensive and the camera is mostly fixed in an isometric point of view. As mentioned before, the art style is impressive and appropriate. The characters travel through a varied landscape and each area shows evidence of thoughtful design. Nice visual touches such as ripples on water or footprints in snow all help add to the feeling of adventure. Throughout the game the player will discover benches where the brothers can sit down and the camera pans to show the overall scenery. As well as indicating the next step of the journey, the benches presents a nice opportunity to admire the visuals.

Puzzles combine art style, story and control schemes

The spoken language is gibberish, but voice tone still conveys emotion. Mostly this works fine when it sticks to short and punchy 'conversation'. The music is not memorable, but plays a huge role in establishing the atmosphere. Sound effects are solid and appropriate too.

It is an excellent PC version with constant 60FPS, (very brief frame slowdown when loading a new area). Although it has keyboard and mouse controls, it just is not that kind of game and that is fine, not all games have to play with them (looking at you, elitist PC gamers). I encountered some small visual bugs once or twice, but nothing worth detailing.

Wrap Up & Negatives
I feel Brothers is an example of a game where brevity is detrimental. Since this is a very story-driven experience, the shortness of the campaign (two and a bit hours) resulted in a lack of personal investment for me. More time was needed to flesh out character and drama. As the game jumps straight into "mother has died, and now father is sick too. Go quest!", we are given no time to get to know the characters and become emotionally involved in their story. This is what I call 'textbook' emotional story telling: we are being told that the situation is sad, which is not the same as genuinely feeling sad.

For me this then came to a pinnacle with the ending, which I can't discuss much because of spoilers. The game was going through the standard ways emotion is manipulated, but I felt like I was being told what I should be feeling. Perhaps this was furthered by the gibberish language and maybe some actual dialogue would have helped. 

Feel something!

I do not consider the unconventional control scheme a negative (although some might). Whilst it is very immersion breaking to have one brother run continuously into a wall because of a momentary player lapse, the controls fit the game perfectly. In fact Brothers is the only example I can think of where a game's mechanics actually contributes to the story, which is an exceptional accomplishment (I don't count Spec Ops: The Line's "controls are bad because war is bad" thing).

I find myself at odds with the majority of the reviews which highlight the emotional impact of the title. I found Brothers interesting, but I disagree that this game comes close to the emotional power of say, The Walking Dead. I wonder whether in an age of many emotionless releases, people tend towards over-enthusiasm for titles that moved them only a little. I cried at the end of The Walking Dead (even on a second play-through), but experienced nothing like that here.

Because my reviews split games into components (story, gameplay, etc) I do a disservice to this title. The true worth of Brothers is how well it combines all game elements into a singular experience. That alone would be enough for a recommendation, but the fact that it is also a good game makes it a 'must play' title. It was fun. It looked nice. And I liked it a lot.


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Comments and opinions always welcome!