Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (or, more simply: “Brothers”), developed by Starbreeze Studios, is a big name now and in fact it has been since release. It has been widely praised by fans and critics and actually won Best Xbox Game at this year’s Spike’s video game awards (because I can’t stand calling it “VGX”), beating heavy hitters like Bioshock Infinite and GTA:V. Most especially it has received praise for it’s writing, it’s looks and overall feel. I’m a bit behind the times in that I’ve only managed to play through it now over Christmas.
In Brothers you play as both of a pair of brothers simultaneously, making it a surprisingly unique game in which you essentially have to co-operate with yourself in order to solve a series of uncomplicated puzzles. Designed specifically for XBLA the left analogue stick and left trigger control older Bieber-esque brother while the right analogue stick and trigger control the younger, blonde mop-top brother. Each brother also has unique “gameplay” abilities, with Bieber-hair being stronger (ironically) and Beatles-hair being smaller and nimbler. With both of these protagonists at your fingertips it is up to you to go on a grand scope fantasy adventure to find some special plant which will save your seriously ill father. This is done across a vast fantasy world in which the two brothers have to interact with the environment and work with each other in order to progress.
The first thing to point out is that I was playing the Steam version of the game BUT I was using a 360 controller. I made sure to take a few moments to try out the keyboard controls and I just want to advise that anyone who has yet to buy this game, DO NOT USE THE KEYBOARD CONTROLS. As the game has been designed specifically with the two analogue sticks/triggers in mind, porting it over to the PC was always going to have problems as there is nothing on the keyboard that even comes close to it. The PC port does have a set of controls, which I did try out for half a second, and lo and behold, to my utter lack of astonishment, they were even more bewildering and hopelessly difficult to use than I had been expecting. I want to put it in writing though that this is not a shot at the game or the developers, they did the best they could with what they had but the game was designed for a controller and was never going to succeed on a keyboard. That said, I will, later on in the review, actually even advise that you stay away from the Steam version completely. Going further though I will say that I continually, even towards the end of the 4-5 hour experience, kept fucking up with the movement of the brothers. Comically I would have the two of them smack right into each other and then into opposing walls to try and get them away from each other, and I did this again and again in a Laurel and Hardy style with the difference being that you would have to laugh at me instead of the unfortunate protagonists.
The takes place in an epic fantasy world, which has taken the true definition of “fantasy” in that it is NOT elves and dwarves and men and orcs, but is instead whatever the designers wanted. Across the course of the game you traverse several varied landscapes, with a battlefield of giants connected to both an Antarctic wilderness and a massive, abandoned and ruined fortress. Despite the short and linear nature of the game (as I said, it was only 5 hours long at most) the world succeeded in feeling vast and impressive and actually EPIC. It looks beautiful as well, the slightly comic-y aesthetic combined with rather impressive sweeping visuals and lighting. It has been said by others and I will back it up that the looks of the game contribute massively to it’s impact. On the other hand, while the world does feel big and impressive, the developers clearly wanted to fit lots of different and exciting locations which they succeeded in doing at the cost of sense. These same huge locations connect on to each other with seemingly very little sense or segue, simply moving from a mountain forest into Artic plains at the drop of a hat. If you don’t think about it much then it is irrelevant, but the way the brothers were simply dropped into the unconnected places again and again started to feel a little forced.
While its looks have indeed been praised, the game is mostly lauded for it’s story. This is especially impressive when it becomes obvious that there is no dialogue across the whole game and that every character interacts with nonsense gibberish and clear gestures. Despite the lack of an actual language the meaning of what each character means is always very clear and actually often even has surprisingly subtle moments, for example when the older brother starts to “fall in love” with a female encountered and this results in surprisingly clear jealousy from the little brother, despite the limitation of what can be communicated to the player directly. It is both charming and effective and conveys the story perfectly for what it is, the lack of dialogue never once hinders the game and it continuously managed to evoke a variety of emotions from me.
While all in all it sounds like a very lovely and wonderful adventure for two little boys, the game actually gets really shockingly bleak and dark at times. From the death of the mother, shown in a flashback at the very start, to the sickness of the father, what starts off feeling like a fairy-tale, starts to become more and more dangerous and despairing for the boys, even with the wanderlust visuals. For example, the same giant battlefield I already mentioned, is filled with literal streams of blood and gore and is actually pretty depressing. Interacting with the various fallen gigantic weapons didn’t feel comic in the slightest! Similarly, a sequence set at night in a forest, where the two brothers are surrounded by wolves, was actually genuinely scary and not at all charming and happy.
That is not to say the game does not have those moments of happiness and enjoyment that comes with the feeling of “we’re going on an adventure”, it is simply that they were not all the time. It is, in essence, a grown-up piece of story-telling and not quite the childish and easy thing it first appears.
Overall the game does succeed in being a very evocative and effective piece of design and story-telling. More than once I have to admit to feeling quite moved by various parts of the game and that there were some extremely emotional sections. Overall the writing for the plot combined with the way in which the story is told is pretty sensational and I do feel I can pass on a solid recommendation to anyone who is interested in story driven games.
Overall then it might seem that I am simply going with the flow, I haven’t said anything which hasn’t been said before and I am merely backing up every other critic and gamer out there who has said that this game is absolutely fabulous. Even the infamous cynic Total Biscuit said that this game is what videos games are supposed to be and that he cried twice during it. However, I am not yet done here. I want to put it on record first that I am not doing this because I am desperately trying to be edgy and contemporary. I am hoping that I will not appear to be being nit-picky and simply going against the norm for the sake of it. While, yes, I enjoyed the game, I am afraid that if I were asked to describe it in a word I would say “overrated”.
Now don’t get me wrong, Brothers is definitely a good game and it is both enjoyable and I would recommend it to any gamer who has any modicum of sense, that said I simply think that when people start praising it as the Game of the Year for 2013 I am a little surprised and, quite frankly I disagree
I’ve already voiced a couple of my issues with the game. The environments are too disconnected and unrelated, a vast and epic world it may be but it simply doesn’t fit together to any degree whatsoever. Also while the controls are indeed unique and interesting and are making the most of consoles for what they are, they are also continuously difficult to grasp and so quite frustrating. Also, my major disappoint is actually with the ever lauded story. Yes I liked it and thought it was well written, but I also cannot really think why everyone is so worked up about it. True it did work some emotion from me at times, but never quite to the degree that I was expecting judging from the reviews. It also has to be said that for every effective and poignant portion of the game there was another less effective and forgettable moment, it was not a continuous roller-coaster of emotion but instead merely just had some moments which truly shone.
I’m really struggling here honestly, because I can’t really think why I don’t like this game as much as others have. It’s nothing I can really put my finger on, more a constant sense that it is quite simply not as good as everyone says. True, perhaps my opinion has been jaded here because I heard such good things about it before playing it that I am holding it up to some impossible standard in my mind, but I just don’t see it. I suppose one issue I could point out is the fact that while the game itself may be impressive, the gameplay itself is usually the simple act of “hold down forward and get carted through the set pieces” with the occasional “puzzle” (with the word puzzle in massive quotation marks because the puzzle usually revolves around either pressing a button to open the door or figuring out which brother has to press the button). That said, if forced many games could be squished down to this sort of simplification, but perhaps it is a little more obvious here.
My final gripe is that the game just feels too short. It is a pretty damn good story and has some pretty damn excellent moments in it, but they pass by far too quickly and it’s the sort of linear, one-shot game that only complete crazies can really play through a second time. So maybe it’s not exactly worth the price tag of approximately £10 either (on both Steam and XBLA).
I would finish my review there because everything I say from here on is really more about the PC port rather than the game itself. You see, even playing with a controller plugged into my laptop it seemed that the port was struggling relatively often with various different bits and pieces of the game, making me think that perhaps the port has not only affected the controls but the core gameplay as well. The biggest example of this (although there was more than one) I shall recount for you now. In one section you were required to tie your two brothers together and use both of them to swing across and climb a gigantic castle, where one brother would hold onto one handhold and you had to swing the other back and forth underneath them until they had enough momentum to reach the next handhold. Ignoring the fact that holding bother your own weight and the weight of their brother merely with their arms means that both of these guys are proper hulks, there was one point where I got stuck for literally half an hour. At this point you were required to swing one brother back and forth and get enough momentum to reach a handhold actually higher than the one the current “gripping” brother was holding on to. Try as I might, and I tried many ways, I simply could not get the swing to reach high enough for the swinging brother to grab the next hand hold. I tried everything I could think of and after the half an hour I begrudgingly searched for a guide, only to discover I was most definitely not the only one with this problem. In the end my solution was to do what I had been doing for the whole time, swinging left and right (using the analog stick) to get momentum, but also I had to hold the up-arrow on the keyboard simultaneously in order for the brother to finally reach the handhold. Not exactly the most intuitive way to do it. And there were other occasions as well where the brothers would seem to refuse (or would be unable) to do something I was telling them to do, even when it was blatantly obvious that this was what you were meant to do, much as if they were having temper tantrum for having figured the problem out so quickly and had decided to make me stuck so that I could appreciate the scenery for a little longer. That is the long version anyway. The short version? If you DO get this game (and if one thing my review should make clear is that you don’t absolutely HAVE to), do yourself a favour and get the XBLA version and not the Steam version.