Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Platforms: PSN, Steam, XBLA (reviewed)
When it comes to Arcade titles, I think we often temper our expectations at least a little bit; whether we’re willing to admit it out loud or not. The obvious assumption is that, because a game is cheaper, it is somehow inherently of less value. While this next bit is admittedly pure speculation, perhaps it’s because the adventures take less time to complete from start to finish, or because they lack the eye-dazzling HD CGI that screams “AAA” so expected of console gaming today. I bring this up not to fan the debate between price vs. value, as that is one for another time, but rather in an attempt to justify my initial reaction to completing Starbreeze Studios’ latest title, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. To put it simply, I was shocked.
Shocked in a good way, mind you. From all of the trailers, it became quite clear the game had a lot of heart. What I didn’t expect was a thrilling balance between emotional storytelling and unique gameplay mechanics that made for such an enthralling experience I completely forgot I was playing a $15 arcade game, instead of the latest offering from Naughty Dog or David Cage. Combining the talents of award-winning Swedish film director Josef Fares and Starbreeze Studios, known most for their development of the Payday and Chronicles of Riddick franchises, Brothers tell the story of two sons going on a life-changing journey in search of a cure for their ailing father.
Two things about Brothers stand out the most: The gameplay and the story. Since the unique controls are likely to be a topic of discussion for any who decide to play through the game, let’s begin there. Brothers is a single-player adventure, yet players will be in direct control of both brothers simultaneously. The left thumbstick and left trigger are assigned to the older brother, while the right stick and right trigger control the younger brother. Obviously, the sticks are used for movement, while the triggers are then used as the action buttons, which allow each brother to interact with the environment. If this sounds confusing or difficult, it is, at least at first. Navigating the world takes a bit of getting used to, but the end result is not only a fantastic test of mental dexterity, but also a truly unique take on co-op play from a single-player perspective.
Adding to the challenge of simply getting from A to B with this unfamiliar navigation method is the inclusion of puzzle platforming. This won’t be the first time I draw this comparison throughout the course of this review, but Brothers comes off a bit like Limbo in so far as the game’s approach to puzzle solving. The environment presents everything the two brothers need to overcome the obstacles barring their progression, but there are no hints, HUDs, or dialogue to assist the player in figuring out how to move forward. Instead, the focus is on careful attention to detail, forcing the brothers to really soak in everything about their surroundings. There are no health or stamina bars, no collectibles to worry about, and no Lives counter in the corner either, so there is absolutely no clutter on the screen. This makes it easy to really get lost in the world while also allowing for the emphasized focus on exploratory puzzle solving the game focuses on. After a brief prologue that introduces basic navigation, Brothers quickly tasks players with climbing, swinging, and swimming their way to their ultimate end goal. There is a bit of room for exploration and experimentation, in fact all of the achievements in Brothers are unlocked by completing secondary tasks discovered off the beaten path. Still, these are very brief excursions that will only take the duo a few minutes away from their primary adventure. Outside of these achievements, puzzles only have a singular completion method so they are fairly straightforward.
Shifting gears, the story aspect of Brothers is equally as enticing as the gameplay mechanics. While the basic idea of sons going off on an adventure in the name of their father is hardly an original concept, Starbreeze manages to make the tale their own by making a number of interesting decisions. The first of which is that there is no actual dialogue in the game. Characters speak a language which will seem familiar to those fluent in “Simlish,” so most interactions between the brothers and NPCs will consist of a lot of exaggerated gestures. For seasoned gamers paying close attention, some of the earlier chapters of Brothers will seem like a basic tutorial of tried-and-true puzzle platforming, with NPCs pointing exactly to where players should go to progress. The trade off is that the story is heavily reliant on players forming an emotional connection and vested interest in the brothers, a feat easily accomplished by the characters’ endearing charm. Couple this with the carefully programmed character animations, and it doesn’t take much to understand what the brothers and those around them are saying.
What also makes the gamble to not include any dialogue pay dividends for the game are the well-crafted characters themselves. Every character in the game is brimming with personality, not just the brothers, although they themselves maintain the spotlight. The older brother does his best to stay calm and keep his little brother out of harm’s way, while the younger brother is curious in nature. Being understandably immature, the younger brother views the world with a wide-eyed wonderment; leading him to do silly things like mimicking a scarecrow as it’s arms gently flow in the breeze. He is mischievous and, although not inherently a troublemaker, his curiosity often leads him towards danger or unfavorable outcomes. To that end, most adults won’t speak to him or give him the information needed to proceed, so the older brother conducts most informational exchanges with villagers and other NPCs.
The environments themselves are equally engaging, as their are countless objects on screen at any time that the brothers can look at or interact with in even the smallest of ways. The younger brother can skip rocks at the beach, while the older brother sits on a bench and surveys the environment, planning out where the two must go next. While many objects that can be interacted with are done so for puzzle-solving purposes, plenty of others are simply little touches that bring life to the world and the brothers. This encourages exploration and helps further flesh out each brother’s personality, as both will interact with the same object in different ways.
Brothers does a heck of a lot right, but there are some unfortunate technical flaws that hold it back from being a shining example of near-perfection. For one thing, there are a few segments scattered throughout the game when the brothers will have a traveling companion to assist them on their journey. In these instances, if one of the brothers falls during platforming or otherwise unexpectedly collides with the NPC companion during a character animation, the controls will lock up and force a restart. It’s not a situation that happens very often, and the limited platforming segments involving NPCs makes this an issue most folks won’t encounter at all, but when it does it can be frustrating. I will caution those who decide to play through the game, however, that there is a major glitch that can be found in Chapter 5 that will force players to restart the entire chapter (which admittedly will only set you back about 20 minutes or so): There is a segment involving a tribe offering up a girl as sacrifice to their deity. Once this segment is reached, do not attempt to backtrack. Doing so will trigger an unwanted autosave and prevent the brothers from being able to complete the puzzle in this segment. I’m being intentionally vague to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but that should be a fitting enough description to deter those from making the mistake I made and having to restart the chapter.
Another small technical issue is one of sound mixing. As I mentioned, the characters speak in gibberish, so what they’re actually saying is of little consequence. Yet, often times the background music will overshadow and drown out the conversation between characters during cutscenes, making the decision to include “dialogue” at all feel unnecessary. Whether or not the player can understand the language is irrelevant, if it’s going to be included in the game we should be able to hear it. There is also a proximity issue when trying to interact with objects close to one another. Starbreeze does a good job of limiting the potential for this issue to arise by having the two brothers climb ledges simply with a directional input of the thumbstick, as opposed to having to hold the action button, but there are still a few instances where it pops up. In these cases, it can take a handful of tries to get one of the brothers to pick up the object needed to progress a puzzle segment instead of interacting with some other irrelevant object in the environment.
While this last note is admittedly not a technical error or glitch of any kind, I have a small issue with the main menu. Brothers features an autosave mechanic so there are no save slots to speak of, which means when the game starts up again, players have three choices familiar to most games: New Game, Continue, and Chapter Select. With most games, after the initial start up and first autosave, the game will automatically assume you’d like to continue the adventure upon returning to the main menu. Brothers, however, keeps the cursor on New Game until players manually slide down to select continue each and every time. While this may not seem like a big deal, remember that there is only a single save slot. So, should a player quit a game halfway through a chapter, then accidentally select New Game while rapidly clicking through the main menu, the autosave can be overridden. The end result is having to go back to Chapter Select and replaying a chapter until reaching the original progression point.
These handful of hiccups are easy to overlook and hardly detract from the overall experience and enjoyment of the game. It is worth mentioning, though, one thing that might be off-putting to potential players, and it is another comparison that can be drawn for those who played Limbo; one of morbid charm. If I had to describe Brothers, I would call it morbidly charming. The story is surprisingly dark, which starkly contrasts the bright color palette, serene music, and overall tone derived from the gameplay. During the late game, the story sinks deeper into these twisted undertones, and even the gameplay becomes rather morbid. It’s an unexpected turn, culminating in an ending quite indicative of the adventure as a whole. While the story certainly doesn’t suffer for it, and nothing ever feels out of place or uncharacteristic, it’s just not something I expected from everything I’d known about the game up until I actually played it all the way through. Basically, don’t go into Brothers expecting a cheery walk through a woods full of rainbows or birds who harmonize while you sweep a dusty kitchen floor, because you’ll walk away melancholy if not all together depressed.
Ultimately, Brothers is an experience worth having. The game is never overly challenging and puzzles for much of the early stages are rudimentary, but the unique controls that seem foreign at first become intuitive in little time, offering a satisfying challenge in their own right. The idea of challenging a player’s mental dexterity as opposed to relying on frustrating combat or overly complicated quick-time events allows players to feel like every success or failure is their own, making the experience for better and worse the sole responsibility of the player. Even though the story is darker than I expected and becomes increasingly morbid as the game continues, it manages to retain a consistent charm throughout the nine chapters (including the prologue and epilogue) that span roughly 4 hours, and is very well executed. This is one tale of two sons that should not be passed up.
If you enjoyed what you read, don’t forget to like IGXPro on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or give us the ‘ol +1 on Google+. And if you can’t get enough of my shenanigans, (who could blame you?) you can check me out @GamingsNirvana, or add +VinnyParisi to your circles.