A tale of loss, a tale of love and family. Starbreeze Studios' Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is perhaps the closest we've come to a game from Team Ico since Shadow of the Colossus, but more than that it stands on its own two legs as it delivers a memorable and moving fairytale.
The game looks and feels much like a playable fairytale by the Grimm brothers, and there is a lot of that Northern European folklore to it. It feels very familiar and homely even if there are some harsh elements here, the kind you'd weave into a story to keep children from straying into the forest on their own.
"Oh, brother where art thou?" says my left thumb to the right as the two brothers on screen run in opposite directions. Getting to grips with the unique control mechanics of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons will take you a minute or two as you control the two main characters with an analog stick each. Little brother right, big brother left. The corresponding triggers are used to perform context sensitive actions with each such as pulling levers, pushing things or holding on to ledges.
As a result you will be co-operating with yourself for the 4-5 hours that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons lasts. Left thumb and right thumb in perfect unison. No annoying AI partner to have to babysit, but plenty of interesting puzzles and mechanics that support co-operative gameplay. The older brother is stronger and able to pull heavy levers, the younger brother can go places where his brother is too big. There's also a very neat touch where the younger brother is afraid of water, something that ties in very nicely with the story.
Even if the tone is quite dark right from the beginning as the younger brother recalls his mother drowning and the father is taken ill, there are moments of youthful cheer in the early parts of the game. But as the story unfolds and the journey grows more perilous, well, without saying too much this is a game about family and dealing with loss. The brothers go on their adventure in an effort to find the cure for their father's mysterious illness.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is the perfect example of how to keep the narrative minimalistic, but still manage to convey a tremendous amount of emotion. In fact, my eyes were tearing up in one key scene towards the end. The cutscenes are kept to a minimum and the language the characters speak while somewhat intelligible is completely made up. There is no text to take in, no tutorials to work your way through. And none of that is ever needed. It's a game distilled down to the bare essentials and perhaps that's also why it has such an emotional impact. Another reason for the emotional impact is the wonderful score that feels very organic and adds to the surreal atmosphere of the title.
One of the objectives the development team had with the game was to make each puzzle unique and never repeat content. Commendable, but it also causes some issues as not all of the puzzles and mechanics are executed to the same level. A boat sequence for instance stands out as somewhat lacklustre. And while the artisitic vision for the game is flawlessly executed there are issues on the technical side that detract some degree of enjoyment. Characters sometimes appear a little floaty, there is some odd collision detection in places, and the design somewhat allows you do die with one brother, hit an invisible marker with the other and progress to the next section of the game in spite of actually having failed in bringing both brothers safely passed the obstacle. It's minor flaws on the whole, but it detracts a little from the overall enjoyment.
While you'll score a headshot and chop off a limb or two along the journey, Brothers is almost free of direct violence. It's refreshing that while you will be wading through literal rivers of blood, you're not on a killing spree for once. You could compare the journey of the brothers to that of Frodo and Sam as they venture into Mordor, while brave they seldom take on threats straight on.
An interesting note is that I played through the entire game without getting a single achievement (there are 12 in total for 400 points). Each and every one of the achievements are rewarded for finding Easter Eggs and experimenting with mechanics (or so I'm led to believe after reading the descriptions) and none reward simple progression. A nice change of pace, even if it didn't up my gamerscore as I was pushing towards the end for the sake of the review. This could also raise the replay value in what is otherwise a linear game where a second playthrough really isn't prompted.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is one of those games you owe it to yourself to try just because it's something different. It's by no means perfect, but its strong narrative, beautiful aesthetics and surprising soundscape makes for another strong entry in the catalog of Xbox Live's Summer of Arcade.