Renowned for developing first person shooters, it may surprise some to discover that Starbreeze Studios are behind this charming indie adventure. Whether they choose to continue developing titles like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is unclear, but they’ve certainly proven that they’re more than capable of expanding their scope.
The title opens with a young boy suffering a traumatic flashback of his mother drowning and being unable to save her. After being roused from the nightmare by his elder brother, it appears that their father is gravely ill and at the behest of the local healer, the two brothers embark upon a great adventure across land, sea and air to secure a cure.
As the brothers set out on their quest through the Tolkien-inspired world, you’ll be introduced to the game’s interesting control scheme. This curious layout sees the controller divided, with the right half commanding the younger brother and the left the elder. As you would expect, the respective sticks are responsible for manoeuvring the siblings and holding L2 or R2 will cause that brother to interact with whatever may be nearby. For example, a turnstile that actives a lift would require holding both triggers so the two brothers interact with either side of it. You’d then have to pull back on one stick while pushing forward with the other to turn the object.
There’s a little more to it than that, though, as each brother is capable of different things. In one instance, interacting with a busy gardener with the younger brother will cause him to slap the florist on the rear, startling him, while interacting with the elder brother will cause him to produce a map and ask for directions. As the game is predominantly puzzle-based, this basic principle carries over, where the younger brother’s small size and the elder brother's strength are key to overcoming obstacles.
One particular moment that springs to mind is where the brothers are scaling the exterior of a castle-like structure. Attached by a rope, one brother has to hold onto an outcropping whilst the other swings below him. The momentum of the swing is controlled by that brother’s analogue stick and, once he’s reached the height required to grab onto the next ledge, you must alternate the controls so the other brother can swing to the following handhold. It’s a delicate ballet of finger movements and, once you get the hang of a particular hurdle, it’ll feel like second nature. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.
While it could be argued that splitting the brother’s respective controls to either side of the pad is meant to emphasise some deep and meaningful metaphor, in practical terms, it’s very hard to wrap your head around. The best way to describe it is like trying to pat your head and rub your belly simultaneously (which we’re totally capable of, by the way), because once the two brothers are on the ‘wrong side of the screen’ - i.e. big brother controlled by the left inputs is on the right of the screen, and vice versa – it can scramble your brain. There were several occasions where the brothers became mixed up and our brain confused the two of them, causing us to direct them to run into walls and forcing us to stop and work out who was where – which pulled us right out of the experience.
The puzzles are also rather disappointing and are more irksome obstacles that need to be overcome than baffling enigmas. The only reason we had with any difficulty with any of these challenges was the time it took to wrestle the aforementioned control issues, not to mention the numerous retries when these button combinations were attempted under dangerous circumstances.
Thankfully, the game’s cartoony visual flair and richly detailed world is enough to soften these issues. You’ll traverse luscious greenery, snowy mountains and gloomy forests on your journey, all of which bring their own challenges and gameplay opportunities. It’s also rather refreshing to not understand a word of the Sims-like language that the world’s inhabitants natter to each other in, relying instead upon body language, facial expressions and their tone of voice to decipher what they’re discussing. Despite not understanding the language, it’s impressive how we still felt protective and emotionally invested in the two boys as they risked life and limb to save the life of their last remaining parent.
However, you shouldn’t for a second let yourself be lulled into a false sense of security, because just as you become used to the charming, bustling village landscape where the game begins, it’s not long before things become very dark indeed. Hanging corpses, rabid wolves and the scene of a horrible battle will be sure to throw you off your guard, but there are still glimmers of hope that juxtapose the boy’s dwindling innocence. Having been through what they’d been through, the unadulterated joy that escapes the brother’s mouths as they ride goats up a steep mountain made us feel a yearning sadness for the pair and strengthened our resolve to help them complete their quest.
While it may not have the innovative gameplay of Fez or the striking art style of Limbo, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is certainly worth its salt and manages to pack an emotional punch despite lacking intelligible dialogue or AAA graphics. Marred only by occasionally obtuse controls and a slight lack of difficulty, if this is the kind of content we can expect from Sony’s army of indie developers, the future is very bright indeed.