– Beautiful world feels straight out of a fairytale
– Unique controls that require no tutorials; you learn as you play
– Achievements are clever and encourage exploration in an otherwise linear game
– Music is phenomenal
– The “burned house” scene
– Ending segment’s fusion of learned controls with story elements is quite powerful
– Four words: Valley of the Giants
– The bigger emotional moments lack punch or proper buildup (the ending being the exception)
– Game’s ending may frustrate some
– Stick controls can be clunky to figure out for basic movement (works well for climbing)
– Little to no actual gameplay here; sort of a “co-op Uncharted lite”
– 90% of the game’s impact is on the initial discovery; replays seem pointless
– Will only run you, at most, three hours to beat it from start to finish
Brothers will take you some incredible places.
Something that I feel is often forgotten in the gaming medium is its ability to transplant you into the middle of something of great beauty. Movies can often do this with special effects or good art direction, but you’re tied to the characters and your time is limited. Books can also do this to great effect, though there is no visual representation for one to admire; it’s all in your head. Games hold a unique position, as they can create incredible, beautiful worlds, and allow someone to traverse them at their own pace. It’s something that, I feel, is frequently forgotten as we push for “better gameplay” or “more enemies on screen at once.”
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a downloadable game that tries to bring that sense of magical wonder to you, the player. Controlling two brothers you traverse a world that seems straight out of fairy tales. You’ll see some downright crazy stuff, from the rustic, warm village you start in, to freezing ice caps. You’ll soar over mountains and climb massive structures. You’ll dive deep into caves and find unspeakable horrors there. In a sense, it’s like the first time you read The Hobbit: you never know what crazy thing is going to show up next, and how it will bewitch you. But the question is, is that enough to justify it’s $15 price tag? Well…maybe.
If you’re looking for a visual feast, Brothers has got your number.
The story is one of tragedy. It opens with the younger of the two brothers (neither of which are named) watching his mother drown in an unfortunate boating accident. Cut ahead a few years and (unrelated to said drowning), now their father is dying of a really bad cough (the known Movie Killer of Important Mentor Characters). The doctor in the village gives them a scroll with what looks like the Yggdrasil tree, but I might be mistaken, basically saying they need whatever is in that tree to save their father. So the two brothers go off together, trying to save their father before it’s too late.
The characters don’t speak an actual language (it’s been compared to “Simlish,” but it’s much less obnoxious), but they don’t need to; most emotional moments are done via physical reactions and character expressions. The game does this very well, particularly the merging of these emotions with the actual gameplay. While the story itself is a bit light (and the final two “big twists” are poorly foreshadowed and lack an emotional punch), it’s still a whimsical fairy tale and feels like it, so you’re mostly just there for the ride.
That being said, there are two rather emotional story segments that got to me: the burned house (which is a “side mission”) and the final gameplay scenes of the game. While I don’t plan on spoiling it, let me just say that the game does an exceptional job of fusing learned gameplay elements with story to really pack an emotional final punch. It’s unfortunate that the actual final scene is somewhat…lame, and that the game doesn’t really build up enough to justify the twists it presents, but no biggie. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but the story is ok. But just ok.
“You kids wanna go on a super-dangerous quest halfway across the world to a tree that might not exist? It’ll…uh…totally save your dad!”
The gameplay in Brothers is fairly simple. Each brother is controlled with a different analogue stick (meaning a controller is a must for the PC version), and the triggers perform actions with their respective brothers. That’s it. Since 90% of the time you’ll be climbing up stuff, triggers have to be held and released to jump (the pressed again to catch ledges) for each respective brother. The game mixes it up a bit during a rather fun segment where the brothers are tied together, requiring some dexterous controller pressing, but ultimately the control scheme feels…cumbersome. Even after beating the game I never got used to moving the two of them at once, still forgetting which brother was which stick more often than not. I ended up positioning them on screen so they’d match (older brother on left, younger on right) in an attempt to actually be able to walk, but since you have no camera control that didn’t really work. For an inexplicable reason the game doesn’t have multiplayer co-op (though, to be fair, it would diminish the ending scene a little if it did), so it feels like a co-op game that you’re trying to force your way through single player. Regardless, nothing is too dexterous that you’ll die more than a few times, but you might have problems walking them down narrow paths together.
As for the actual gameplay…that’s pretty much it. Since you have just sticks and triggers, your actions are limited. Granted, you can interact with a ton of stuff (chickens, benches, doors, wells, etc.) and each brother will react to the same thing differently (nice touch), but 90% of this game is climbing up stuff. Climbing up obvious pathways a la Uncharted but somehow even more simplified. Point being: you aren’t playing Brothers because of the gameplay. Just…know that going in.
This is what you are playing the game for.
Where it lacks in gameplay and storytelling it makes up in the journey itself. Brothers may not be a technical powerhouse (though the draw distance they got on the Unreal Engine is impressive), its warm and soft aesthetic and incredibly detailed vistas steal the show. The developers knew this, too, and put random benches just around scenic spots where you can sit and stare in awe at their pretty scenes. In any other game I’d consider that a bit pretentious, but in Brothers it works. It knows why you are here, and gives you the means to best engage in that.
Perhaps the best bits about the visuals are the parts that are understated. While you’re crawling through the mines (arguably the weakest aesthetics in the game), far below you can see a glimpse of silhouettes of giants mining next to large forges, miles beneath. As you carefully slide through an icy shelf, frozen shapes of figures in a battle field, flash-frozen and snowed over, are alongside you as you pass. And the Valley of Giants…well…let’s just say it’s one of the most shocking yet still incredible scenes in a game I’ve seen (and the buildup/hints towards it are also clever). Brothers is a game all about the journey, and it doesn’t fail to deliver on the visual aspects.
Sound is also phenomenal, with the soundtrack being one of the best I’ve heard in years. Soft, with slight Celtic undertones, it kicks in at exactly the right moments, being both somber and (in some rare moments) jovial as necessary. The “voice acting” is just nonsense, but you’ll know the word for “brother” by the end.
Don’t go to the Youtube video and read the comments (spoilers)
So…in the end, is Brothers really that amazing? Does it really pack that emotional punch that several reviewers are raving over? Is it a journey worth taking?
Well…it depends, mostly on the person. For me, the final moments were very emotional, but mostly because of the brilliant way it fused the learned gameplay with a reoccurring story element (as well as the underlying meaning of said element as it applies to the real world). That being said, the emotional punches the story tries to pull are frequently not well deserved, and while you will get an emotional bond with these two simply by playing (I would often have the older brother go first, then wait for the younger one to “keep up” in dangerous areas), the story doesn’t foreshadow the biggest twists well enough for it to work.
That being said…
Brothers is still absolutely worth playing if you value games doing something different. I, for one, loved just exploring the world. I’d often take things slowly, staring in awe and shock at the things I was discovering, and cowering in fear at the genuinely creepy bits that popped up now and again. I wish I could have spent more time in it, fleshing out the story and seeing more amazing places, people, and creatures. But, with a running time of just under three hours (and the game’s impact being on a first viewing, meaning replaying it is pointless), it’s a very hard sell. In addition to having the clunky controls, the game is certainly not for everybody.
But for me, I still heartily recommend it (especially since you can grab it on PC for under $7 if you’re deal-savvy). It won’t blow your mind with crazy gameplay or a jaw-dropping story, but it will entertain, enchant, and entrance you for its whole duration. Please, game developers, make more games like this.
It’s worth it for the Valley of the Giants. That’s…just all I’m saying.
Three out of five stars.
Just have a seat, chew on the scenery, and play some Brothers.