In my first moments of playing Brothers: A Tale of Sons, it really puzzled me as to why this wasn’t a two-player co-op game. Not just co-op as an optional extra forced in for the sake of including multiplayer–the game is designed around the concept of making the two protagonists work together. So to then tell you that this is exclusively a solo experience may seem more than a little odd.
But it doesn’t take long to understand why this has to be experienced by you alone. These aren’t just two characters you simply pick between; playing as just one brother simply would not work. They work as one cohesive unit, and their progress depends on their brotherhood. To separate them in the hands of two different players would not only break the bond between the siblings, but would split the true core and mechanics of this game. While that may sound like an incredibly exaggerated statement, I genuinely believe there is a physical as well as emotional connection with the inseparable protagonists. And the only way you can understand this is by picking up that controller yourself.
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade [reviewed], PlayStation Network, PC)
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Released: August 7, 2013 (XBLA), 28 August, 2013 (PC), 3 September, 2013 (PSN)
MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points, $15.00 / £10.20
The game begins with a somewhat moody opening set-up. A father of two boys is taken ill by an unnamed illness, and your very first gameplay task is to escort your sick papa to into your home. The pair are then determined to travel to find the cure for their ailling father, and the adventure begins. And oh, what an adventure it is.
Despite the urgency of their task, the brothers are carefree and happy travelling through their sweet and humble village. None of the characters are named, nor are any of the many destinations you traverse. In fact, the people don’t even speak English, instead interacting with gibberish language. Yet, despite every aspect of the game being shrouded in mystery, at no point does it feel pretentious and artificially trying to be “art”–if anything, the game feels very accessible.
Even without comprehensible dialect, it is very clear to understand what the brothers are saying, and the acting remains superb thanks to the clear intonation. There is very real emotion in the characters’ voices, and that alone is enough to convey the sincerity of their speech without sounding comical like the The Sims‘ Simlish.
The entire game is controlled using only the triggers and the analogue sticks. The left trigger and left analogue stick controls the older brother, while the younger brother is controlled by the right trigger and stick. Movement and two interaction buttons–that’s it. Despite this simplicity, it is initially jarring to control two characters at once. However, this feels like a necessary hurdle. By learning the brothers’ co-ordination, you begin to learn of their unity. Again, not just emotionally as brothers, but as a force of teamwork.
This is why Brothers is a single-player-only co-op game. Each of your hands control each brother, and only one controller is necessary in order to work the characters together. The game consists of many puzzles and obstacles that rely solely on the family’s teamwork. Only big bro can give his younger partner a boost and carry him through water, while only the little guy can slip through bars. The puzzles aren’t difficult to solve, but the game isn’t about challenge. It’s about co-ordinating the brothers and performing the necessary actions to progress, which never ceases to satisfy.
Not only is the bond between the protagonists touching, but there is deep characterization to be found in the destinations. The variety of environments packed into this short adventure is stunning, each one is as highly original and spell-bounding as the last and the consistently relaxing pace makes it perfect to stop and admire the sights. Not only do you not know where you’ll end up next, the story’s events are also very unpredictable.
The game takes a very unexpectedly dark turn and only becomes bleaker and bleaker. The serene and peaceful nature presented in the first half of the game simply paves the way for a shockingly off-rails venture into consistent themes of death. There were sorrowful scenes that genuinely struck me emotionally, but at the same time these were interwoven with uplifting, charming moments. For better or worse, the themes of relationships isn’t just restricted to the brothers. A cutscene may occur as you progress, showing your newly-befriended ally meet their end. At the same time, the game rewards you for taking things slow and interacting with the characters and creatures you meet on your journey, providing secret scenes of you uniting families or helping a struggling individual.
If I appear somewhat vague in my description of the game’s elements, this is intentional. I wouldn’t dream of describing a single event or location, as Brothers, cliche as it may be, is truly about the journey. The game will toy with your assumptions, taking drastic storyline U-turns so you can never predict what will happen next, or where you will end up. It can descend into tragedy when you hoped for resolve, provide a glimmer of hope in desperate times, and depict betrayal in those you may trust. The ending truly left an impact on me just as games such as The Walking Dead and The Last of Us had, even when Brothers is only a fraction of the length.
The musical score is what completes the journey across this mysterious country. Pleasant and relaxing to mirror the easy-paced gameplay, as well as adding greatly to the effects of the hard-hitting emotional exhibitions to tug your heart-strings even harder. The visuals are highly original and a beautiful spectacle throughout, and while I still refuse to spoil the later set-pieces for you, even the early setting’s waterfalls, woodlife and setting sun are enough to make you forget the dark underlying tones that run thoroughly throughout your journey.
At only 3-4 hours long with no replayability, you may be hesitant to take the 1200 point plunge. But the fact is, Brothers moves at such a pace that it feels as though there’s more provided here than games twice as long in duration. It never feels rushed either, nor does it end too abruptly. It was the perfect amount of time to immerse and emotionally involve me as a player, and it knew to conclude at just the right time. It felt complete. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the game–recalling the contrast of turmoil and exuberance, contemplating the ethics of my actions and comparing the game’s beginnings and end, understanding the brothers’ developing relationship. It may be short but it’s an adventure I won’t forget any time soon, and one I’m more than happy to revisit.