I’m of two minds about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. For much of the time, I felt…well, I’m not sure what I felt. It wasn’t boredom; this game, even at its most inconsequential, is never boring. It wasn’t really anything, in fact. What I was seeing was just two brothers going on an adventure, one that is literally incomprehensible due to a Simlish-ish language barrier as well as figuratively easily digestible. Without understanding a single word uttered by any character, you fully grok all of the specifics of the problem, the goal, and the wrap they’re presented in. It’s borderline banal. But then there is a moment.
Let’s not talk about that now, though. Let’s start from the beginning. Brothers is about two brothers, a fact you could probably surmise from its excessively descriptive and, let’s face it, throwaway title. There is a younger one who was there the day their mother drowned and has since developed a crippling fear of water but doesn’t let it get in the way of him being a little rapscallion. The older one is bigger and stronger and mature, letting his brother cause all the ruckus. One day, their father falls ill. They take him to a doctor, but he can’t do anything for him except direct the boys to a mythical cure in a faraway place.
And so they set off on their journey, a trip that will take them through rivers and mountains and frozen tundras. Throughout it, you’ll directly control both brothers simultaneously in a single-player co-op situation. The left analog stick controls the older indigo-dressed brother and the right analog stick controls the younger, flame-colored brother. Along with the movement, the respective triggers set off contextual actions within the world like pulling levers and talking to people.
Even the most (seemingly) pointless action fills out the picture of these two characters. Early on, you’ll come across someone sweeping up the front of their yard. The older brother’s interaction sees him take the broom and help sweep up a bit. The younger brother takes the broom and goofs around. It paints a very specific relationship between the two, and you are the glue holding them together.
Early on, it’s a messy adhesive. A lot of other reviews mention that it’s a bit like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time or spinning your arms in opposite directions, and it’s true. Trying to actively divide your attention between monitoring spacing in the world as well as associating which brother is controlled by which stick and trigger is quite taxing and altogether foreign. There were many times in the first half when I would try to move the camera (which is actually done by the right and left bumpers) before realizing the younger brother was walking into a wall, or I would try to get the two to walk around to sit on a bench together but have them simply walk away from each other as if they were in a fight.
But you eventually learn, and it feels amazing. Eventually, you start to move in unison, one not really leading the other but they had an unspoken bond between the two (although that bond is really you controlling them). If there is a rock in the way, I would send one brother down each path before reuniting them on the other side. If one got too far ahead, I would simply ease up on the stick to let the other one catch up. It wasn’t long before I felt like this was really how it would be going on an adventure with your brother.
Which is good because soon the puzzles get a bit more taxing. Or at least in terms of mental dexterity. Capacity for intelligence is never in high demand from the challenges, but later on in the game you do have to manipulate both brothers in ways that you wouldn’t expect. With their lives on the line in some cases (there’s a rope and heights involved), imagine a high stakes round of stomach-patting and head-rubbing.
Otherwise, though, the puzzles, as I said, are rather simplistic. There’s a gate that won’t budge with one brother, so have both of them push on it. There’s a lever on the other side of this gate, so have the little brother squeeze through and pull it. The first two-thirds of the game would be pointless if they didn’t further substantiate the point that the two need each other. An early puzzle sees you avoid a dog in a field. Simple cooperation of aggro and subterfuge is the solution here, but seeing the two work so seamlessly together really makes you feel the fraternal bond.
It’s a bit disappointing, though, that the little puzzles never play that deeply into the difference of the brothers, though. You slip through small openings with the little one and pull heavy things with the big one. Or you use the older brother to boost the younger brother up a broken ladder to kick down a rope. That’s the extent of it, save for the narratively imbued need for the younger brother to cling to the older brother when crossing deep bodies of water.
There’s a moment where you are shown that a cat hates the big guy and loves the little guy. You wouldn’t see it if you didn’t choose to interact with this person sitting off to the side, but it sets up a dichotomy between the two. But you never see it come to fruition. You never get to see them use any of their differing strengths or personalities save for their physical stature. It’s a little bit disappointing, almost as much as you never interact with one with the other.
There’s a lovely puzzle where you, well, imagine you are moving a couch and you have to navigate a hallway. Now pretend it’s a giant pole and it’s a tomb full of debris. It’s fantastic and definitely made me smile, but it also is the closest you get to having the brothers do anything together until the last third of the game. You can sit on benches together and soak in the absolutely gorgeous visuals (though the famed texture pop-in of the Unreal Engine 3 is present and accounted for), but you don’t have any equivalent Army of Two fist bump or A Boy and His Blob hugging whimsy, and that feels like a shame.
But it is all in service of a moment. There are plenty of moments throughout the game that are really interesting and poignant (that guy and the tree—woo boy!) that you can stumble upon and have no reason to exist other than to fill in the world around you. Others actually occur within the story, like seeing a battlefield with a gargantuan twist or observing a familiar familial protection (even if it is a bit selfish), but there is only one capital-M Moment.
I’m hesitant to talk about it anymore, but I do want to say something about it in the vaguest sense. If you want to avoid reading anything about it, though, I suggest you just skip to the next paragraph. Anyways, everything leading up to it is a bit telegraphed. And even the payoff of the thing can probably be guessed. But actually doing it is, well, phenomenal. It is absurdly well realized and it expertly centers the entire experience. You realize in that moment that the way almost every single bit of the game is constructed and designed was meant to enhance this one little bit. And you realize you are a fool for thinking it wouldn’t get to you.
Brothers is a bit like a surprise, four-hour roller coaster, one that you should definitely play in one sitting. You have no idea you are going up that incline, no idea that you are setting yourself up for the drop. You reach the top and peer through the curtain just as you are pushed over the edge and sent careening down to the bottom.
It feels a bit like The Last of Us in that regard, where the whole game sets up a revelation at the end. But while that game had you clutching the car at the apex, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has you reeling from the fall, staggering at the massive drop and sudden stop. And that moment.
+ The control scheme makes it eventually rewarding to simply move about the world
+ Taking a moment to sit on a bench or throw a ball around
+ Finding absolutely inconsequential problems that need resolution just for the sake of solving them
+ It’s a game sharpened to a point that does what it needs to do and in only as much time as it needs
– Outside of physical standing and a fear of water, the brothers aren’t different at all
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Release: August 7, 2013
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Steam