Sunday, December 15, 2013

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

You might have heard of a Swedish gaming developer named Starbreeze Studios. Among their output is the first The Darkness game (which I previously reviewed) based on the Top Cow comic book series of the same name, and, for a newer example, they were one of the developers attached to the more recently released Payday 2, the sequel to the popular Payday: The Heist from Overkill Software, who had recently been acquired by Starbreeze. Though they’ve developed a handful of other titles, it was their entry into the Darkness series of games that I was familiar with, so I was surprised they’d developed Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, the subject of this review, which seemed to have the feel of an indie game even though it wasn’t (this is not to say that indie games are bad; check out my positive reviews of Thatgamecompany’s output). When I learned of this game’s concepts and that it was being made in collaboration with a Swedish film director, Josef Fares, I decided to check out a demo of it on Xbox 360. However, like with Dust: An Elysian Tail, I wasn’t sure which system to purchase the game for, since it later came to PS3 and Steam, but I eventually got it on Steam thanks to the recent Autumn Sale it had when I purchased The Stanley Parable. Now that I’ve played it, I can say that Brothers is well worth the price tag.

The game opens with the younger brother mourning at his mother’s grave as he has a flashback of unsuccessfully trying to rescue her from drowning. The older brother soon has to him help with carrying their father, who has become very sick. When they take their father to a doctor, they are told they need to get the Water of Life in order to cure him. With a map in hand, the brothers set off on a journey to save their father.

Before I get into the controls, I must first bring up that, while I did play the Steam version of this game, which has its own control scheme, I took advantage of the controller support, since that is what the developers recommended Steam players to do, so my experience is based on using that option. As for the controls themselves, they are actually pretty simple: To control the older brother, you use the left analog stick to move him and the Left Trigger to interact; to control the younger brother, you use the right analog stick to move him and the Right Trigger to interact. Since the right stick is reserved for controlling the younger brother, the camera is manipulated with the Left and Right Bumpers. While the controls are minimal, they may require a little time to get used to. Since the right stick in most modern games is used to control the camera, the younger brother sometimes ended up going in a different direction than his older sibling, often leading me to have to stop so I could reorient the brothers’ positions. However, given the context of the story and this being a conscious gameplay design choice, this actually adds to the experience of the game rather than detracting from it.

I’ve given some other games I have reviewed before credit for having good visuals, but I still must say that in Brothers, the visuals are absolutely gorgeous. Since the game is presented in a top-down perspective, I sometimes tried to get a small look at the world around the titular brothers, only to be further amazed by the amount of detail put into the background visuals, including such things as rendering entire forests or sunlight peeking into an underground mine. There are some benches scattered throughout the game that you can have one or both brothers interact with to sit on, giving you an excellent look at how much depth there really is in the game’s world. No matter where I went in the game that showed off this much detail, it never failed to leave me stunned.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has some really lovely scenery.
Another thing I enjoyed about this game was the sound design. The music matched the tone of the respective scenes quite well, matching the situation at hand to create joy or peril while adding depth to a particularly emotional scene when necessary. I have felt sadness at a game before whenever a sad scene was handled in the right way, but Brothers actually made me want to cry at one point; being a brother myself, there was one particular scene that not only struck a chord with me, but also made me momentarily pause the game so I could hug my brother. As for the voice acting, I’m not sure I can really say anything. Given that Starbreeze and film director Josef Fares are Swedish, I’m not sure whether the characters in the game were speaking a form of Swedish or a kind of made-up language, but even then I think the characters sounded in such a way that matched their appearance (to an extent in some cases), and while the game has a lack of a subtitle option, I learned how to generally tell what was going on thanks to the great work with the characters’ body language.

I’ve already mentioned how the brothers can interact with the world around them, but I think this is one of the best aspects of the game experience. There is a good amount of puzzle solving present in the game, most of which involves both brothers interacting together with environment in a variety of ways. A more common interaction, aside from the occasional bench, is when you see a ledge with part of a ladder on top, meaning you must use the older brother to give his younger sibling a boost, usually with another way provided to reunite the two soon after; some of the variations not only show some nice creativity from the developers, but also provides another chance to enjoy the beautiful scenery around them.

Other forms of interaction are with NPCs, including animals and other people. These interactions can be very interesting, since the brothers might each react differently to someone else, often ending up with the older brother being able to get information that will advance their quest. Some of these interactions will also earn you special achievements, some of which I was able to figure out how to do better than others, and these seem to be heavier moral choices than the regular interactions. One that I felt especially impacted by was the option of whether or not to rescue an NPC from committing suicide after his house on a cliff had burnt down, taking the rest of his family with it; I decided to rescue him, after which he broke down due to the weight of his loss, but then I rescued a music box from the wreckage to bring to him, after which he seemed to feel better, having found a new reason to continue living. Though it feels good to get some of these achievements, just as soon as you figure out how, the one I got for saving the NPC’s life was one I felt the most proud to obtain.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is an engaging, emotional journey that must be experienced. The scenery is beautiful and the controls are somewhat easy to grasp, while the body language of each character can create a tense scene even if you can’t understand what they are saying, helping to make the experience more universal. Some moments of the game can become very powerful, a number of which may actually bring you to tears. The game has a fairly short length, taking roughly 4 hours to beat, but if the game were made any longer, it probably wouldn’t be as good as it already is. If you are a fan of short, simple games with a lot of depth to them like Journey, I would tell you to seek this one out. If you play a lot of AAA titles but are looking for something to take a break from them, I would highly suggest Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Like Journey, this game isn’t so much about the destination as it is about the journey getting there.

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