Love and death are powerful forces. They bring people together, they tear them apart. I’ve never played an adventure game that handles both concepts with such a deft touch as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Developed by Starbreeze Studios, this is a truly wonderful tale that masterfully immerses you in an emotionally rich, fantastical setting. While the actual challenge on offer is minimal, the story is so strong, the lands traversed so beautiful, the music so enchanting that the lack of difficulty is not an issue. A few game-breaking bugs in the initial Xbox 360 version and a slightly tricky control scheme dampen the experience, but not enough to stop this unique adventure from earning a resounding recommendation.
The titular brothers’ father is mortally ill. Having already lost their mother to a drowning accident prior, the two sons determinedly set off on a quest to locate the cure. At first I was under the impression that this would be a journey grounded in reality, but the farther you travel the more the world expands into a storybook fantasy. Yet even in a mystical and mysterious land, A Tale of Two Sons still manages to resonate on a very real level, dealing with very personal themes that everyone goes through in their lives, becoming increasingly macabre as you progress.
The spectre of death goes deeper than the prospect of a father dying – the decay of life is depicted between flashbacks and what you see before your eyes, the outcome of it very evident in the present. However, this grim core theme is offset with an emphasis on love. The brothers clearly care for one another, their panic tangible whenever one of them is in trouble. One dream sequence shows the elder brother abusing his younger sibling – a disturbing and unsettling moment simply because it’s clear that this would never actually happen between them. These are two characters that support each other, both physically (like the younger brother’s fear of swimming) and emotionally.
What's more amazing is that all this is conveyed without real words. The only dialogue is incomprehensible chatter, but anything else would be unnecessary. These brothers are risking their lives to save their father and the bond between them is so obvious – after all, you’re essentially the one controlling it – that any extraneous conversation would be redundant. Love isn’t just tied to the central characters, though. A broken-hearted troll reunited or a bird inspired with a new lease on life are just some of the ways that it's woven through the story. Death may always be looming, but it never dethrones love.
Opening in the boys’ rural village, everything seems very quaint to start. With a view of the sea stretching into the distance, people talking and playing games, and the sun shining past the wooden houses, it’s all rather peaceful. But slowly this sense of serenity is broken away in your travels, introducing such things as mountain trolls and exotic sea creatures. You’ll come across a battlefield full of deceased giant warriors, vultures picking away at their bodies, causing blood to spill into the rivers. You’ll pass through an iced-over village, its residents frozen and totally covered in snow. The locations are absolutely stunning, with an art style that mixes detailed realism with smooth edges and a soft colour palette. The lighting is impressive too, especially in a scene that sees you swinging a flaming torch in order to scare off wolves, casting long shadows onto the surrounding trees.
Swedish film director Josef Fares was involved in the production of this game, and that cinematic touch comes across clearly in the camera work. Climbing up a mountain, for example, the camera will rotate to a shot that shows how far you've come. The viewing angle often makes everything appear distant, but in doing so succeeds in making the environments feel connected. It’s all deeply immersive and has clearly been designed with so much care that there are benches to sit on throughout, offering nothing more than a quiet look at the gorgeous scenery.
When it comes to exposition, less is often more. Never has that rung truer than in Brothers. Names are never given and neither is the era. Context is minimal, but what you see and interpret is so powerful. You’ll frequently come across things that are never explained, every location clearly host to a vast backstory that is never touched upon. When walking through a forest full of hung bodies or a seemingly abandoned giant castle, questions will be swimming in your mind. But it’s left to you to piece things together, to make of it what you will. The brothers might not comment on it, but you’ll want to. There’s always the sense that the pair are just specks in a much bigger world. Life moves on whether or not you’re there, sometimes leaving you to stroll through the aftermath of a bygone narrative.
There are a lot of interactions that you could easily miss, making the sense of discovery off the main track quite rewarding. At one point I stumbled across a man about to commit suicide, who will succeed in doing so unless you intervene. It was the first truly shocking moment of the game, but one that set the tone for things to come. This scene can only be only found down a path that you're under no obligation to take. In fact, there’s nothing to say that you have to save this man at all. Carefully examining your surroundings will reveal why this stranger was attempting to take his life. I found it truly chilling. It’s such a strong, emotional moment, but one that you might not even discover if you're simply rushing through to the end. Other encounters exist throughout, some more subtle, some happier. Be sure to take time to find them all, because they make the adventure that much more satisfying.
Using the Xbox controller, each analogue stick controls one brother individually, with the corresponding triggers performing an action. This action is context-sensitive and could be anything, from pulling a lever to carrying an object. Sometimes you might need to move the brothers simultaneously, or one at a time. They won’t budge unless you tell them to, however. The control scheme is simple and unique, but I never really felt I came to grips with it. I often found myself forgetting which stick controlled which brother, causing me to stop and take a moment to reassess. It’s an occasional annoyance, but one that I willingly overlooked because of how well it works in solving puzzles.
PC gamers will be relieved to know that there is a keyboard control option available, but less relieved to hear that it's a fairly clumsy implementation. You maneuver each brother using the WASD and arrow keys (with an option to rebind as you see fit), respectively, which works well enough if you're reasonably ambidextrous. Unfortunately, the “interact” keys must be held to do things like turn a crank, climb a ledge or pull a cart, and even for those with good hand-eye coordination, its tricky to handle four different keyboard buttons for both brothers to carry out such actions at once. An interact toggle option would have gone a long way to minimizing this inconvenience. So even on PC, there's no question that the game is far better suited to a gamepad, as you can simply plug in an Xbox 360 controller and be off and running in no time, exactly like the console version.
Each boy has his own abilities; for example, the older, brown-haired brother can jump higher, while the shorter, blond brother can squeeze through small gaps. When it comes to playing around with the surroundings, their personalities shine through their actions. The younger of the two is cheekier, rocking a woman’s chair and sticking his tongue out at people, while the elder is more serious and less musically talented. Together they must work together to traverse the land and overcome its obstacles.
This isn’t your traditional adventure game puzzle-solving. There’s no inventory, and everything is much more environmentally-driven. You’ll need to distract a barking dog in order to run past it or sneak up to a guard to steal a key that will release a prisoner. All of this is achieved by utilising the brothers together. For instance, one brother must slide through some railings to trick an opponent, while the other pulls a lever at the right time to entrap him. There’s no co-op mode, but that would defeat the point. The puzzles are too simple for two people, as controlling only one party would remove some of the fun and essence of the game. The joy here is working the characters yourself to achieve your goal.
There are platforming elements to occasionally perform, but these are fairly simple. Shuffling across ledges, sliding along bars and jumping across gaps only require you to hold the analogue stick in the corresponding direction and the action will be automated for you. Timing does come into play when you need to pull the triggers to grab onto a ledge, but again this is nothing overly complicated. There are times when you can die, like if you fall from a great height or get hit by the occasional enemy. Fortunately, checkpoints are plentiful and if this happens you’ll automatically be restored to a point mere moments before. Even those only used to standard adventure game fare shouldn’t find anything too taxing here.
The audio design is yet another standout element. A lot of that is down to a soundtrack that adds so much without ever becoming overbearing, often just pausing and letting the journey breathe. At the beginning of the game, the village music is soft and whimsical, but with pipes occasionally adding haunting undertones of the unknown. During faster moments the drums kick in and the horns whine, bringing great tension. At one point the brothers charter an early-looking paraglide, swooping past the landscape as enchanting female vocals play over a strong beat, wonderfully aiding the visual grandeur.
The biggest disappointment was that I ran into two game-breaking bugs. The first was when one of the brothers was climbing up some branches, but disappeared through the foliage and then couldn’t escape. At first I thought this was a secret path, but I soon realised there literally was no way out. Restarting the game from the previous checkpoint solved the problem. The second was more frustrating, where I had to steal a key from someone. It was obvious what I needed to do, but the game wasn’t letting me do it. Restarting from the checkpoint didn’t fix it, but I was convinced I hadn’t missed anything. Eventually I began that chapter afresh, and simply getting back to where I was triggered a cutscene that hadn’t played before and allowed me to proceed. It only took ten minutes to fully retrace my steps, but I’d wasted so much time before that trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. It’s a shame that these glitches exist in an otherwise fantastic experience, and hopefully they'll be patched and fixed for the upcoming PC and PlayStation 3 releases.
At just three hours long (not including bug delays), some may find Brothers to be a tale that's too short. But despite the brief runtime, the game manages to achieve an effecting story, one that connects on an emotional level and offers so much variation that it doesn’t feel lacking. It’s concise, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and never does anything feel rushed. Everything is perfectly paced, each story beat masterfully placed. Although I wouldn’t have said no to a few more hours, simply because the game was so superb, I wasn’t left feeling short-changed.
Overall, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons earns a resounding recommendation. If you love exploring new worlds, engrossing yourself in an engaging, albeit unspoken story and being surprised at every turn, then this is the game for you. Sure, the controls can sometimes be finicky and the launch version bugs are frustrating if you're unfortunate enough to encounter them, but these are just blemishes on an otherwise magnificent experience. This is a cinematic adventure full of heart and character, and now that I'm finished, I’m jealous of everyone yet to play it, who still get to soak up its many wonders for the first time.