Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is certainly unique.
Over the past few years we’ve seen a lot of games innovating for innovation’s sake, and a lot of them have come off worse because of it. This game, I am pleased to announce, is a shining example of just how a little lateral thinking can go a long way. The main idea behind this game is that you play two brothers, Big Brother and Little Brother, at the same time. In game they call each other Nyaa and Naiee, but for the sake of ease I’ll stick to English.
In your average game, if you play as more than one protagonist there is a button to swap between the two characters, but not here. On PC (the version being reviewed here) you control one brother with WASD and the other with the directional keys. If a controller is more your thing or you’re playing on console, the two analogue sticks represent one brother each. Other than that, you have one interaction key for each brother and that is it. At first it was a little strange, not using the mouse and only relying on the keyboard threw me at first, but it’s a really effective once you get used to it. It controls really well, and even feels smooth and natural by the time you reach your first town.
To this day, I don’t know which half of the keyboard controls which brother. This can be a bit of an issue while playing the game; you can take a break, come back and forget which button does what. The flip side to that is that the game really makes you focus; because if you lose it, you get that disconnected feeling where you’re playing a two-player game, and trying to control the wrong character. The game starts with Little Brother paying his respects at his mother’s grave, who drowned in the opening cutscene. He walks over to Big Brother and helps his father into a wheelbarrow to take him to the village doctor, who sends you in search of a cure in the form of a giant magical tree. My very first thought after figuring out this bizarre new control scheme was “Ooh, this going to require some concentration”.
Initially I planned to play for 10 minutes before bed, but the next time I looked up at the clock I realized that I had been playing for a solid three hours, with only one hour left to go. It’s a short, very simple game but also beautifully immersive. I was stunned to see that a game which is literally a single fetch-quest managed to captivate me for so long. Looking back now it still tugs a few heart strings.
The level of immersion is not the only aspect that sticks out. This is a gorgeous game to look at, with a cartoon art style: not as cartoony as Borderlands, which employed cel-shading to such incredible effect – but the visuals serve to highlight the innocence of the brothers at the start of the game. As the game progresses and your father’s state of health worsens, night falls and the game becomes darker – both graphically and tonally. Brothers becomes much more macabre as you progress. At one point I had to operate a giant crossbow to shoot a dead giant in the face, solely to make a bridge. I still remember wincing at the sound it made.
This game is heavily centered around puzzle solving through team work. If you’re not operating a two-man crank, you’re sending Little Brother through gaps in a set of bars too narrow for Big Brother, or using Big Brother to ferry his understandably hydrophobic brother across a body of water. There are many other applications for this theme of teamwork, but the most ingenius method I saw in the game was in traversing parapets of a giant castle. The brothers tied themselves together and swung each other from parapet to parapet in a fashion that made me genuinely smile. Another good example is in flying a hang glider where the weight distribution of your two players changed the direction the glider flew in. No single puzzle is particularly difficult, but all are surprisingly gratifying in their own right.
The tree you’re searching for is, effectively, the tree of life. As you search for it you can interact both with villagers and each other, in which case you offer your brother words of encouragement. There’s nothing to confirm or deny that this is what you are doing in the script though. There are no intelligible spoken words, and no subtitles for the noises they do make. This is a good thing: you don’t need to understand what they’re saying. Everything is so fantastically animated that you’ll instinctively know what is happening at all times. The brothers speak their own language and you simply observe, drawing from their hand gestures and body language. It makes you pay attention when Big Brother looks at the castle, thinking it insurmountable, and when his brother lays his hand on his shoulder, you know that you will help them do it.
While we are still talking about sound, Starbreeze Studios and Josef Fares came up with a decent soundtrack for such a short game. For most of game, it has a kind folkish classical theme that sounds like it’s being sung far away. At times it sounds more mournful, at other times more upbeat. Either way, I found myself humming along or whistling the tune every time I stepped away from my PC.
I’m reluctant to write much more for fear of spoilers, because this really can be finished in an afternoon. What I will say is this; I got this game as part of a Humble Bundle, and played it simply because I owned it already. If I had known what I know now, I would have actively paid the £9.99 for a console version of this game. If you are curious but feel that a little steep for a 4 hour game, I’d recommend grabbing it in the next Steam Sale. While this game is neither life-changing nor awe-inspiring, the only flaw I can really find is that the game was so short. If you like trying new games that are different, I wholeheartedly recommend this game; the mechanic of controlling both brothers at the same time really makes this game stand out for me as something refreshingly new and different.