Developer Starbreeze Studios has made a name for itself over the past generation of consoles via several first-person shooters, such as The Darkness and Syndicate. However, their latest release, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, is not only completely different from anything they’ve done before, but also stands on its own when compared to games from numerous other genres. A unique blend of elements from various genres and a creative control scheme make Brothers notable already, but various other quality elements add to what is ultimately an engaging, polished, and very memorable game.
Taking place in a medieval fantasy world, the game’s setup involves the titular pair of brothers, one in his teens and the other aged around 10 or 11. When their father falls ill from some unspecified disease, the two learn of a possible cure located far from their village home. This kicks off a perilous journey for the duo that will require them to cooperate and brave many dangers to reach their destination.
The game doesn’t rely on spoken dialog to tell its story – at least not exactly. Characters are fully voice acted, but it’s all spoken in a made-up language, with no subtitles provided. It’s up to the player to put together the pieces based on what happens on screen, tasking them with analyzing each character’s body language. That system ends up working very well, and while I suppose a side result of this approach is a lack of truly defined personalities for the main duo, there’s still enough in both the cinematics and the gameplay for players to get attached to.
The primary control scheme for Brothers is unlike anything I’ve seen before. To sum it up, the two thumbsticks on a standard controller maneuver each brother separately, with the trigger button below each stick serving to carry out context-sensitive actions for the corresponding boy. Some things, like jumping across platforms, are handled automatically, but there’s a lot of item and environment interaction to handle with the trigger buttons.
In some ways, this makes certain parts of the game similar to a point-and-click adventure title, only using direct control instead of a mouse cursor. However, there’s no inventory system. There isn’t any sort of health meter or HUD display whatsoever, either. You can die at certain points, but a checkpoint system is in place the whole way through to minimize frustration. While I ran into a frustrating point involving steering a flying machine, and had to go through the whole section four or five times before figuring out where to steer during the last part, the rest of the game was generally a pretty smooth and forgiving experience.
The clever, two-character control system makes for many moments that are fun and exciting. Some mechanics, such as the little brother using the big brother as a boost to reach high ledges, are repeated a few times, but overall the game does a good job of keeping things fresh and surprising in terms of gameplay mechanics, throwing in varied puzzles, interesting items, and creative boss fights.
As far as the overall plot goes, the lack of proper dialog keeps things from getting truly in-depth, and there isn’t much in the way of huge events or twists; however, the various set pieces and new gameplay mechanics that the game keeps throwing at you will surely keep you engaged. I’m also not going to give away the ending, but I’ll say that the last twenty to thirty minutes will definitely go down as one of the moments in gaming I’ll remember most this year, and will leave it at that.
Starbreeze clearly gathered some talented artists for Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, because for a smaller-scale downloadable game, the presentation is incredible. In fact, the environments and cutscenes have absolutely stunning design and composition at numerous points. It’s rare for a game to make me go, “Wow!” when I see a certain thing, and this did that multiple times. Add in a terrific musical score and you have a great look and feel to the whole package.
If Brothers has any true shortcomings besides one or two trial and error-heavy parts, it’s the length. I clocked only about three hours before the credits rolled, and honestly didn’t think I was in the home stretch until certain story beats started to happen. Considering how rich the environments are, and how well thought-out everything is, I’m guessing the developer only had so much time and money to spend on the overall length, given that downloadable games generally have smaller teams and budgets. Everything included is top-notch, but I have the feeling many players will be left wanting more.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a winner. Boasting innovative and well-crafted gameplay, and a stunning world to explore, it’s not only one of the best downloadable games I’ve played this year, but one of the best in general. I have a feeling that much like past downloadable adventure titles such as Limbo and Journey, this game is going to go over well with those who play it. Even if slower-paced and less violent games aren’t typically your thing, I’d still say it’s definitely worth a look, but if they are, you’ll have a great time.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, which was provided to us for review purposes.
With clever gameplay and beautiful presentation, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is one of this year's downloadable standouts.