Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons Review
More and more it appears as though indie game development has become the vessel of innovation for the medium; whereas the AAA market consistently grows into one of familiarity. It’s true that many developers in the current industry confuse ‘innovation’ with relying on dull gameplay gimmicks. Telltale’s ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ style of decision-making often promises the significant impact of player choice throughout the developer’s catalog, but fails to live up to the branching-narrative standards being promoted. So-called ‘walking simulators’ such as Dear Esther or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture attempt to value an enriching narrative experience but fail to incite complex thought process as a means of progress.
Yet those very gimmicks also promote the broadening of the metaphorical (and in a sense, very literal) playing field. These certain indie titles share a common developmental theme: variation. They represent the cornerstone of a modern independent industry intent on deviating further from the typical gaming experiences which audiences have come to expect from the medium. Despite the flaws present in the finished products, their ambitions more than make up for their lack of focus.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is built off of a gimmick; but one which developer Starbreeze Studios fortunately utilizes to its fullest potential, in regards to tethering the gameplay mechanics directly to the storytelling. The player controls both titular brothers at once as they set out to seek a cure for their ailing father, years after they have lost their mother to a terrific accident at sea — which has ultimately left the youngest kin deathly afraid of water.
Assigning one brother to one stick and one bumper can at first come off as confusing and cumbersome; perhaps a deal-breaker for those expecting a more straightforward indie title to blast through. But those willing to accustom themselves to the unique mechanic will find that the only straightforward element to this game is the MacGuffin-based plot which fuels their adventure. The option to include no natural dialogue, instead relying on a sort of foreign language to guide our young heroes down their paths of maturity, is the title’s saving grace, emphasizing the game experience over the relatively derivative narrative, and ultimately dispelling any sense of technological egotism.
Much more thought process surrounds the interactivity with level design than anything else presented. Puzzles are constantly introduced after one another; and though their construction eventually grows common, the cooperative gimmick is maintained by the adventure, as the dynamic settings through which the player progresses offer a bevy of notable sequences. Each new environment introduces new details to the world, and I was surprised by how dark the mood shifted with each passing level.
Despite the scope of the narrative, the game offers fascinating worldbuilding chops, a setting filled with trolls, witchcraft, daunting wolves, giant spiders, fallen kingdoms, and slain giants. It’s a testament to the meager plot’s views on the boys’ natural acclimation to new and dangerous environments: the further down the rabbit hole they dare to venture, the more treacherous their varied encounters become.
It’s disappointing then how repetitive the gameplay instances become throughout. The game is very short, and its design does not support its limited length; there are so many familiar climbing, ledge-maneuvering, and machinery-involved puzzle sections that they grow tiresome and make the overall product feel as though it quickly loses steam. I craved more variety to match the variety of the environments presented. If a game like Portal — another title effectively built around a certain gimmick — can be so meticulously crafted to present focused pacing and new challenges throughout the entirety of its five-hour runtime, then Brothers should strive to do so as well.
But it doesn’t feel as though Brothers wants to, and by the halfway mark its game design falls backwards into a dangerous stasis of comfortability, which manages to deflate the impact of the ambitious control scheme rather than inspire it to develop. Still, for as many unremarkable setpiece moments are offered, the gorgeous sceneries do often make up for the less-challenging ‘puzzle’ segments; consequently, it is easy to identify that the developers seemed more interested in painting vivid landscapes than providing abundant variety in gameplay services. Many occurrences provide no stakes to the circumstances besides a quick reload and an infinite amount of chances to hit the right button at the right time. I certainly wish for more from the gameplay aspects, if only because of how inventive the title’s control scheme is.
But as an experience alone, Brothers accomplishes what many indie titles have failed to in generations prior: coinciding a playful core feature with underlying conceptual ramifications. Where Braid aims to account for a single man’s inability to reconcile his past mistakes through time-based logistics, Brothers submits the communal implications of using one mind to control two separate individuals as they work together to overcome obstacles.
Cooperation forms a singular force between people, and the unity offers the most direct way of inspiring self-growth and understanding. This concept is seen in the different ways the boys can interact with citizens, or the villages and communities teeming with denizens hard at work to keep their communities alive. The increasingly-darker tone represents a mature setting in conjunction with the themes regarding self-development; but it never feels too grim, its more eerie and unsettling imagery juxtaposed by sunny vistas or comforting natural areas.
While the narrative’s primary function is to inscribe a goal for the player to accomplish, while also directly focusing on the larger lessons at play regarding cooperation, a specific emotionally-driven scene near the tale’s conclusion unsuccessfully attempts to amplify the drama of the journey. Such a sudden emphasis on storytelling unfortunately takes away from the primary focused intent, which makes such an intriguing foundation in the game’s early moments.
However, the most breathtaking scene comes shortly after, and nearly makes up for the lack of focus displayed just minutes before. Without giving away one of the most spellbinding uses of a unique control scheme in gaming history, what transpires is a climactic underlining of the game’s central argument; a sequence where the controller itself becomes a convincing metaphor for growth and development through community without overemphasizing the simplistic narrative structure.
Brothers is a simple journey, but not one without certain complexities. Its puzzle design and rudimentary pacing keep it from excelling to the level where its central control gimmick achieves, but the indie darling offers a modestly-compelling excursion from start to finish, one detailed by gorgeous vistas and intuitive gameplay scenarios. There’s a relative ambition to balance out its modest foundation — mainly in regards to gameplay approach — which offers an intriguing venture down the path of two boys learning to outgrow their dependence on one another, if only by coming to the realisation that the spirit of community never really dies.