(Xbox 360 Review) Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Genre: Adventure / Puzzle-Platformer
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a puzzle-platformer from Swedish developer Starbreeze Studios. Known primarily for developing action titles, including The Chronicles of Riddick, The Darkness, Syndicate, and most recently Payday 2, their latest release is decidedly different: a short, slow-paced tale of two brothers’ quest to retrieve a special medicinal liquid from a far-off forest in order to cure their dying father. Setting out from their small hometown, the two must traverse a vast, dangerous landscape by helping one another to ward off wild beasts, navigate environmental obstacles, and solve rudimentary puzzles. In stressing camaraderie over difficulty, Starbreeze has created a sentimental title that might not test the player’s skill but still makes for a very memorable experience.

In seeking out a potential cure for their father, the brothers will have to work together to overcome myriad obstacles. To that end, Starbreeze has adopted a fairly novel control scheme in which Older Brother is controlled with the left analog stick and shoulder button, and Younger Brother with the right. The obvious pitfalls of this approach, as painfully demonstrated in a particularly frustrating segment of Ni No Kuni, have been largely minimized by the stripping down of options to two basic actions: movement and activation. By moving a brother near an interactable item and using the activation button, they will automatically walk to the object and get into position so that they can then be moved to manually engage the level, chain, pressure plate, or switch.  The radius for each device is quite generous, and the brothers will also point out the direction that they need to head towards if the player takes too long or ventures too far away. It isn’t as simple as their saying what to do, though, as the game adopts a unique language that is difficult to make out, so characters rely on exaggerated hand gestures and arm movements to communicate. This choice turned out to be an excellent touch, as it added to the foreignness of the adventure while offering a unique way to give directions.

Despite the largely unspoken directions, it never takes long to suss out what needs to happen for the brothers to progress. However, while the steps to negotiate a chasm or a river might not take long to figure out, that’s only half of the process. I’d venture to say that the focus on manually controlling the two through their trials is precisely why the puzzles veer towards the simple side, with the challenge level evenly split between physical and mental. The joy comes not just from figuring out what to do but in pulling it off quickly and flawlessly. The game doesn’t offer any rewards for perfect runs, but it’s hard not to feel pleased when seeing the two seemingly effortlessly push, toss, grab, and sling their way through an area.  The cornerstone of this system is the differences between the brothers themselves, with the younger being slimmer and lighter and the older stronger and heavier. This limitation also stacks the odds in favor of the player as it makes puzzles much easier to figure out: if the younger brother cannot pull a lever, then it’s immediately obvious that their positions need to be switched and something appropriate for the younger brother to interact with should be nearby. These differences manifest themselves in very practical ways as well, such as the younger brother sliding between a gate’s bars to activate a lever or the older brother using his strength to pry open a door. In some instances, story elements restrict what can be done to one action, namely the younger brother’s inability to swim and players needing to rush the brother over to lend a hand. In all cases, the smooth animations and colorful character designs make the actions exciting to watch.

In most games, a unique control scheme and easy-to-solve puzzles wouldn’t necessarily lend themselves to an enjoyable adventure. That’s because the appeal of Brothers lies not with the controls or obstacles but in how they work in tandem with its superb handling of both the superficial trappings and penetrative underlying meanings of fairy tales. Players embark on a journey that takes the brothers from an idyllic Middle Age-era village filled with thatch-hutted homes and water wheels, before travelling over snow-capped mountains, through chasms worked by ogres, across battlefields of giants, and into the good graces of all manner of mythical creatures—those elements that make stories so imaginative and pleasing to read. But they also get the lessons of coping with loss, on the capricious cruelty of life, and on the virtue of kindness and helping those in need. It’s telling that the Achievements have little to do with the actual storyline and are almost exclusively used as nods to players who go off the beaten path to help out in one of the handful of side activities. These vary from helping reunite a mother turtle with her lost children to some heart-wrenching encounters. As with the story and mechanics, the side quests straddle the line between light-hearted fun and somber and meditative.

In this context, the puzzles and controls serve their purpose well, smartly utilized to emphasize the brothers’ affection for one another, their enduring spirit, and their love for their father. Had the controls been simpler or the puzzles harder, this delicate balance that provides for a steady and considered pace could have easily been thrown off, and the game far less memorable. The game glitched on me at one point, requiring several reloads before I eventually figured out the exact steps to keep one of the brothers from getting stuck on a ledge; that said, minimal time was lost in the process. That incident aside, the game made for a brisk and haunting voyage.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a story-driven puzzle-platformer that, although light on challenge, is poignant and satisfying. In the adventures experienced by two siblings on a quest for a cure to heal their dying father, Starbreeze has created a fairy tale that stands as an affirmation for humanity and the unique growth experienced through loss. It’s a short tale, but it’s one well told.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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