Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
First posted on 01 January 2015. Last updated on 01 January 2015.
Fantasy worlds are a common landscape in computer games, and the adventure genre provides playgrounds full of heroic knights, villainous monsters, magic spells, and dark dungeons. From the classic King's Quest to the more contemporary The Dark Eye series, the realms of the fantastic have been a favorite of adventure game designers. Rarely, however, has a game provided a fantasy landscape as real, captivating, and immersive as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons from Starbreeze Studios is, in fact, another avatar and example of the evolution of video gaming being able to deliver sophisticated narrative tales that are quickly becoming the equal of works in other artistic mediums while also offering wholly unique ways to experience them. In many ways, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is peer to other formidable contemporary adventure games such as Papo & Yo—which is to say if you are an adventure game fan, then this game is an easy recommendation to add to your gaming collection.
It comes as no surprise that the game's creator, Josef Fares, has a background in filmmaking. He and his development team have woven a tapestry of the fantastic that is truly singular in the medium. At the heart of the game's story is the oldest narrative mechanic in fantasy—a dangerous quest. A father lies on a sick bed, gravely ill, and his 2 sons must travel far and wide to retrieve a cure for him.
The player controls both brothers simultaneously. Although the game recommends using a console styled controller, the PC version of the game can be played with the keyboard only (albeit with a little difficulty in my case) by using the WASD and the arrow keys to mimic the left and right analog sticks of a controller respectively. Controller or keyboard, the novelty of maneuvering both brothers at the same time may be a difficult concept to learn initially but becomes significantly more natural with practice as the game progresses. It also reinforces one of the core themes of the game—the emotional connection between the brothers.
After leaving their father's sick bed, the brothers begin a journey which will be equally harrowing, hazardous, and revelatory. They travel through mountains, swamps, villages, and even a cave before eventually reaching their destination. Every location is beautifully rendered (the game uses Unreal Engine 3), and every location is wondrous to behold—from soaring vistas and a nighttime vision of an aurora to sinister mines buried deep in a mountain.
In addition to the unforgettable backdrop, the cast of fantastic creatures is enchanting and encounters with the world's fauna and flora are often extraordinary. Because the game is not a particular long experience (it can be finished in about 5 hours), mentioning specific confrontations may risk spoiling the experience. Suffice to say that many conventional fantasy creatures will appear, though they will often be presented in novel new ways. For example, as the brothers navigate the aftermath of a (literally) bloody battlefield, a particular sequence provides a unique perspective on a common creature in fantasy tales. There are also some rather dark encounters with fellow residents of the world. Despite somewhat resembling a fairy tale, not all dreams come true during the brothers' journey. This is not a game designed for children.
The sense of immersion through the experience is truly astounding. The world around the brothers is alive and real, complete with its own history, culture, and logic. Details such as frozen villagers on the snowcapped peak of a mountain vividly create a new reality. The environment feels neither contrived nor illusory but a completely realized fantasy world. Indeed, I want the game to continue long after its conclusion because I want to see, and know more, about this world.
The game is fairly linear. Although the brothers have a few opportunities to come off the beaten trail (and earn some "achievements"), there is only a single main path they can take to continue their adventure. This lack of freedom, however, does not detract from the experience at all—the design is so competent that choosing the right path becomes intuitive. The game seems to know which direction I want to go, and I never find myself wanting to stray (which is unusual for me).
The gameplay consists of platforming style puzzles in which the brothers must usually conquer by using their unique abilities in tandem. The younger brother can move through bars and is a little quicker than his older brother who is stronger. Puzzles are often mechanical in nature—perhaps the brothers must push a lever or open a door together—or require the player to use the brothers together creatively, such as swinging across a chasm while connected by a rope. The puzzles are not particularly difficult and work seamlessly in service to the story rather than as obstructions. There are only a few moments when you may have to pause to consider a lateral solution to a problem, but none will vex the seasoned adventurer for too long.
There are, however, a couple of "boss battles" which can offer a little more challenge. Indeed, the only time that I feel the keyboard control to be inadequate is during the game's final "boss battle", to the extent that my immersion within the world is threatened. Specifically, the keyboard control cannot handle the multiple presses required to move both characters diagonally at the same time. If you are not wholly opposed to using a controller when gaming on a PC, your experience with this game will likely be more satisfactory by using a controller.
The game's use of sounds is unusual. The dialog spoken by the brothers (voiced by actors Norea Sjoquist and Carl-Magnus Liljedahl) is a strange pastiche of gibberish. However, through their body language and the inflections of their voices, both brothers' intentions are easily interpretable. Similar to Papo & Yo, emotional and thematic meaning are more important than a specific lexicon. The music and sound cues are also impressive and, like the puzzles, provide a solid complement to the game's dynamic story without providing a distraction.
The first rule of any narrative, of course—in a fantastic setting or a more mundane reality—is that the centerpiece must always be on the characters which drive the plot. Here, too, the game delivers wonderfully, providing a moving tale of familial love, devotion, and ultimate sacrifice. Even without understanding the words that the brothers are saying to each other, their devotion to each other and to their mission is clearly palpable. During their journey, the brothers will have opportunities to not just explore their world but also their own relationship. The cooperative gameplay does its job splendidly to get you emotionally invested in the brothers, and the story's climax and eventual denouement is emotionally arresting as you learn of their final fate.
The ability for a game to create such a moving experience is thankfully becoming less rare as game designers become more sophisticated, agile, and resourceful with the tools of digital entertainment. However, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is more than just a new experiment in gaming—it pushes the envelope of what is possible in an interactive medium. Not only is it a great adventure game, it succeeds at being a great work of fantasy by providing a portal into a world of imagination which ultimately provides new perspectives into the emotions and struggles of life itself.