Your mother has passed, your father is dying, and only a distant elixir of life may cure his ailments. With only this knowledge in tow, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons depicts the journey of two boys traveling through a traditional fantasy world to save the only parent they have left. Controlling each brother concurrently with a separate analog stick, the game offers a unique twist on the classic adventure-puzzler at its core. Instead of swinging swords and collecting treasures, your only goal is reaching the end of this quest, solving environmental obstacles with basic interactions along the way. Above all of this, Brothers promises to deliver an emotional tale that you won’t soon forget. But does it deliver on every account? Let’s find out.
The visual design in Brothers is absolutely stunning, like projected pages of an illustrated fairy tale. It isn’t the standard cartoony art that continually iterates on early 3D platformers like Super Mario 64. Neither is it a style with cel-shaded flare from the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. No, this is something else entirely, something unique and infused with a feeling of mystery and wonder that will drop jaws throughout as the camera pans across every expansive vista you visit. From forested mountain ranges to frozen medieval castles, Brothers is worth a recommendation if only for its superb eye candy.
Held Together with a Tune
Brothers’ soundtrack is equally impressive to the sights onscreen, a ribbon and bow embracing this gift. The music evokes a sense of adventure yet never lets go of the overwhelming danger involved in the trek ahead. Invigorating at times and hopeless at others, this is undeniably classic fantasy. What’s more, the melodies know when they are not needed, fading out those somber tones when the visuals themselves are all that’s necessary to tell the tale. A perfect compliment to the magical world, the music acts as an underlying final touch to ensnare you into this daunting journey.
Making Fantasy Fresh Again
Tolkien-esque fantasy may be the most overused setting in all of gaming, so it’s astounding how Brothers manages to make the atmosphere exciting again. Without filling the world with worthless NPCs or constant streams of enemies, developer Starbreeze was able to focus on the spectacular environments, and it shows. This is a tried-and-true theme, yes, yet nothing in Brothers could be described as generic. Creatures like trolls and giants are tweaked and bathed in the brilliant art style to make the genre come alive as you’ve never experienced it before. The surrounding landscapes extend this success story. Our titular brothers travel through Mines That Aren’t Exactly Moria and over Mountain Peaks That We Promise Aren’t Caradhras, yet the level of detail within the natural environments makes you wish you could explore more just to absorb the scenery. As stated in my praise of the visuals, prepare for regular helpings of sheer awe.
When committing all gameplay elements to movement controls and a single interaction button, one cannot expect a neverending range of systems in place. Even with that in mind, though, the act of playing through Brothers still felt a tad shallow. Sure, two-character actions get more involved than early co-op antics like simultaneously flipping switches and boosting each other onto ledges, but the mechanics never seem particularly clever. Frequent environmental puzzles are straightforward and basic, occasionally repeated and without a real stumper among them. Physically, they don’t require much finger-twisting dexterity and skill, either. They’re just there, obstacles that make traversing the world slightly more engaging than following a linear path. Though they are not exactly bad – I was never bored during the three-hour playthrough – I kept waiting for something more involving, a moment of personal satisfaction to remember long after the credits roll. Unfortunately, that never showed up. For a game relying on presentation and story to do most of its heavy-lifting, perhaps Starbreeze was not overly concerned with presenting a challenge. However, the narrative portion didn’t fare much better…
Forcing Emotions on a Bare-Bones Story
The story itself is a simple thing: Your father is fatally sick, and only an elixir of life from a far-off tree may hope to save him. While that driving factor gives you a relatable purpose from the get-go, nothing evolves beyond this initial premise. Easy-to-overcome physical obstacles are the only sources of complicated progress, the brothers themselves interacting no more meaningfully than by helping each other climb walls or distract monsters. Other than through its open cutscene, Brothers shows no reason why we should care about these kids. Instead of characters, the two merely play like tools, yours to manipulate in order to surpass some meager challenge. The few individuals met along the way are even flatter, assisting in the life-saving cause for a minute or two before being left behind and ultimately forgotten.
Video games in general are not regarded as having powerful, emotional stories, but the real detractor here comes from Brothers believing you will find its story to be powerful and emotional. The game tries to force players to be sad, for instance, by suddenly making sad things happen. Considering the typical “Heroes Always Win” approach taken by much of popular entertainment, any attempt to avoid that easy path is at least a little daring, but Brothers fails to give its supposedly heart-wrenching moments any true meaning. There is no build, no progression or insight to elicit an emotional response. Rather, things just happen at random, unfortunate events falling upon characters that are blank slates. This surface-level delivery might have worked once upon a time, but when contemporaries like The Walking Dead or Journey show us what it means to feel for in-game characters, Brothers just doesn’t do enough.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is best experienced as a piece of audio-visual artwork, focusing squarely on its remarkable presentation and only interacting as a means of discovering more. From that perspective, Brothers is perhaps the most beautiful thing to arrive all year. However, by-the-books environmental traversal and a story without any substance make the game itself underwhelming. You probably won’t shed tears or strike smiles for these children on a mission, but with expectations in check, you’ll find the world of Brothers has enough magical elements to keep you entranced.
Review Platform: PlayStation 3