It sounds cynical but I try to go into games without too many expectations; if I have none then I can’t be too disappointed if they’re not met, right? I feel like that’s a reasonably healthy way to approach games, especially because I, like many people, can and indeed want to get super invested in them. I want them to make me feel elated or heartbroken, thrilled or terrified. And sometimes you can’t not be excited for a game; sometimes the hype surrounding something is too high. When you hang around with a patient gaming crowd as I do (plug plug subreddit discord come chill etc) you find that it either eliminates hype because you’ve missed the moment or, in some cases, amplifies it. If a game is well-liked and that sense has stayed with it over time, I find it becomes quite hard to escape. That’s been my experience with Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Android, iOS, PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Switch, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Released Aug 2013 | Developed: Starbreeze | Published: 505 Games
Genre: Puzzle-Platformer | HLTB: 3 hours
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons isn’t alone in that, of course. There seems to be a solid core of smaller, indie titles that are consistently held aloft as a kind of canon of excellent independent games. I try to dip my toes into them from time to time; like with great novels or movies or albums, I enjoy taking a dive into games that are considered greats or noteworthy. We all like to experience the best art on offer, after all. But with that comes that need to manage expectations. Some games have turned out to be brilliant; Shovel Knight for example is one I’ve reviewed and I adore it. Others I’ve tried to play for review and simply can’t enjoy them for a multitude of reasons; Limbo is one of my recurring bugbears, as well as games like Braid, Fez, Super Meat Boy and Enter the Gungeon. These, and others, come well-recommended to me and often I can’t even bring myself to finish them, and so they remain unreviewed despite my interest in doing so.
So I’m going to open this one by expressing my disappointment in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It’s my own fault; I ought not to have listened to the hype. In my defence, it does come very highly recommended; its reviews are glowing, espousing the brilliance and power of its narrative, and while I’ve not always liked every critically-acclaimed indie game, often if something is considered good I’ll usually find myself nodding along. And yet I feel a little aggrieved with Brothers. As I say, it’s not really the fault of the game of course, but I find myself caught between being able to rationalise why it got such effusive praise and struggling to hold back a sense of weary contempt. My experience with it was definitely not wholly negative by any stretch, but it’s impossible for me to ignore the faults I found.
Let’s start with something unreservedly positive however. Brothers might have been released some years ago now but it still looks utterly sublime. Set in a fantasy world, the titular brothers travel from their bustling coastal village to smoke-filled mines, frost-rimed peaks, and lush mountain forests. The views are absolutely incredible – I love the touch of being able to sit at the benches dotted about and simply admire the vistas. The character models also have a kind of pleasing cartoon style to them, and at times almost feels like watching a Dreamworks movie. It might seem like a worthless, vain, surface-level thing but I don’t care – sometimes it’s nice to just be able to stop and enjoy the pretty pictures and in that respect Brothers delivers.
The soundtrack was also a pleasant accompaniment to the adventure. While perhaps not the strongest I’ve ever heard, I can always appreciate a good use of leitmotif and Gustaf ‘Lizardking’ Grefberg certainly seems to have built the score around the melodies which we can hear in the sombre Main Theme. While the use of guitars, pipes, and string instruments like the prominent viola helps craft Grefberg’s idea of a European fantasy world, it’s hard not to draw parallels between it and similar notions of the genre, the incredible kulning vocals provided Emma Sunbring give Brothers’ soundtrack a distinctly eerie identity. When it’s clearest in tracks, such as in The Beginning of a Journey, the reverb on the vocals gives it such a powerful presence, as if it’s bouncing off faraway peaks in the mountain valleys of Brothers’ world. While often I enjoy listening to game soundtracks in isolation after playing, Brothers’ music is married to the world in a perfect way and it almost feels sacrilegious to listen to it outside of gameplay.
Unfortunately the presentation is where the game shines brightest, and I feel that the gameplay rather lets the side down. You take control of both brothers using one controller. Each one is controlled by one side of the controller respectively: the older brother is guided by the left stick and bumpers, and the younger by the right. This is definitely a creative approach from the developers but I can’t help but express how frustrating it was to play. I don’t know if this a better game to play with alternative methods but given I was playing on a console my options were rather limited. I constantly found myself getting the two characters mixed up and had plenty of times where I accidentally moved one or the other wrongly.
The left and right bumpers are the action buttons for each brother and there is no other nuance to that; whatever needs interacting with, it all comes from the bumpers, whether that’s climbing cliffs, jumping and catching onto handholds, or grabbing and pushing any puzzle elements. This leads to the puzzle you come across being very simple all the way through the game, with little in the way of challenge. Now, this isn’t inherently a problem of course, but it doesn’t make for a hugely compelling time playing Brothers because you rarely feel taxed by the game, and overcoming them isn’t a matter of working out a solution so much as it is just deciding to keep continuing on after yet another sequence. Worse still is that many challenges you face repeat in quick succession; one notable chapter sees the brothers bound together by a rope and so they need to jump in tandem up a cliff and then pendulum swing one by one when moving laterally. This is neat at first but when a large part of a chapter seems to involve doing it over and over again you quickly lose interest, and unfortunately that was a reasonable representation of the general puzzle design in Brothers.
Though the controls and the lacklustre puzzle-platforming were my main sources of frustration with Brothers, I suspect plenty of players would argue that the reason to play it primarily is the narrative which is often the reason for much of the game’s praise. It starts off promising enough as the two lads begin a journey for a mystical cure for their father’s illness. The poignancy notes are struck right from the start as we’re treated to the knowledge that their mother died at sea during a storm, a fact for which the younger brother seems to feel personally responsible. This plays into the gameplay as he now has a crippling fear of water and cannot swim, leading to sequences where he must latch onto his older brother who swims for them both. This is indicative of something I do enjoy in Brothers, with small details like this having clear roots in the characterisation of the boys. You can also see it when you interact with the villagers at the beginning as the elder sibling solemnly asks for directions and help whereas the younger plays pranks and shows off. From this you really get a sense of the characters of these lads, and I commend the developers for it.
What I find less interesting are the general beats the plot takes. I’m not sure if it’s a product of its time, but I found none of its story movements either especially affecting or surprising; instead much of it felt quite predictable to me but I couldn’t say precisely why. I went into Brothers with no knowledge of the plot to speak of but maybe I’ve consumed enough fantasy or indie games to find it mundane and trite rather than emotive and beautiful. I honestly hope it still holds that power for some though, and perhaps less cynical players than me will find something lovely in it, and more power to you if you do.
Saying anything more specific about the plot will constitute spoilers really and I’m not such a spoilsport to do that, so we’ll leave it at that sense of disappointment and predictability. It’s such a shame; Brothers gives us such a vivid world and is a sparkling example of telling a story about that world through diegetic elements. Limpid pools hidden in mines and built overlooking a beauty spot tell us even the hardened workers must sit aside and gaze up at the outside world, empty crumbling towers lined with expressionless stone statues who stare down at all who approach speak of a severe civilization now long gone, and a body-strewn battlefield paints a bloody picture of a war far removed from our brothers’ sleepy village that clings to the edge of a cliff and overlooks a vast, unending sea. The world building in Brothers is immense and it’s made all the better by the lack of dialogue; it leaves us to ponder this land’s secrets and history and provides a platform for the imagination to run wild.
I really, truly wish Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons delivered more. As it stands it’s a gorgeous picture, a piece of aural and visual art that excites and promises great things. But a game is more than that; it has to hold up in terms of gameplay and story, and I regret to say I found Brothers lacking in both regards. It became a very frustrating experience as the excitement of each new part of the world was laid before me was slowly replaced by a bitter resentment at the dull puzzle-platforming, the annoying control setup, and the dreary plot.
3/7 – MEDIOCRE.
A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.