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Friday, September 27, 2013

Video Game Review: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade (reviewed), Playstation Network, and PC

I’d have thought you crazy if you were to tell me that the same studio responsible for The Darkness and Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was going to make a game that would affect me emotionally more than any other game released this year. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is, as I mentioned on this episode of my podcast, is one of those “indie darling” games that gets the press all abuzz. After finishing it, if it asked me to put $5.75 in my pocket, grasp a cup of Kool-Aid in hand, and put white Nike Decades on, I’d do so without much second guessing.

Brothers is journey of two brothers on a quest to get a cure for their father’s mysterious ailment. While the premise seems like it’s been done before, you find yourself in a different situation than you’d think you’d end up. The brothers don’t take up arms to defend themselves and slay any evil that gets in their way. Instead, they do what most young boys would do – head out with only their wits and one another to depend on. It’s a fairly simple distinction from other games of its ilk, but it’s something that truly sets it apart.

Having nothing to rely on but one another, the two brothers head out on their journey for a cure for their father. Making their way out the village, you’re given more time to acclimate yourself with the control scheme. You control the older brother with left stick and the younger brother with the right stick. Now you might be thinking how difficult it would be to make the brothers do anything, given that your thumbs are occupied by controlling their movements. The simple, and slightly brilliant, workaround is that the corresponding triggers handle all of the interactions the brothers have.

While the control scheme is simple, it’s something that does take some adjustment to an otherwise-conditioned brain. When it syncs up, the choice to go this route is marvelous, although just how often that actually happens is likely to vary considerably from person to person. There are some people that it just clicks for, and once it does, they never have an issue with it again. I fall into the category of it working for a time, realizing that it’s working, trying to concentrate on it as to not break the flow, only to have just that happen. It was only a slight a hindrance for me as Brothers never really requires any sort of dexterous thumb work.

Any of the puzzles in the game that impede your progress are fairly simple and will rarely take more than a few minutes to figure out. There’s also not an overabundance of them, making the ones that are there fit smoothly into the world. They also never really stick to one particular thing for very long, introducing you to one type of mechanic and then moving on well before it wears out its welcome. A favorite of mine involved something resembling a gigantic hamster wheel, which seemed absurd for a moment until I thought about why it’s there and what purpose it would serve. Little things like that help sell the realism of a world that looks and feels like a fairytale come to life, similar to Fable (sans the chicken kicking and the rampant flatulence humor that Fable is known for).

Both the whimsical sense of wonder and the sometimes darker narratives of those fairytales are present throughout your journey. Never having a decipherable language in Brothers adds to that feeling as you use your imagination to fill in the blanks. There’s some amazing setpieces that the two brothers don’t themselves understand, making you feel more a part of their journey than you might otherwise. I was left dying to know just what was going on in many of the areas, but you move so briskly from area to area, that you never really get the chance to ponder too long on any one scene.

It’s a short journey through, taking around three hours if you don’t spend any time exploring as you go. Those that spend the time to poke their noses around, something I highly recommend, will find the most rewarding experience Brothers can offer. While none of the sidetracking affects the game’s outcome, the more you explore, the more of the enriched you’re going to find your time spent in the game. Interacting with things with each brother separately will often net you a different result. One of my favorite moments is coming across a house with a harp on the porch. Interact with the younger brother and you find that you might have a musical protégé attached to your right stick, while you find the older isn’t anywhere near as competent with the instrument. The villager sitting in front of the harp will also react differently to each brother’s attempt at playing it.

Such wonderful little experiences like that are a testament as to just how much care was given to the single button interactions. There are a few moments in the game that made me realize just how much weight is given to this simple mechanic, one nearly bringing me to tears and another, after realizing its use, bringing such a sense of elation that it nearly brought me to tears again (or I’m just a big sissy).

Brothers is one of those games that has people buzzing about it for good reason. With a truly unique control scheme, a beautiful aesthetic, and one of few stories that ever brought about real emotion for me, you’d be fairly foolish to not play it. The moments when the control scheme might not work for you can be a bit frustrating, but even falling on the extreme side of the negative of it, it never hindered my love for the tale it was telling or my desire to see everything the world had to offer me.

9 out of 10 silently crying game reviewers

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