Starbreeze Studios aren’t well known for their emotional depth. Responsible for the excellent Riddick games (Escape from Butcher Bay and Assault on Dark Athena), the first Darkness (which administered a gut-punch to our soppy bits with Jenny’s death) and the misfiring Syndicate reboot, the Swedish developers have an inconsistent record with both quality and quantity – which puts them in a perfect position to do what many studios can’t: take risks.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is one such risk. A fairytale adventure set in a whimsical land that seems to be assembled from various bits and pieces of Scandinavian folklore, Brothers tells the tale of the titular siblings as they embark on a journey to save their sick father’s life. The target of their quest is the sap of an enormous, enchanted tree located halfway across the world, which they must find and bring back.
Along the way they encounter trolls, both friendly and otherwise, a land of warring giants, a menagerie’s worth of weird creatures and a strange young girl who they rescue from an apparent sacrifice. At the heart of the story, and the gameplay, is their relationship. The boys are tied together not only by the bonds of blood and brotherhood, but also by a mutual desire to save their father no matter how far they have to go or what dangers they have to face.
It’s an element that pervades every facet of the game. The brothers are inseparable, and only through teamwork and trust are they able to overcome the challenges of the world. You control both siblings with one pad: the left stick and trigger control Big Brother, and the right control Little Brother. It sounds simple but is surprisingly disorienting. We’re so used to spinning the camera with the right stick and cycling between multiple characters that controlling both brothers with only four buttons requires some retraining of our automatic responses, but the pay-off is great. Puzzles that require the siblings to work in unison are straightforward, but others, where each brother is required to complete a separate task, can throw you, and several times I found myself working Big Brother like a Trojan while Little Brother stood picking his nose.
Most of the puzzles are very simple, and in fact the game itself is remarkably easy from start to finish. Of a four-hour runtime, the first two are spent travelling and taking in the scenery, and it’s a fair way in before you’re presented with any real peril and even then, it’s easily overcome. Aside a very creepy moment towards the end, Brothers is quite twee about its dangers. Deaths are never shown, for example, despite the fact that some of Limbo’s shock appeal would have translated well.
As you take the boys on their adventure you’ll reunite a Troll husband and wife, navigate the walls of a colossal fortress, fend off wolves, traverse a blood-drenched battleground covered with fallen giants and flee from an invisible ogre. Moments of true tension are exacerbated by the often clumsy controls but lessened by the lack of brutality, leading to an experience that rarely thrills but is always interesting.
The world itself is beautiful, and Little Brother’s ability to see wonder in everything lends it a magical, magisterial gravitas. Benches are dotted around at specific vantage points, and perching on them offers a view of the land. The sense of scale at these times is magnificent, and the backdrops – particularly towards the end – are occasionally breathtaking. Sprinting along a cliff-side as the Aurora Borealis dances in the sky, or watching a pod of alien, tentacled killer whales leap and dive through the cobalt blue waters of a frozen river are two stand-out moments, but Brothers offers many.
The short lifespan is tempered by an ever-changing gameworld. Yes, Brothers is over quickly, but you’ll see so much in that short time that when it’s over you’ll want to go straight back through it in case you missed anything. Stealing a hang-glider and running it off a cliff, or tethering a rope between themselves so they can swing each other around a sky-scraping castle are moments that highlight not only the Brothers’ sense of mutual trust but also their individual bravery.
Little Brother’s phobia of water means Big Brother must carry him across deep rivers, while the older sibling’s penchant for following his impulsive heart leads to trouble more than once. Considering the game contains not a single word of dialogue – spoken or written – it’s incredibly affecting and very easy to follow. Everyone communicates in a kind of broken, hurried Simlish that sounds vaguely European but will require some imagination and attention to understand.
The aesthetics are solid and evocative of the Fable series, using muted pastel colours to give the world a fantastical, dream-like quality, whether you’re looking at an abandoned, snow-shrouded village, a midnight forest or a giant’s bedroom. As I said, Brothers packs a hell of a lot of spectacle into just four or five hours.
VERDICT: From a hopeful beginning to a heart-wrenching conclusion, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is an endearing and emotional adventure that will resonate strongly with anyone who has a younger or older sibling. It may not be the most exciting or challenging game, and it is certainly over too quickly, but it’s also a refreshing, beautifully-realised attempt to do something new.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.