By John Walker on September 9th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.
Originally released on 360 last month, Starbreeze’s uncharacteristic single-player co-op Brothers is a story of two sons on a quest to save their father’s life, and has now reached Steam for £11.99. As RPS’s leading expert on experiencing emotions, I set forth to find out wot I think:
Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons begins in sadness. A father is dying, and a man in the village tells his two sons – one a young teenager, one maybe ten – to follow a map to find something to cure him. It then immediately becomes a game about these two siblings cooperating against the elements, desperate to save their dad. So it never disguises its tone. Still, I really wasn’t expecting to be, a few hours later, hacking the leg off a dead giant with the massive axe in his hand to clear my path, so I could couldn’t down the stream flowing with blood, to see the ritualistic sacrifice taking place.
Brothers is a compellingly beautiful game, yet remarkably dark. It’s a story of death, gloom and decay, contrasted by the efforts of these two kids and their effort to save their adored single father. And of course it’s a single-player co-op, executed sublimely.
This works with each brother assigned to one analogue stick on a controller, combined with the corresponding trigger. The controls are kept that simple, because there’s nothing simple about it. Operating the game, having the two brothers work together, requires engaging a part of your brain you might not have known you have access to. It’s the ultimate in rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time, as you try to divide control over each hand to each of the brothers, remembering which is which, and then forcing your brain to stay in that place against all the odds. And while that may sound frustrating, it’s a fascinating experience, and amazingly rewarding when you get it right.
That means the PC version does require a controller to play. While keyboard/mouse controls would have been interesting to see implemented (it seems they are, despite the game’s Steam page insisting that a controller is needed to play), the port from the console has made no such effort. Not even for menus.
The game itself, however, is stunning. Relatively short – just three or four hours I’d guess – and with occasional missteps, it’s otherwise an astonishing exploration of both the relationship within a family, and the relationship between a player and the controller. It would be diving deeply into the pool of spoilers to reveal how, but there’s a moment in this game where simply pressing a trigger is astonishingly moving. Not the action it produces on screen – the action of pressing the trigger itself.
With each brother set to a side of your controller, it means each can be controlled independently of the other, allowing them to work together via separate tasks. This is introduced slowly with simple ideas like the older giving the younger a leg up. But eventually becomes more involved, perhaps swinging from ropes held by the other, or operating machinery in different parts of an area. It never becomes difficult, the game instead choosing to focus on forward progress over stumping puzzles, and only occasionally are there sequences that require careful timing, or are unforgiving of your brain forgetting which kid is on which stick.
It’s packed with really splendid little details. A great deal of the environment can be interacted with, getting different responses from either brother. There’s a cat that when picked up by the older brother struggles and squirms, but gives the younger a purring cuddle. Or people will be asked sensible questions by the elder, and teased or pranked by the younger. Then there are a couple of moments where you can altruistically help animals you pass, or simply run past. But I shouldn’t like to meet the person who could run past some struggling baby turtles.
While I don’t want to compare it to Journey, because I found Journey a vacuous experience, there’s clearly a similar emphasis on wanting you to keep moving onward, to experience what it wants to tell you. Unlike Journey, this is far less ambiguous, and far more directed. That’s a lot to do with the involvement of Swedish director Josef Fares, working with developers Starbreeze. (That’s right, the same studio who just released Payday 2 after acquiring developers Overkill last year – has one studio released two more contrasting games in a single year?)
And it’s important to mention just how stunningly pretty this game is. It’s ceaselessly breathtaking, gorgeous backgrounds foreshadowing areas yet to be reached, or simply offering beautiful vistas. Aware of just how nice it is to look at, as you play you’ll frequently find benches to sit on. Do that with either of the brothers and the camera will drift to show you the epic views. It’s generally worth it, if a little contrary to the rush to save their father’s lives.
Troll-habited countryside, ruined castles, and giants’ battlefields make for amazing locations, and the cooperative nature combined with the non-language speak of the characters unavoidably evoke a welcome aura of Ico. It is extremely impressive in all it sets out to do. The only real slips occur when it does the same thing too many times in a row – you’ll have had enough of rope swinging once that section’s over, certainly. And climbing walls could definitely have done with a few more ideas injected in. But it’s all quickly forgiven as you move on to the next eye-wateringly lovely scene.
It may well look like a kids’ game, but be warned that things do get surprisingly dark in places, and you’d end up having some pretty difficult conversations with any little ones once it’s over. These are adult themes, presented in a mature way, via the lives of two fantastic children. And well worth your time.