A unique control scheme leads to a heartfelt binding of storytelling and mechanics like no other
Swedish developers Starbreeze Studios are certainly known for their creativity and lauded penchant for taking risks with established genres. A single-player co-operative story based adventure, however, is one innovation you probably wouldn’t have expected from them, or anyone else for that matter. It’s certainly a curious direction and one that gives Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons an inherent inquisitiveness. But it’s the accomplished elements that surround its core mechanical conceit that will draw its audience in; a hearty, bewitching and emotionally charged tale that culminates in a single sweeping moment that binds mechanics and storytelling together in a way so few manage. To speak any further would rob it of its impact, but there’s plenty more before then.
With their mother tragically killed and their father gravely ill, the titular brothers of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons set off on a grand adventure to find the only known cure, your fingers and thumbs awkwardly guiding them both in unison as they go. The sensation of playing Brothers is akin to rubbing your head and patting your stomach. You control both brothers at the same time, the left thumbstick and trigger controlling the elder brother and letting him interact with objects, while the same layout on the right controls the youngest. That initial uneasy feeling when play first begins never quite dissipates even if it does eventually wane, but the methodical pace keeps from straining its ambitious control scheme.
Your adventure begins in the brothers’ quaint seaside village before gradually expanding out into this gorgeous fairytale world and its exhaustive mountains, ominous caves and enchanting forests. The soft and colourful visual style isn’t too dissimilar from Fable but the tone is much more sombre than it is absurd. Before long it begins to call to mind childhood folktales like Jack and the Beanstalk, inciting that same sense of wonder and peril that was so captivating. You’ll encounter trolls, ride on the back of a gryphon and traverse a frozen lake, encountering many moments of striking beauty, bounding from the treacherous to the serene. It’s a confined and personal tale but consistently maintains a sense of grand scale, even if the narrative is always intent on doing more with less.
For one, there’s no discernible dialogue - only unintelligible nonsense - and zero text to speak of. Charmingly expressive character movement and reactions are left to tell the tale and reveal the brothers’ distinct personalities and mannerisms. Early on you’re encouraged to interact with various people and objects as you make your way out of the brother’s village, seeing how each sibling reacts differently to certain situations. The more mature older brother, for example, will help a lady with a broom sweep outside her house, while the younger and more mischievous of the two will pick up the broom and cheekily balance it on his palm. From here you begin to form an understanding of their character, building a bond that only grows stronger as they progressively develop and their relationship evolves.
Unfortunately the mechanics don’t carry that same progression, maintaining a core set of tropes that deviate in a few one-off moments that prevent it from ever growing tedious or mundane. At its core Brothers is a rudimentary puzzle game that employs rote platforming elements, the challenge coming from teaching your brain to control two disparate entities at once. It’s not something so easily done and the puzzles play into this. What would be relatively simple with a traditional control scheme becomes an engaging test for your fingers and your brain here.
You’re often required to split the brothers up, utilizing the older brother’s strength to pull large levers or pick up heavy objects, while the younger brother is able to squeeze through small gaps to open up the path ahead. In one moment the eldest hangs on to a rope above a large chasm as the youngest runs along besides him, turning levers to operate machinery and get him safety through. In another you adopt a hang glider, shifting both brothers’ weight from side to side to change direction and navigate a dangerous mountain pass. One particularly inspired climbing section has the brothers bound by rope, taking it in turns to swing from each other to reach various hand grips. Not only is this visually striking but it moves the brothers from one side of the screen to the other, placing them on the opposite side to their corresponding thumbstick. You find yourself moving as cautiously as they would in that situation, deliberately thinking about each move before you pull it off.
It’s a smart and inventive design, and while the controls never quite feel completely comfortable you do gradually improve as the brothers’ relationship evolves. As the narrative brings them closer together so does the mechanics and your influence on them. It’s an enchanting feeling.
And that feeling remains as multiple vignettes maintain the charm offensive. Some may begrudge Brothers brevity (you can finish it in around three hours) but the tight direction packs so much into its short timeframe there’s little reason to complain. You’ll encounter a host of eccentric characters on your travels, making an impact on their lives before moving on to the next.
As you move further away from home the world becomes more dangerous, the scale more breathtaking and the brother’s bond that much tighter. It all culminates in a heart wrenching moment that completely justifies its ambitious control scheme, as clumsy as it can be. It pulls at your emotions with mechanics, not sorrowful imagery or melancholic music, achieving a feat the medium so rarely sees; leaving a lasting impact that ensures Brothers will be remembered, not purely because of an original mechanic but because of the way its wonderful storytelling binds with player interaction to find a profound meaning. It does something no other medium could accomplish, and while it suffers the occasional misstep along the way, what comes before is an endearing and wholly accomplished adventure that makes Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons a powerful experience recommended to all.