In the past, Starbreeze has solidified themselves as one of my favorite developers in the business. Though they’ve mostly worked on licensed games, they have always managed to impress me with their talent. The Chronicles of Riddick and Syndicate stand as two of my favorite first-person games of all time, which is what piqued my interest when I first heard the announcement of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. This is Starbreeze’s first Xbox Live Arcade release and, unlike their previous releases, it’s a third-person adventure game. When I finally got a chance to play the final product I wasn’t disappointed. Starbreeze has successfully captured the co-op experience in a single player game which is almost unheard of. In Brothers you play as (you guessed it) two brothers who have to journey across a beautifully well designed fantasy land to recover a healing water for their ailing father. What makes this game so unique is that you play as both brothers at the same time. You use both of the thumb sticks to move each brother individually and you have to make them work together to solve puzzles on their journey. The game is a brilliant co-op experience, but you only have yourself to rely on. This may be the game’s greatest strength but also one of its faults.
This game is the pure definition of a road trip story. The story opens with a quick video showing how the mother of the family drowned at sea and how they brothers were unable to save her. Due to this traumatic event the younger brother never learns to swim and has to rely on the older brother to carry him, which plays into some of the puzzles. The story jumps ahead and now the father of the children has fallen ill and will die unless the two titular characters can set out on a journey to recover the healing water needed to cure him. The game from this point on is a trip across a gorgeous visage of beautifully detailed and realized environments that are pure eye candy. The sole purpose of this game feels like they just wanted to create an amazing fantasy world and just needed a conceit to do so, which they pull off splendidly. What’s even more impress is that they do it without having any kind of understandable dialogue. Through the whole game every character speaks in a made up foreign language and there are no subtitles. You have to rely on the characters actions and the way they interact with each other to understand how they feel, and it really makes the impacts of the story that much more powerful when you know the emotions being conveyed without any speech at all. This game made me cry and I never understood a word they were saying. To add to this effect, both brothers will react differently to different characters in the world which also helps to individualize them. While the older brother may try to nudge a sleeping man to wake him up, the younger brother will just throw a bucket of water on him to get the job done. It leads to some funny scenes but also just adds a nice touch to the characterization of the game.
The controls are very minimalist as you will only play with both joysticks and both triggers. The left joystick moves the older brother while the left trigger is the button you use to interact with objects and it’s just vice versa for the younger brother with the right side of the controller. Due to the simple controls anyone should have no trouble making it through any of the puzzles, but the game also really isn’t that difficult. You really feel like this game isn’t meant to be challenging, but just experienced. While the controls may sound simplistic they are also the game’s biggest fault. Trying to control both characters at the same time can feel like trying to look in two different directions at once. It can get rather confusing and you may have to stop and just move one character at a time for a moment to get back in the flow of things. I really feel like this was made for the ambidextrous. While the controls can cause some issues, it’s nothing you can’t get a handle on, and you’re rarely in a situation where you can’t stop to get your bearings and right yourself.
Brothers has some visually amazing landscapes and is just an amazingly crafted fantasy world that feels like you are looking through a window to a world that is much bigger than what is in front of your eyes. Multiple times through the game you will be on a high cliff and see a whole world of people living their lives beneath you. At times you may see mystical looking animals in the background and be standing above a mine full of working trolls and really get a sense that there is depth to this world that you are only getting glimpses of. Like any kind of road story you will encounter a number of different environments that only get more stunning and imaginative as you progress. Traveling the world is one of my favorite parts of the game and the only thing I wanted after finishing Brothers was to see more of the world the characters live in. It’s one of those games where I’ve been able to just sit and admire a landscape before moving on with the story, and I challenge you to do different! At the same time, there were some things that bugged me about the games visuals on one or two occasions. Brothers is a title that is definitely emotionally powerful but there a few occasions where I felt like they created some material meant to be shocking and awe-inspiring that didn’t really have anything to do with the story. It was still cool to see and interact with, but just came off a little gimmicky.
While Starbreeze has made their mark as a first-person developer, they have certainly proved their worth in the downloadable market with Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. If they decided to step away from triple-A game development and just focus on smaller titles for a while, then I would be totally fine as long as they keep putting out titles up to this kind of standard. Brothers is one of the more original games I have ever played and is only held back by some minor problems. This isn’t so much a game as it is an experience and it’s something that I recommend everyone should experience. While the controls can be troublesome and there are a few gimmicky moments, this is probably one of the most emotionally powerful stories of the year.