Starbreeze Studios is a developer that's primarily known for action titles. The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, the recent reboot of Syndicate and, to a lesser degree, Enclave, show a studio that does very well in crafting experiences that are engaging but have a high degree of action. Its latest title, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, might not be a poster child for the studio in terms of action, but it shows its commitment to telling an engaging tale and, for the most part, it succeeds.
The story is familiar and a bit dark. As the game opens, we're treated to a flashback where a young boy remembers how his mother drowned and how, try as he might, he couldn't muster the strength to save her. His flashback is interrupted by the calls of his older brother, who needs help carrying their father to the local physician. Upon reaching the doctor, the brothers are told that the only thing that can cure their father's ailment is water from a mystical tree that grows in a faraway land. Determined to not lose another family member, the sons set out on a quest to retrieve water from the tree of life.
Much like Limbo and Papo & Yo, Brothers is a puzzle platformer that places less emphasis on combat. This doesn't mean that it is devoid of combat, but with only two encounters where you are almost always on the defensive, there isn't a big focus on fighting. Your focus is on skillfully climbing from one hotspot to another and solving a few puzzles so you and your brother can safely reach a new area. Just about every puzzle relies on simple logic. Getting a branch to a reachable height, for example, might require you to make it sag low enough to be reachable, or lowering a bridge might rely on having an animal walk in a wheel that was designed specifically for that task. Other puzzles rely on the special skills each brother exhibits. Neither character overpowers the other in specific areas, but the older brother is a more polite fellow who is strong enough to activate levers and ask for information while the younger one is mischievous but able to fit through small gate openings and communicate well with animals.
The big hook for Brothers is that it's a cooperative game that is played by only one player. Each analog stick on the controller is responsible for the direct movement of each brother while the triggers do the same for their actions. You can play with two players sharing one controller if you wish, but the simple design is obviously meant for one person in a manner similar to the Nintendo Land minigame Sweet Days on the Wii U. Your focus is simultaneously split between the two characters, so the game's lack of challenge is increased due to this mechanic alone. Those who have a difficult time adjusting to this will curse the title from beginning to end while being thankful that there aren't any complicated puzzles. Others who can get used to the system quickly will enjoy it the most, even if they have momentary lapses of which stick controls which character.
As expected, the journey to the tree takes you through a cornucopia of environments, from the boys' sleepy little village to caverns with working machinery to giant castles and Nordic lumber villages. The shifts in environments are gradual instead of sudden, and the same can be said for the tone of the entire story. It starts off somber, and while it regains a more lighthearted nature, the story slowly delves into less appropriate territory. From hallucinations to the act of manipulating corpses to the younger brother's constant aquaphobia and beyond, the story isn't afraid to evoke dread to tell the tale. It's impressive that the game and story don't waste any time, and the title moves things along at a pace that is neither too fast nor too slow. There's no set of collectibles that need to be ferreted out, no secondary quests to complete, and no throwaway cut scenes. Everything is focused, and while that makes for a shorter game, it also results in a better-told story.
Brothers is all about the story and the journey. Though the dialogue is told best in pantomime, it does more than enough to convey the tasks at hand and thoughts of each brother throughout the quest. Seeing the bond between them is heartwarming, and the increasingly dark tale only emphasizes that. Without the emphasis and surrounding environments, the impact wouldn't be as strong, especially when the game decides to throw in a twist or two to pull on the heartstrings.
For those who lament the game's brief three-hour journey, the only solace they can take in is the fact that the Achievement system is geared toward exploiting the natures of the brothers and exploring off the beaten path. Completing the game without doing any sort of exploration nets you zero Achievements. Unlike the puzzles, the Achievement descriptions are a little obtuse, so they require the user to provide a little bit of thought. Though they don't offer any benefits in the game, their inclusion provides some replay value to those who want to squeeze some value from their titles.
Graphically, Brothers is done very well. All of the characters are drawn in a style that eschews realism for aesthetics. You're not going to find realistic color shading or overly proportional limbs, but you will find characters that are visually appealing, even if you're seeing them from afar at a top-down perspective. Animations are fluid, and there are only a minimal number of clipping issues. What really impresses in this category is the environments. The myriad of environments benefits greatly from the vibrant use of colors and lighting/shadowing that provide a visual punch. Smaller details, like butterflies flitting around and squirrels scampering up trees, breathe some life into these places, and none of the environments suffer from the Unreal Engine's notorious texture swapping. Even though it can be considered a boastful move by the developers, you'll appreciate the benches throughout every level that are only present so you can enjoy each location from a different camera angle.
Likewise, the sound is brilliant. Though it isn't used often, the fictional language being spoken add meaning to the pantomimed actions, and the language's limited use makes each instance more memorable. The music really sets the tone for the game, and it, too, is used sparingly to convey the proper emotions and mood. The soundtrack is bookended by tunes that convey a sense of dread and foreboding. Mixed in with the myriad of effects and ample use of surround sound, and you have a soundtrack that easily pulls you into the world, even during the quietest and most heartfelt moments.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is an experience that doesn't hit Xbox Live Arcade too often. It has a story that doles out a familiar tale but tells it in a way that feels more personal despite the lack of a familiar language. The puzzles are a tad too simple, and unless you're hunting for Achievements, there's no motivation to replay the short tale. Look past the gimmick of singular co-op, though, and you'll find an engaging title that also looks and sounds great. Even though this is only a timed exclusive to the system, Brothers is certainly worth playing if you're tired of the same old, normal video games that are being offered nowadays.
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