Between ’Bioshock Infinite’ and ’The Last Of Us’, the theme of the likely Game of the Year candidates is turning into The Journey of Two. ’Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons’ not only re-enforces this, but also presents another dual character trek in a notably different gameplay style, not unlike how Irrational’s blockbuster differed from Naughty Dog’s.
Whether it was through a limited budget and/or adept skills in fat-trimming, ’Brothers’ developer Starbreeze managed to pull off the most concise game of 2013. Yet that doesn’t mean that ’Brothers’ fantasy world isn’t fleshed out. For a game that takes only three to four hours to beat, the two fraternal protagonists transition from their humble village, to troll-inhabited mines, to frigid landscapes with impressive seamlessness.
Their motivation is a desperate one, as they hurry to a faraway tree that springs forth a healing liquid, an elixir that can heal their ailing father. It’s an all the more dire quest when they’ve already lost their mother, a point hammered home in the game’s title screen where the younger brother is grieving at his mother’s grave.
’Brothers’ mechanics operate on the familiar twin stick controls that we’ve seen many times on the Xbox Live Arcade platform in such games as ’Omega Five’ and ’Zombie Apocalypse’. Yet unlike those shooters, the right stick in ’Brothers’ isn’t designed to fire weapons. It is instead used to move the younger brother while the older brother is controlled through the left stick. Seldom do we have these kinds of brain-taxing coordination challenges in games; the last such instance I recall was the little-known dual-protagonist platformer ’The Adventures of Cookie & Cream’ on the PlayStation 2. It’s tricky at first, but you’d be amazed how quickly your hands and brain can adapt. It helps tremendously that the only buttons you have to concern yourself with are the shoulder buttons, which act as multipurpose “use” buttons. This is enough to create some creative mobility situations, especially when the siblings are tethered to each other as they swing along and scale walls.
When you’re not spending most of your time facing platforming challenges, you’ll occasionally encounter puzzles to solve. These brain teasers are never hard, but while they may not feel as rewarding as clearing an obstacle in games like Braid or ’LIMBO’, the charm and inventiveness of ’Brothers’ puzzles make these sections a joy to solve. It’s as simple as using the little brother to use his thin frame to go in and out of troll cages, and getting the older brother to hit switches in order to trap a troll chasing the little brother. If anything, the ease of these puzzles help maintain the game’s fluid momentum.
By fantasy world standards, there’s so much familiar about the world of ’Brothers’, but the game manages to feel fresh at the same time. Killer whales and griffon-inspired winged creatures are interpreted in ways that are imaginative while staying recognizable. By the time you reach a battlefield littered with corpses of titans, you wonder less about the history of the area and just end up rolling with it, impressed at the implication that every part of this game has a sense of history. The best part? This is a land that wants to be visited and savored, as indicated by its many benches, where the two brothers and the player can stop for a breather.
Again, ’Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons’ is a short playthrough, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the richest gaming experiences this year. The fact that you can beat the game on your first attempt without unlocking a single achievement shows how much you can do. Of the many compelling reasons why this game will end up on many critics’ Best of 2013 lists, one will be because ’Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons’ a rare quest experience where the journey holds as much importance as the destination and resolution.
Score: 9 out of 10