The game of brotherly love

Drama in games is a good thing—it has the potential to show the growth of the medium. But with a heavy emphasis on action due to the popularity of shooters and the like, it’s easy for game developers to shy away from pushing for unique plots or rich storylines as they gravitate toward what’s been proven to sell. That’s somewhat understandable, since everyone wants to collect a paycheck and have a job at the end of the day. But this makes those few games that take narrative risks truly stand out above the din of explosions and gunfire.

There’s a fine line, however, in utilizing dramatic tones. There’s a risk of going overboard. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons follows a pair of siblings on a fantastical quest to find magical water that can cure their sickly father. A simple concept, but the game’s true focus is on the relationship between the duo and how they interact with this world—and each other. Brothers looks to tell a story with the depth of character many of us long for but so rarely are given in videogames.

Unfortunately, the game finds itself on the precarious opposite end of the drama spectrum, beating players ham-fistedly over the head with a slew of moments meant to make our hearts clench. Instead, they turned me off.

A perfect example is the game’s opening cutscene. In what seemed like a tribute to Titantic, the younger brother is on a rowboat, desperately trying to hold onto his mother as she slips beneath the waves, drowning. In concept, it’s a powerful moment, but since it was the very first thing I saw, the weight of that moment was largely lost. There simply wasn’t enough context for me to care. For much of the game, all this flashback does is establish why the younger brother is afraid of water and needs to be ferried by his older sibling across rivers and streams.

I’d argue that this memory would’ve been infinitely more powerful if it came later in the game—after we’d figured out that only the older brother can swim. This would’ve given the characters room to breathe and grow, instead of being smothered by this cloud of despair right from the start. I’ll avoid spoiling some moments from later in the game, but these overly dramatic instances are frequent enough that the experience becomes less enjoyable as a whole.

That’s not to say that some segments don’t hit it out of the park. At times, the gravitas of the situation was clear, and I felt those heartstrings pulled. I’m just saying that much of the drama felt like the developers were fishing with hand grenades. It was overkill.

Besides its overt attempts at deep storytelling, Brothers also experiments with a novel control scheme. It’s possibly the simplest set of controls I’ve seen on a modern console: The shoulder buttons move the camera, the trigger buttons let a brother interact with items in the world, and the twin sticks move each character around. This gives Brothers the feeling that anyone could potentially pick it up and play it. The simplicity of the controls are a double-edged sword, however, that creates two problems.

First, it gets confusing if the brother assigned to the right stick crosses to the left side of the screen—or vice versa. It took almost the entirety of the game (it’s only a three-hour romp altogether) for my brain to get used to controlling both of them at the same time.

This isn’t nearly as problematic as the fact that the simple control scheme leads to very simple puzzles. Not once in Brothers was I hindered by anything thrown at me. Whether it was a “boss” (I use that term lightly here), a dual-action brainteaser, or a puzzle that could be handled by only one of the characters, everything from a gameplay perspective felt underdeveloped, especially as the sequences began repeating themselves towards the end of the game.

Still, Brothers does shine in some areas. The aesthetics—especially in the later levels—depict a beautifully diverse fantasy world that I wish I could’ve played around in a little more. Icy waters populated with whales, blood-drinking tribesmen, and a land ravaged by a war between giants are all aspects of the brothers’ world that made me wish I could’ve broken free from the linear path. These fleeting glimpses filled my heart with wonder—far more than the brothers’ quest ever did—and the animators should be applauded for this effort.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has a solid-but-flawed foundation. It tries to tell an intriguing and emotional story, but it feels like it’s talking down to the player more often than not—and the gameplay’s simply not deep and engaging enough to overcome this. With only three hours of content and no replayability (once the story’s told, there’s nothing to make you come back for more), it’s hard to recommend Brothers to anyone but the most voracious fantasy fans.

Developer: Starbreeze Studios • Publisher: 505 Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 08.07.13

While Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons occasionally succeeds in tugging at the heartstrings, there’s a heavy-handedness that runs through a good portion of the drama—and that’s off-putting. The unique controls take too long to get used to (considering this is only a three-hour experience), and the puzzles are simple and repetitive.  The aesthetics are definitely pleasing, however. In the end, Brothers doesn’t do anything terribly wrong, but it doesn’t do anything spectacularly well, either.

The Good Terrific art style; some genuine emotional moments.
The Bad A fair amount of ham-handed, unnecessary drama; simple, repetitive puzzles.
The Ugly Going cross-eyed from the twin-stick control system.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is available on Xbox 360 (XBLA). It will release on PC on August 28th, 2013, and PS3 (PSN) on September 3rd, 2013. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360 (XBLA).