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Elven strategy goodness inside.
Females everywhere take a sharp intake of breath.
The release of Starbreeze Studios’ Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons as part of what is inevitably going to be Microsoft’s last Summer of Xbox Live Arcade on the Xbox 360, is quite a poetic moment. Let me explain what I mean by that. Bizarre Studios’ Geometry Wars was the first and original XBLA poster-child and was an arcade game in the strictest sense of the word. A game that relied on twitch reflexes and precise hand-eye-co-ordination and that re-invigorated the high-score leaderboard and made competing with your friends for that number one spot compulsive all over again. But in the preceding years the gaming landscape has changed considerably. Games have shown they have the scope to be much more nuanced and inclusive and releases such as ThatGameCompany’s Journey, PlayDead’s Limbo and Teltale’s The Walking Dead have demonstrated that games can also be deeply personal affecting experiences driven by a well-realised narrative rather than just finessed controls and high-intensity action Which leads me nicely back to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, a HUD-less narrative-driven experience, that happens to be everything that Geometry Wars isn’t and something which proves itself to be the perfect swansong for this generation of gaming. In fact, one could argue that, Geometry Wars and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons are two perfect metaphorical book-ends for the evolution of gaming as a whole.
Brothers is a single-player co-op game in which you play the roles of the two titular brothers. Nope, that’s not a mistake, you read that correctly. Brothers is a single player game in which you control two characters simultaneously. One with the left thumb stick, and one with the right. The left and right triggers, meanwhile, act as context sensitive action buttons for each character and that's literally all there is to it. Simple but elegantly effective.
At first things feel a little clumsy and you’ll often lose that mental connection between each thumb and its respective character but the game is so well designed and relatively forgiving so as to never make this a problem. In fact, throughout the entire experience there was only one single section that troubled me for any length of time and that was mainly down to my own ineptitude and lack of co-ordination as opposed to the game being too difficult or mechanically broken.
There's a very definite and deliberate contrast between the two brothers which rather elegantly allows the co-op mechanics to really shine. The older brother is taller, stronger, wiser and exhibits that slightly bullish confidence that comes with being a teenager. Meanwhile, the younger brother is smaller, weaker, more agile and nimble but with that charming, youthful, playful, naivety and innocence that comes with being a child. You’ll play on these strengths and weakness throughout the experience as you navigate your way through the many puzzles and obstacles. And that the game manages to convey all of this through its lovely animation and ambience alone is remarkable.
For instance, something happens at the very beginning of the game that explains why the younger brother can’t swim. But throughout the game there are moments where he has to overcome this fear but can only do so with the help of his stronger, more confident brother. While controlling the younger brother, if you interact with the older brother during these moments it’s possible to climb on his back and hold on for dear life while he swims across the river or pool that was obstructing your way. Conversely, there are moments where the older brother can’t fit through a gap and has to rely on the younger more sprightly brother to help navigate around the obstacle. It’s this lovely reliance on each other that makes the co-op nature of the game really gel, but also on an emotional level, really reinforces that bond and relationship you have with them.
It’s the little moments that really stand out, too. Many objects and people in the environment can be interacted with and each of the brothers will do so differently. To give you an example, early on you’ll encounter a fairly innocuous wishing well, and while this holds no significance or attraction to the older more mature brother, the younger sibling takes great delight in hocking up a massive globule of phlegm before proudly spitting it down the well to test how deep it is. You’ll also come across an old guy bent double tending to his flower bed and while the older brother will calmly tap him on his shoulder to get his attention before respectfully asking him for directions, the younger brother takes great pleasure in catching him unawares before tapping him on his exposed backside and howling with laughter. There are many of these discreet interactions and while none of them are essential to the overall narrative and often require you to go out of your way to discover them, they’re beautifully observed moments that help further reinforce the bond that develops between you and the brothers throughout theirs and your journey. In fact, on reflection, I almost felt as though I was an even older third brother, like they were part of my family. The game's NPCs are too, delightfully well realised and manage to convey a considerable level of depth even though everyone speaks using a Sims-esque gobbledygook.
Brother's achievements are also xceptionally well designed. Nothing you do during the main quest earns achievements. Instead, they’re all awarded for the aforementioned incidental little interactions, each of which is its own sweet and often sentimental moment. There are also numerous genuinely laugh-out-loud funny slapstick moments which I don’t want to spoil so will avoid mentioning specifically.
But for all of its sentimentality and warm brush strokes, Brothers is also exceptionally bleak at times dealing with themes of death, murder, betrayal and suicide along the way. But again, rather than force-feeding it down your throat, it’s all delivered and presented subtly and naturally and never feels over-wrought or out of place.
The visuals and accompanying score are also tremendously atmospheric. In fact, with the release of Brothers, it’s finally time to put an end to the ridiculous notion that Unreal Engine-powered games all have to look like Gears of Wars knock-offs. The game’s many different regions and environments are beautifully designed and really help immerse you in this unique fantastical world. This is particularly highlighted by the stone benches you’ll frequently come across. Usually perched on the edge of a hill-side or mountain-top, when you interact with them, with either brother, they’ll wistfully sit down for a second taking a load off and just breathing in the world for a second. The camera will then pan out to reveal the next place you’re about to visit and gives you a wonderful sense of the sheer size and scale of the game world. It’s the very definition of the word adventure.
I’m in two minds whether or not to talk about Brothers’ length, because frankly I think it’s completely irrelevant. But I feel like I should if only so I can definitively quash the rumour that it takes only 2 hours to complete – it took me nearer 5. But those 5 hours put this game among the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had. Was I left wanting more at the end? Well yes of course. But only because what came before was so so sublimely executed, and I was genuinely sad it was over. And surely it’s better to leave a player wanting more and with fond memories than to outstay your welcome and leave the player remembering only a long arduous drawn out finale? As it is, Brothers, like the already mentioned Limbo, is perfectly paced. It has peaks and trough, hilarious and tragic moments but as a sum of its parts it’s close to perfection.
A lot of what makes Brothers so special, captivating and ultimately memorable are moments I can’t possibly talk about in a review this soon after its release. To even hint at the possibility of twists or dramatic events is to slightly spoil things as it leads to an ill-informed sense of anticipation as you try and second-guess what may or may not happen. Just trust me on this one. Play the game right to the end and breath in its enchanting atmosphere, emotion and narrative whole.
After the last few months of non-stop Black Ops 2 and the unforgiving relentless trudge that was Dark Souls, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has given me hope. Hope that games can be better. Hope that games can continue to deliver engaging and emotional stories. And above all, a definite realisation that games are the single most brilliant interactive medium of our time. What's also most striking is that as a generational swansong we've a hell of a future ahead of us.