Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons Review
I bought Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons awhile ago, but was saving it for one of those occasional ruts I get into where I just can’t seem to find anything I like. It only made sense to save it for such an occasion because of the near-universal praise I’d seen for it. Imagine my surprise, then, when the first hour or so of the game left me underwhelmed. At one point, I even thought that this review would end up negative. My first impressions certainly weren’t positive; the first time I started the game, it opened in a small window and I realized that I couldn’t change the video options inside the actual game. Since Steam doesn’t create shortcuts to the actual game folder, I had to dig through files to find the game’s launcher so that I could change the resolution to 1920×1080. Then I noticed that there are no manual saves, with the game relying on a checkpoint save system. These are both positively archaic, and I stand by that statement even though the game won me over around halfway through the story.
Nothing really interesting happens until halfway in
Part of what made me so unenthusiastic about the first half of the game is its normalcy. The setup for the story goes like this: the younger of the eponymous two sons fails to save his mother from drowning and grieves over her death, and then you find out that the pair’s father is now sick and dying. They take him to a doctor, and instead of the doctor doing doctor stuff, the two are sent on an ill-advised journey in search of something magical that’ll cure their father. What are you looking for? You don’t know until you’ve found it, because the characters speak in a nonsense language like the characters in a Sims or Fable game. That makes the beginning of the game where you’re navigating the pair of brothers through villages and caves and other areas that are terribly ordinary remarkably boring. The first half of the game seems to exist solely as a kind of tutorial area that teaches you the ropes of how to play the game, but this isn’t exactly necessary or welcome since the game has an all-too-frequent tendency to force you to figure things out for yourself later on anyway (more on that later on).
Halfway through the game, however, you’re suddenly traipsing through the darker aspects of mythology. Nothing highlights this quite like the battleground of dead giants you come across and the puzzles therein. Moving through this section requires you to move the limbs of the fallen by pushing the arrows protruding from the corpses, and in one unintentionally hilarious section, using a huge crossbow to shoot a bolt into a dead giant’s face and knock him out of your way. Moving through this battlefield, blood is mixed into the water and there’s something strangely eerie about the lifelessness of the colossi who litter the mountainous area surrounding you. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course, but I don’t want to spoil the later parts of the game except to say that the few occasions where I felt that something convenient happened turned out to be foreshadowing. The darker, more involved second half of this game more than makes up for its dull and ordinary first half.
The characters rely on body language, not words
As I mentioned earlier, everyone in the game speaks in a made-up language. This means that characters are entirely reliant on the tone of their voice and body language in order to bring their intentions, fears, stubbornness, and other qualities to life. Some of the animations are a bit awkward, but this is nevertheless where the game most succeeds—even in the early sections, the way each brother interacts with items and people does a great deal to establish their personalities.
This also contributes to the tedium of the beginning of the game, though, because it means that you go into the game knowing nothing about what the brothers are actually looking for except that the older brother has some kind of map to it. The lack of a clear objective other than “move forward until you get the magical MacGuffin you were apparently looking for” had a way of sapping my desire to play early on, and establishing something a little more concrete by revealing what you’re actually after (or even just providing some back story to care about the father character—you’re given zero information about him before setting out on your journey) would have gone a long way toward alleviating the tedious and meaningless feel of the early game.
Still, there are some things that are communicated surprisingly well through body language. For example, the younger brother’s fear of water; the way he balks at your attempts to get him to swim leaves no question about his fear. In other situations, NPCs will point at things in such a way that there’s little to no question about what you’re supposed to be doing. For a game that doesn’t have a single real word in it, it’s kind of surprising how capable it is of getting its point across.
A controller makes the game so much easier
Before talking about the controls, it needs to be mentioned that the best way of playing this game is with a controller, especially if said controller supports rumble. Part of this has to do with the controls making far more sense on a controller, but it also comes down to the way the game uses rumble to effectively get things like a heartbeat across. It sounds pretentious, I know, but little additions like that add a lot to the game. There’s also a section toward the very end where the specific controls you have to press to move on have an emotional impact, and I can’t help but feel that this is lost on a keyboard. Besides, the game is incredibly awkward using the keyboard; not only does Brothers have no mouse support, but it relies on controlling both brothers simultaneously and holding the “action” button of each at specific times so that they work together. This is much harder on a keyboard (but not impossible, so don’t fret too much if you don’t have a controller).
The controls could be better, but they suit the game
On a controller, you control each brother independently using both thumbsticks, with the left stick being the older brother and the younger brother being the right stick. The left trigger is the “action” or “use” button for the older brother, the right trigger is the same for the younger, and the bumper buttons rotate the camera. These are all the controls in the game—everything is contextual, so pressing the left trigger at the base of a cliff will set the older brother to give the younger a boost up, whereas pressing it at a switch will activate the switch. Jumping is automatic, and climbing is as simple as holding the action button and the direction you want to go until the brother you’re controlling has their hand out, then letting go of the button to leap in that direction. Oh, and you have to press the button again to catch whatever you’re jumping toward, which took a little getting used to. Something I never got used to was controlling both brothers simultaneously, though. I found myself consistently mixing up which stick moved which brother, and if I accidentally moved them so that the younger brother was on the left of the screen and the older was on the right, my brain panicked and I’d end up running one of them into a wall. I can appreciate the uniqueness of the controls and how they suit the game, but I do think they could be a bit more solid.
Checkpoint saves are the devil
I don’t understand how checkpoint saves are still a thing. In Brothers, you have to pay attention to the top-right of the screen so that you can see when the game is saving and have an idea of where you’ll be returned to if you have to exit out of the game suddenly. Checkpoint saves are as user-unfriendly as it gets, and while the save locations are admittedly generous compared to other games that use checkpoints, it’s still incredibly annoying being unable to save at will.
Sometimes the game just forces you to figure things out
One of the more annoying aspects of the game is its tendency to leave you to figure things out by accident or trial and error. One example of this is a part where a scientist guy needs the brothers to carry a cog past a broken bridge and across a ledge into a machine. Problem is, the cog is apparently heavy and the brothers are unable to jump to the other side of the broken bridge while holding it. I thought for sure the solution would be to have one brother run up, loop around, and take the cog from the other brother while on higher ground. As it turns out (and I found this purely by accident), you can throw the cog between brothers when they’re on different sides of the bridge despite this making no sense. Why can they throw this heavy object way across, but are unable to jump a much smaller distance while holding it? It makes absolutely no sense, and this “throw something to the other brother” mechanic is never used again.
This is hardly the only example of this kind of randomness and lack of explanation. Minutes before being confused by the inconsistency of the cog situation, the brothers were unable to jump across a ledge to progress. The solution? Getting on mountain goats (or at least I think that’s what they were), at which point they could jump across. I didn’t have any problem with this part, but it definitely didn’t make much sense. These “just go with it” moments are all over the game.
A ton of them are around the cog part, too, because something like thirty seconds after solving that puzzle, the brothers get on a glider and have to figure out how to control it while in midair. It doesn’t control like you’d expect; instead of left and right moving left and right, the weight of the two brothers dictates the way it moves, and you have to figure this out while trying to not fly into a mountain and kill yourself. Sadly, these are hardly the only examples of the game forcing you to figure things out through trial and error, and everything from a random stealth section to the rare boss fights force you to piece together new mechanics on the fly.
Unskippable cutscenes and waiting for characters to catch up
One of the thing I can’t stand about Brothers is its slowness. It’s terrible, abominable, endless slowness. Throughout the game, you’re constantly running into cutscenes that can’t be skipped. Then there are sections where you have to wait for NPCs to catch up you before being able to progress. The most notable example of this is early on when you meet a troll and he acts like a bridge that you can climb across. He moves at the pace of a molasses-covered snail, though, so you’re constantly having to sit around waiting for him to catch up. Most annoying of all, however, is the fact that when the game suddenly picks up the pace and you’re thrown into a chase sequence against an invisible giant, you have to run flawlessly in order to not lose speed and be instantly killed by it. Make up your mind already, game—are we going fast, or are we going slow?
The graphics and music are good
Brothers’ graphics aren’t aiming for anything realistic, being closer to the more stylized aesthetic of games like Fable. This works in the context of the game, allowing many of the more fantastical sections to avoid being jarring like they’d be if the graphics were more photorealistic. It also allows both brothers to have very distinguishable traits such as the younger brother’s bright yellow hair and the older’s blue clothing, which makes it slightly easier to tell who’s who (though my brain still managed to confuse itself). The lighthearted graphics also contrast with the darker turns of the story later on, making some of the things that happen that much more enjoyable.
As for the music, it’s done incredibly well despite not being especially memorable. That’s to say that it creates a great deal of atmosphere that reinforces the game’s mythological elements, but doesn’t ever focus much on melodies that could stick in your head. Still, I can’t imagine any other soundtrack suiting this game as well as the current one does, and the lack of memorability doesn’t change the fact that a great deal of the music is incredible.