Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – Final Review

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons expertly manages to court player engagement and investment from its very opening, beginning with a well-animated cutscene, seeing the death of a still unidentified woman, the precise nature of her death being drowning. The cutscene, also, shows the futile attempts of a young boy to prevent that drowning; tossed about on a vast, turbulent, blustery sea, the youth is helpless, ultimately powerless to save that figure; from the first is death, and relative bleakness. This occurrence naturally goes to shape the boy, instilling within him fear, fear of the seas specifically and fate generally. Regarding his persistent aquaphobia, the boy’s fears are exacerbated whenever near that liquid, it being a painful reminder of that sorrowful death – here is no bombastic protagonist, but here instead is a compelling creature, one of vulnerability, while the apparent youthfulness of his character only furthers his endearing attributes – forced to grapple with these matters of death when he should be engaging in simple, childlike endeavors is rather distressing, deflating. The boy’s great believability, his humanity, contributes to player / protagonist linkage, while this engagement is furthered still by the frequent, deliberate evocations of pathos, a major achievement, the player alternately experiencing sorrow and triumph; a literal emotional odyssey is embarked upon, and these lofty ambitions are abundant. The narrative is made further complicated and made more profound with the introduction of the boy’s older brother, who serves as mentor and sustainer to the younger individual; their connection is intimate, wonderfully human, he exuding confidence, his younger brother showing trepidation and uncertainty – together, they balance the scale.   

The game’s narrative, both complex and ambitious, is also characterized by a deliberate vagueness, the developers imploring the player to make their own connections, to decipher the minimalistic narrative devices which are presented them. Even the game’s opening raises manifold questions – what is the precise relationship between the younger brother and the sweet victim of drowning? The logical, immediate conclusion is that she is the boy’s mother, an especially sound conclusion, even as it is never validated, or validated totally – here is the mentioned vagueness, ambiguity. In employing this ambiguity, again player contemplation arises; the entire narrative is of a ponderous sort, careful of what to reveal, what to conceal. Tonally, all that is expressed is a pervasive sense of tragedy, and early on the core motivations of the odyssey are communicated, as the brothers carry an ailing individual on an antiquated stretcher of sorts, their efforts at his convalescence and restoration guiding the pair. But this instance, this communicating of motivation, is perhaps the most explicit delivery in the entire narrative. But further questions arise, not unlike those raised when considering the woman. Is this a father? I am quick to say yes, but that some uncertainty is present here again reflects narrative achievement. The younger brother, already vulnerable and fragile, must save this individual, father or no; should he meet with death again, the younger brother would himself undergo a sort of symbolic death, a complete destruction of morale. And so they leave.   

The bond between the brothers, already intense in the game’s opening, only blossoms and intensifies as the narrative progresses onward, as more and more hardships are endured. Their clashing characteristics, meanwhile, actually serve a functional purpose, each endowed with certain gameplay quirks, helping to distinguish them even as they are linked in so many other areas in the narrative and beyond. The younger brother, owing to his rather stunted height, is incapable of mantling objects of considerable height, limiting his mobility and opportunities for verticality. In efforts to counteract this failing, the younger brother can be propelled upwards by his older brother, that larger individual taking the smaller in his hands, permitting ascension. A seemingly commonplace statement and mechanic, even this raises symbolic questions of narrative, communicating the symbiotic nature of the pair, one assisting the other in physical, tangible ways, while the other assists on a still deeper plane, the emotional plane. This young / old, weak / powerful concept is perfectly captured, amplifying the younger brother’s fragilities, the older brothers maturation and strength. As further illustration of their relationship, how it connects to gameplay, consider a few more examples. Many objects in the environment are interactable – domesticated animals lounging about leisurely can be petted, while benches can be sat upon, permitting a safer, more tranquil and spirited recollection. These actions are seemingly trivial, serving no gameplay purpose, but the attention to detail is appreciated – and profound, in that the brothers interact with these objects in decidedly different ways, reflecting their divergences. In one instance, a gate is lowered, barring continued progress. The man with the capability to raise this obstacle lingers nearby, in a state of slumber. The younger brother merely taps the man’s shoulder, failing to rouse him. The older brother, meanwhile, douses the man with a bucket of water, instantly bringing him to the alert – immense attention to detail again shows itself. The brothers, then, possess distinctness of identity, interacting with the world and its inhabitants in clashing ways, though they are united in their quest, are united as brothers. Together, seemingly insurmountable odds can be overcome; success can be achieved. Their endearing attributes make all the more painful the game’s sorrowful, tragic conclusion. It would be unfair and unwise to speak of this conclusion is greater detail, but the profound, sorrowful, immensely human nature of the conclusion must be acknowledged.

The game meets with further successes with its world-building, environments being singularly beautiful and aesthetically distinct, conveying the largeness of the world proper. Despite this environmental distinctness, a wonderful sense of unity and cohesion is present, the game adopting the visual tropes of the fantasy genre and adapting them expertly. Lighting results in a certain crispness, while foliage modelling is especially impressive, the trees in vibrant, colorful splendor. Indeed, the game greatly embraces color – here is no drab greenness, no brownness, the trees existing in autumnal glory, showing striking oranges and reds, the wooded environments adopting an almost majestic tone, though these environments, despite their apparent beauty, are not totally devoid of hostility, opposition. In one illustration of this hostility, those selfsame woods are navigated at night, where the comforting coloration is drained from the environment – darkness abounds. The brothers, weary and exhausted, took a brief reprieve from their quest, though were forced into movement – they were forced into those haunting forests. In their trek, they encounter a band of ravenous wolves, violence in their gleaming eyes, capable of decimating the pair with ease. To combat their potential assaults, the brothers rely upon fire, upon the primal fears of those animals. The lighting here makes its boldest displays, but a single torch used as illumination, casting eerie shadows all around, keeping the wolves at bay. Highly atmospheric, it is an impactful sequence, made all the more impactful when considering the previously navigated, peaceful environments – here is a completely different ambiance.      

Further environmental departures occur as the narrative progresses onward, perhaps the greatest success met when exploring an icy, frigid, tundra-like location, beautiful auroras in the skies, the game again clinging to color, everything a tranquil shade of blue. This precise environment is at one point navigated by boat, as an icy, though not totally frozen, azure river is paddled through. Water effects here are technically impressive, fitting in with the game’s other technical feats, and the river navigation is especially compelling when considering its subtle narrative purposes, namely that of the younger brother’s aquaphobia. Still he braves the waters, suggesting a certain sense of growth, he undergoing maturation as the odyssey continues. But beside the environments proper, the NPC’s which inhabit them serve an additional world-building purpose, their existence also contributing to the game’s abundance of charm. In one instance, towering, lumbering trolls are used as allies, their design being whimsical, seeming oafish and good-natured despite their staggering heights, which would typically be used to convey their menace, their hostility – here are subversions. Similarly, birds are encountered in specific instances, they also adopting the role of ally, transporting the brothers seemingly vast distances at a rapid rate, providing them also with security, given their distance from the ground and its manifold threats. Their wings, as they elongate when in full flight, morph them into almost majestic creatures, their entire aesthetics being rather beautiful. Environmentally, largeness in general is present – just as the assisting birds are oversized, so are many objects, structures. A massive castle is ascended, a considerable feat when considering this largeness, the ascending process taking a rather protracted span of time; reaching the summit was thus a triumphant affair. Something similar could be said of deceased giants, their very hands serving to bar the brothers’ passage onwards, the giants’ blood turning the rivers red. This repeated emphasis on largeness, meanwhile, only amplifies the sense of smallness possessed by the two brothers, their existence seemingly meaningless. A very minor complaint when regarding these environments, though, is a rather restrictive camera system. While slightly manipulatable, greater freedom here would elevate the joys of exploration, heightening the environments’ beauty. 

The precise nature of the gameplay is highly compelling – and boldly unique. Each brother is controlled simultaneously, the older brother’s motions directed by the left analog stick, the younger brother the right. This control system has at its core the potential to be gimmicky and frustrating, though the game masterfully rejects both such designations – here is novelty and enjoyability. This control scheme is central to the entire experience, enabling creative options for puzzle-solving and platforming. As illustration, the brothers are sometimes separated, environmental manipulation required for their reuniting; only one brother is controlled in this instance, which serves a refreshing purpose – these controls schemes, though rather intuitive, can be difficult to adjust to, the opening hour or so being particularly difficult, where control demands are great, and where a unique sense of tension and exhaustion is present, as the brothers need be controlled simultaneously. While this exhaustion never goes away, once these mechanics are grasped, gameplay soars, an almost cinematic effect achieved, as the camera pulls back, highlighting the excellent animation quality, most appreciable during the platforming sequences, which are indeed abundant, perhaps the most remarkable being that mentioned castle ascent, as the brothers leap from foothold to foothold; this sequence of platforming is a remarkable achievement, making the case that the game should not be remembered exclusively for its narrative successes, but that it should be remembered also for these profound gameplay complexities, the potentials for uniqueness inherent to the control scheme seized upon, though the game sometimes stumbles with its puzzle-solving, overshadowed by the platforming sequences, like the mentioned castle ascent, which requires clever physics manipulation.

Brothers manages to transcend being a mere video game, morphing into an experience, not unlike Limbo or Inside, taking the minimalistic depth of those titles and building upon them, this title deliberately eschewing voice acting, instead relying upon a fictionalized, imaginative language which contributes to the game’s uniqueness and charm. Departing from those games, traditionally mournful and melancholic, here is color and light – and occasional darkness, with a rapid vacillation of tranquility and hostility. The pacing is brisk and consistent throughout, owing to the logical map design and the straightforward nature of the puzzles, only a handful challenging. But while these puzzles suffer from a certain basicness, their inclusion does result in gameplay diversity, ensuring the platforming does not completely dominate. As an experience, the game demands to be completed within one sitting, so that all the narrative strengths can be retained and more fully appreciated – a short title, fortunately this feat is easily achieved. Inviting in nature, the game eschews overt violence, though not rejecting mature subject matter, such as death and responsibility, an examination of the self, one’s role in the world – ample attempts at evoking pathos are present here, and those ambitions are ultimately realized, the game whimsical and bleak in turn, raising adulation one moment, sorrow the next. While engaging the player on this cerebral and emotional plane, novel gameplay sequences and control schemes ensure that the game’s narrative strengths are not destroyed by faulty gameplay; they work in tandem, work beautifully. Even players who are traditionally repelled by minimalistic narrative devices shall find a great deal of resonances in Brothers, a remarkable achievement.    

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