Don’t judge Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (opens in new tab) by its overly dramatic opening moments, which awkwardly depict a tragedy on a lake that leaves a young boy motherless and imbued with a healthy fear of water. Gauge its effectiveness instead by the memorable hours of adventure that follow, as that same young lad and his older brother bravely defy a dangerous wilderness while searching for the precious elixir they hope will allow them to cure their ailing father.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is an unexpected experience, and almost always in the most delightful of ways. The surprise that arguably has the most impact, though, is the game’s simple control scheme. A single player is in charge of the two brothers--both the scrawny younger fellow who can nimbly slide through narrow gaps, and his elder sibling who can pull levers and carry heavy objects--and each character is assigned to one of the controller’s analog sticks. Shoulder buttons move the camera (in the rare instances when it’s necessary) and interact with objects, and there’s no reason to even spare a thought for the face buttons.
Basic though it may be, the unique control scheme allows the game to present a variety of interesting puzzles that in other games would slow the brisk pacing. Here, even the most familiar puzzles feel fresh for the simple reason that you can tend to multiple aspects at once and move quickly to the next challenge. Puzzles are expertly introduced with helpful camera work, so that you’re never outright told the way to advance but seldom have to think too hard to find it. No task ever feels too much like a chore, despite the fact that the boys never seem to be able to venture far without pulling a lever, finding a key, or doing something similarly familiar to any genre veteran.
You might suppose that such a control scheme would prove difficult to master, and there certainly are times when it can seem like the game expects too much from the player. However, those instances are blessedly short-lived and any negative impact they might have is nullified by a forgiving checkpoint system that prevents unnecessary frustration. Very few of the early puzzles require much coordination, and by the time that condition changes in the game’s back half, you will likely be comfortable enough guiding the heroes along the winding pathways that you’ll be happy to forgive the occasional stumble.
The further the boys venture from home, the more fantastical the world they must explore becomes. A generic mountain village soon gives way to a dreary mine that feeds into a foreboding forest and many other wondrous places. These environments are full of color, detail, and motion; raging waterfalls cascade from cliffs that tower toward swirling clouds. Pine trees sway amid gusts of wind and bottomless canyons lie in the shadow of castle ruins. The camera often spares a moment to pan over each beautiful new area, or the boys can seat themselves on one of several stone benches placed throughout the world, just to soak it all in as a tender instrumental score from Gustaf Grefberg (also known for his work on The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness) celebrates the moment of respite.
The story that unfolds as the two boys together endure one mishap after another is surprisingly satisfying, which only serves to make the clumsy opening scene stand out even more. Neither boy ever speaks a familiar word over the entire course of the adventure, but grunts and gobbledygook admirably get the job done. They communicate appropriate despair and delight at each surprising new twist and turn. The result is a story and world that wouldn’t feel entirely out of place in an old Jim Henson film, with some blood, sweat, and tears added for good measure.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is filled with the sort of moments that you wouldn’t wish to see spoiled here. It’s the rare game that gets better the more you play. The three or four hours it will likely take you to run through it from beginning to end will pass almost before you know it and, as the credits roll, one of your first thoughts will probably be that it’s not too soon to experience it all again, if only a couple of times more.
This game was reviewed on Xbox 360.