Summer of Arcade has brought the gaming populace many great downloadable games over the last few years. It stands to reason that these games would still have existed in some form or another without the promotion, but Microsoft’s focus on getting the best of the best in its summer lineup of Arcade games has landed them some truly fantastic products and highlighted many superb games that absolutely deserved. Being the last year of Summer of Arcade before the new Xbox console, Microsoft really needed to go out on a strong note. Thanks to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, a beautiful and poignant platformer with an interesting control idea, they get to do just that.
The story of Brothers is quite simple. You play as two brothers with a recently deceased mother and a sickly father. The brothers decide to go out and find a cure for their father using a map, given to them by the doctor/priest, that will lead them to a sacred tree with healing water. This simplicity in storytelling is also reflected in the cutscenes themselves: they feature Simlish-esque dialogue and characters that over-emphasize their gestures to get their points across instead of relying on voice-acting. It’s a very charming storytelling technique, one that manages to pack a lot of feeling into each scene even without any dialogue.
I really enjoyed the slow way that the world was introduced in Brothers. At first, it just seems like your traditional olden times village and countryside without any hints of fantasy. Soon, you start to encounter trolls, ogres, and a variety of other fantasy creatures and settings, used in ways that aren’t always as you might expect. As the game goes on, the tone also gets much darker. The theme of the game is very much about the death of loved ones and the loneliness that follows, and this manifests itself in some very shockingly potent ways over the course of the game’s three or four hours. The nature of the story makes it very easy to predict, even very early on, but it’s the way that the story is told that makes it still have plenty of impact even when you can see every “twist” coming.
The two-sticks gameplay of Brothers, with each stick controlling an individual brother (and each trigger for their actions), may seem a bit gimmicky at first, but it is used to amazing effect several times by the end of the game. The game often forces you to maneuver both brothers at once in different ways, a task that can be confusing due to usage of the right stick as a movement stick; this keeps the game challenging in a way that isn’t like the norm. My personal favorite example was a section where the two brothers tied a rope between them in order to climb to a tower. This section has you dropping one brother from a ledge, using momentum to swing him over to another handhold with the rope, grabbing on, and doing it for the other brother. It’s quite creative and fun to both watch and pull off and is probably the game’s best use case for the control scheme. The end sequence is also worth mentioning–it manages to turn the whole thing on its head in a very clever and meaningful way that needs to be seen and experienced firsthand.
While the two-sticks gameplay allows for some memorable moments, Brothers occasionally falters when a puzzle is introduced. A few of the puzzles didn’t really make much sense or weren’t explained particularly well when I first saw them, which forced me to poke around and get slightly frustrated before finally getting it. Also important to note is that the world can often feel like it was designed for the game taking place in it. The way forward is entirely, painstakingly linear and feels very constrained. Paths often seem much too convenient and trying to think about the logistics of a few particular segments may leave you scratching your head, simply due to their design. It’s something that most games suffer from, but it stuck out to me in Brothers more than most games, most likely due to the fact that it otherwise feels like such a real place.
I was quite surprised by Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It was one of those games that I knew existed before its release but didn’t actually know much about what it was Once I started to hear everyone talking about it, I knew I had to give it a shot. I wasn’t disappointed. Everything from the clever creativity of the control scheme to the intricately detailed design of the world (with only a knock on its linearity) is top-class and the story, particularly the way it is delivered, is something that will stick with me for a long time to come. It may have a few rough spots here and there, but the overall experience is one that I think everyone should see at least once. Few games manage to handle such a simple, yet powerful story with such a subtle touch.