Love and death are powerful forces. They bring people together, they tear them apart. I’ve never played an adventure game that handles both concepts with such a deft touch as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Developed by Starbreeze Studios, this is a truly wonderful tale that masterfully immerses you in an emotionally rich, fantastical setting. While the actual challenge on offer is minimal, the story is so strong, the lands traversed so beautiful, the music so enchanting that the lack of difficulty is not an issue. A few game-breaking bugs in the initial Xbox 360 version and a slightly tricky control scheme dampen the experience, but not enough to stop this unique adventure from earning a resounding recommendation.
The titular brothers’ father is mortally ill. Having already lost their mother to a drowning accident prior, the two sons determinedly set off on a quest to locate the cure. At first I was under the impression that this would be a journey grounded in reality, but the farther you travel the more the world expands into a storybook fantasy. Yet even in a mystical and mysterious land, A Tale of Two Sons still manages to resonate on a very real level, dealing with very personal themes that everyone goes through in their lives, becoming increasingly macabre as you progress.
The spectre of death goes deeper than the prospect of a father dying – the decay of life is depicted between flashbacks and what you see before your eyes, the outcome of it very evident in the present. However, this grim core theme is offset with an emphasis on love. The brothers clearly care for one another, their panic tangible whenever one of them is in trouble. One dream sequence shows the elder brother abusing his younger sibling – a disturbing and unsettling moment simply because it’s clear that this would never actually happen between them. These are two characters that support each other, both physically (like the younger brother’s fear of swimming) and emotionally.
What's more amazing is that all this is conveyed without real words. The only dialogue is incomprehensible chatter, but anything else would be unnecessary. These brothers are risking their lives to save their father and the bond between them is so obvious – after all, you’re essentially the one controlling it – that any extraneous conversation would be redundant. Love isn’t just tied to the central characters, though. A broken-hearted troll reunited or a bird inspired with a new lease on life are just some of the ways that it's woven through the story. Death may always be looming, but it never dethrones love.
Opening in the boys’ rural village, everything seems very quaint to start. With a view of the sea stretching into the distance, people talking and playing games, and the sun shining past the wooden houses, it’s all rather peaceful. But slowly this sense of serenity is broken away in your travels, introducing such things as mountain trolls and exotic sea creatures. You’ll come across a battlefield full of deceased giant warriors, vultures picking away at their bodies, causing blood to spill into the rivers. You’ll pass through an iced-over village, its residents frozen and totally covered in snow. The locations are absolutely stunning, with an art style that mixes detailed realism with smooth edges and a soft colour palette. The lighting is impressive too, especially in a scene that sees you swinging a flaming torch in order to scare off wolves, casting long shadows onto the surrounding trees.
Swedish film director Josef Fares was involved in the production of this game, and that cinematic touch comes across clearly in the camera work. Climbing up a mountain, for example, the camera will rotate to a shot that shows how far you've come. The viewing angle often makes everything appear distant, but in doing so succeeds in making the environments feel connected. It’s all deeply immersive and has clearly been designed with so much care that there are benches to sit on throughout, offering nothing more than a quiet look at the gorgeous scenery.
When it comes to exposition, less is often more. Never has that rung truer than in Brothers. Names are never given and neither is the era. Context is minimal, but what you see and interpret is so powerful. You’ll frequently come across things that are never explained, every location clearly host to a vast backstory that is never touched upon. When walking through a forest full of hung bodies or a seemingly abandoned giant castle, questions will be swimming in your mind. But it’s left to you to piece things together, to make of it what you will. The brothers might not comment on it, but you’ll want to. There’s always the sense that the pair are just specks in a much bigger world. Life moves on whether or not you’re there, sometimes leaving you to stroll through the aftermath of a bygone narrative.
There are a lot of interactions that you could easily miss, making the sense of discovery off the main track quite rewarding. At one point I stumbled across a man about to commit suicide, who will succeed in doing so unless you intervene. It was the first truly shocking moment of the game, but one that set the tone for things to come. This scene can only be only found down a path that you're under no obligation to take. In fact, there’s nothing to say that you have to save this man at all. Carefully examining your surroundings will reveal why this stranger was attempting to take his life. I found it truly chilling. It’s such a strong, emotional moment, but one that you might not even discover if you're simply rushing through to the end. Other encounters exist throughout, some more subtle, some happier. Be sure to take time to find them all, because they make the adventure that much more satisfying.Continued on the next page...