A few nights ago, I had a rare three hours of free time.  Seeing as how I haven’t played many games as of late, I decided to spend the time with my PS3.  I had heard and read many reports that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, developed by Starbreeze Studios and released this summer, was a relatively short title that promised an engaging story with several interesting puzzles and gameplay hooks, as well as beautiful environments to explore.  With this info, I decided to give the game a download, and was playing before long.

Note: This blog will contain slight spoilers for the storytelling methods and gameplay mechanics of Brothers.  However, no large plot points will be discussed.

Beyond what I mentioned above, I really didn’t know much about the game.  I had a general idea of the setting, which is fantastical and reminiscent of a stereotypical fairy tale, but knew little about the characters or plot.  I was unaware of the most significant gameplay innovation (which involves controlling two characters simultaneously at all times), which led to greater anticipation as the game began.  In many ways, I was expecting a title similar to Journey, where the plot is rather open ended, and most of the emotional appeal varies from player to player.  Also in a similar vein to Journey, I expected a world with jaw-dropping environments, and perhaps even a few breathtaking set piece moments.  I expected a title that was somewhat similar, but also original.

The world of Brothers is beautiful and filled with interesting creatures.

What I found, much to my delight, was an experience with more density and direction, and with a level of originality that I would have never expected to be present.  I found an experience different from any others I had found in gaming, as opposed to another artsy copycat with little identity of its own.  While these things originally astounded me, I found, upon closer examination, that some of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons’s attempts at seeming dense worked both in its favor at some points, but largely to its detriment at others.

Let me begin by idealizing and defining this “density” that I keep referencing, as the concept may be misleading otherwise.  Many critics and players have been comparing Brothers to similarly emotion-inducing titles, such as Journey or Proteus.  They often cite the attempts, made by each game, to form an emotional bond with the player through the use of creative art styles, open ended stories, atmospheric worlds, and (oftentimes) music that defines the mood, among other things.  Also called out when discussing obvious similarities are the breakaways from conventional gaming that each title displays.  There are next to no games that resemble Journey being sold for $60 at your local retailer because (in simplest terms) they do not appeal to the masses.

Similarly to this cube, the game is filled with different components.

With that said, I believe that Brothers goes…further, in a way, than either Proteus or Journey.  While each of the latter titles is rather ambiguous and open ended, Brothers tells a story that is very clear cut, containing a beginning, middle, and end.  There is less in the way of hidden themes, and a stronger focus on delivering a narrative that forces players to become attached to the characters and breathtaking world, as opposed to a reaction reliant on a purely atmospheric environment.  In addition, the gameplay of Brothers reaches further than either Proteus or Journey.  Players are often tasked with puzzles that, while simplistic, still add a game-y flair to the experience.  Beyond this, though, Brothers gameplay is actually innovative.  Players control a pair of characters at the same time, in essence turning the game into single player co-op.  This is a concept explored not only by few indies, but also very few AAA titles.  By having a deeper, more clear cut story and a focus on gameplay integration and innovation, Brothers manages to set itself apart from many other “artsy” games.

While the lengths went to in order to make Brothers become a deeper game are undeniably commendable, some of the work ultimately, in my opinion, is to the detriment of the overall experience.  For instance, the lauded gameplay hook of tasking players with navigation of two characters begins by feeling unwieldy, and ends feeling simply alright.  I did become used to the controls, but never felt as if I had mastered them.  Similarly on the gameplay end of the spectrum, Brothers’s attempts at creating engaging puzzles begin to falter around the halfway point.  Many are repeated, breaking the focus a player could otherwise be spending on appreciating the visuals or plot of the game.

The puzzles are sometimes interesting, but become repetitive.

The story and world, I would argue, don’t suffer the same fate.  As opposed to creating an atmospheric environment with moody tunes (which can oftentimes be effective), Brothers works to build a world and characters that the player can fully endorse.  This is a difficult task, but one that I feel the developer pulled off well.  By the end, I felt as if I had just watched a complete story unfold and understood the world in which it took place.  For only lasting a measly three hours, this is quite an accomplishment.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a title that I’d recommend to anyone.  The experience is dark, emotional, and surprisingly deep.  A complete tale is told and an entire world is established.  While comparable to games such as Limbo or Journey, Brothers also manages to set itself through the use of effective storytelling, gorgeous visuals, and engaging gameplay hooks.  The idea of controlling two characters simultaneously is intriguing, even if somewhat flawed in practice.  While the game does suffer from somewhat egregious attempts to innovate, it is still a much more than worthwhile experience.