There is often a case made for XBLA games being better than full priced releases, from Braid to Trials HD by way of Shadow Complex. We love XBLA games, but wouldn’t necessarily agree that they consistently outshine retail. However, on occasion a small game will come along that smashes through our preconceptions and provides us with a stunning, profoundly moving experience to rival the best of the big leagues. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is one such game.
Swedish developer Starbreeze is best known for its excellent work handling other people’s franchises, being responsible for the stellar Chronicles of Riddick and one of our games of the generation The Darkness. Dark, violent FPS are their bread and butter, so it comes as some surprise that Brothers is a gentle, introspective third person puzzle/adventure game – the studio has teamed up with award-winning Swedish film director Josef Fares to deliver a sublime narrative-led adventure.
Having lost their mother to an accident at sea (leaving Young Brother with a chronic fear of water) some time earlier; the brothers are faced with the prospect of becoming orphans when their father takes ill. The village healer tells them of an item which could save him, and so the pair set off across a rich, haunting fairytale landscape. It’s a classic quest filled with trolls, gryphons, giants and other fantasy fare, and the duo will traverse quaint villages, dark forests, ancient battlefields and icy tundras. It’s impressive that all this takes place in a little over three hours – Brothers is a short game indeed.
Control of the titular brothers is split between the left and right of the controller. Old Brother is controlled by the left stick and trigger, with Young Brother using the right. That’s it – it’s an elegant and simple scheme which is reflective of the game as a whole. It does do strange things to your brain at times – we found that keeping Old Brother on the left and Young on the right was fine; but if they got swapped around our brain got confused. After a while you will have the hang of it though and be performing satisfying feats of co-operation. The puzzles are simple and won’t leave you scratching your head for too long, but they are a lot of fun, consistently inventive and pleasingly never repeat themselves.
The most important thing about the game though, is the narrative. It’s perfect. It says more about grief, family, growing up, overcoming fear, accepting responsibility and the loss of innocence in its three hours than The Last of Us manages in fifteen. It’s characters are emotive and jerk at the heart-strings with ease, all the more impressive when you consider they don’t even speak English and there are no subtitles. It’s all backed up by a moving, stirring orchestral score with a heavy Celtic influence. Yes, it’s a short game but the sheer quality of what’s on offer here more than makes up for it. There’s no filler – just pure gold. If it can be compared to anything then it’s probably best to compare it to Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman – a short, ‘silent’ experience with a hauntingly bittersweet finale that will stay with you for years to come.
We cannot recommend Brothers enough. Starbreeze might well be best known for handling other people’s IP, but on the strength of this mini masterpiece we can’t help feel they should let their own imaginations off the reins more often.
– Matt Reynolds. Follow him on Twitter @thelostmoment
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is out now on Xbox Live and will be released on Steam on the 28th August 2013 and PSN on the 3rd September 2013.
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