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In a 2017 article with Glixel, Rami Ismail wrote about the ‘language of gaming’, which could be described as inherent and ubiquitous knowledge in video games that dictate narrative logic and colloquial control inputs. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons speaks in a dialect all its own on every front. While the story and controls occasionally stumble over their own words, Brothers manages to deliver a beautifully offbeat oration.
Brothers opens by setting a grim stage with a young boy reliving the drowning of his mother, of which he was present, but powerless to prevent. This opening flashback highlights one of the game’s major flaws: a lack of subtlety. Developer Starbreeze never stops trying to hit you with those dark and depressing moments, but, for the most part, it lacks any sort of nuance. Any noticeable sympathy feels like it was stumbled upon, rather than conveyed with intention, but when it hits, by God does it hit hard. Why there are children hanging from trees or why the giants were warring never makes much sense, which lessens the impact of those moments, but the multi-layered tragedies, especially ones focusing on the brothers, will form a pit in your stomach and stick around longer than the plentiful cheap thrills. And despite the large-scale inconsistencies of the tone, every individual segment is complimented by a powerful score, which greatly increases moment-to-moment immersion.
In stark contrast to the straightforward adventure, the subversive world-building makes for a delightful syncopation of the high fantasy genre. You remember those hanging children I mentioned earlier? Well, they are the first inclination the player gets that Brothers might take a turn for the macabre and that’s about a third of the way into the five-hour narrative. So much of the opening hours are spent lulling players into this medieval sense of security so they can keep pulling the rug out from under you. It is with that mentality that no setting ever hangs around too long, for better and for worse. Dull and boring locales rotate out quickly enough and don’t slow the pace at any point, but there are a number of picturesque destinations that could have used more fleshing out. Some of the most ambitious settings passed by in a flash, especially as the story sprints to the finish.
Brothers bucks the trends of conventional gaming further with its control scheme. The hook is being able to independently and simultaneously control both brothers, but overall, the gimmick falls flat because there is never an opportunity to take those unique controls deeper. If you can’t figure out a puzzle, simply walk around and cheese the action button until the solution presents itself; no cerebral independence required. A lack of variety in puzzle type doesn’t aid in proving the necessity of the mechanic, but Brothers does manage to combine the novelty of the controls with late-game story elements to create some poignant moments that I won’t spoil here.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons isn’t a modern-gaming albatross in spite of its flaws, but because of them. A willingness to dive into unconventionality only makes the world shine brighter and the story hit harder, all while pardoning the unintuitive controls and inconsistent tone, if only partially. The abstractness in a number of Brothers’ elements proves that bending conventions can produce remarkable and profound experiences.