Review: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sticks

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In a market full to the brim (at times overflowing) with games that are carbon copies of games that are carbon copies of games that are carbon copies of games, it is indescribably relieving to play a game that not only breaks the mold, but breaks the mold that molded the original mold. “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” is one of those games. It adopts an entirely new approach to controls and their affect on storytelling, effectively marrying the controller and the controlled. Never before have I felt that the simple press of a button or movement of a control stick could move me to the brink of tears. “Brothers” did just that.

“Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” opens with the image of a young boy weeping at the foot of a grave. As he cries, we witness a flashback in which he sits in a boat, helpless to save his drowning mother from the waters below. It’s a troubling scene, and one that betrays the happy, glowing, soft visuals of the game’s first few areas. As the flashback ends, another boy, taller and clearly a bit older, approaches him and informs him that their father is sick, and they need to take the father to the village doctor. The boys work together to carry the father by cart to the doctor, who informs the duo that the must retrieve something from a giant tree that sits far, far away from their home. The boys set out on their journey, leaving their sick father in the hands of the doctor.

Please don’t take the previous paragraph as a spoiler, because all of this takes place within the first five minutes of the game. I tend not to discuss specific story moments at all (especially with story-driven games), but I described that opening for one specific reason: all of that took place with absolutely zero traditional dialogue or readable text. The characters occasionally speak in a gibberish language similar to that of your torture victims house’s residents in “The Sims” game series. Other than that, however, there is no discernible speech. The dialogue is presented in a way that leaves much, if not all, of the words up to the player to translate and interpret. It takes a special kind of game to be able to drop the player into such immediately pressing issues without the use of words (or machine gun fire).

Many people have discussed the ups and downs of the control scheme of “Brothers” at length. So, here are the essentials: Triggers are interactions, sticks are movement. That’s it. The face buttons aren’t used. The d-pad isn’t used. The bumpers are used only to move the camera. Take a moment to think that over, because in the game it could take you quite a while longer than you might expect. As gamers, we are programmed to think about the controller in a very specific way. Sure, occasionally games will mix up one or two traditional button layouts, (wait, jump is the Y button now? Thanks, Skyrim), but, all in all, most games play the exact same way. Left stick is move, right stick is look (or camera). Right? Well, not in this game. In “Brothers,” each half of the controller commands one of the two brothers, meaning that the little brother is moved by way of the right stick. It may seem like an insignificant alteration to the way we move characters, but trust me. Moving someone with the right stick takes some time to get used to. To add to the confusion, you simultaneously must move the big brother with the left stick. On straightaways and sidescrolling bits, this is a non-issue. But it took my brain more than a few tries to keep both brothers from bumping into walls.

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This control problem isn’t really a problem at all. It’s an artistic choice, and one that I believe fundamentally altered the way in which I viewed these two characters and their relationships with one another, and everyone and everything else in the world. “Brothers” uses its unique control scheme in such a way that all puzzles, platforming, and traversal bits require a dual-thought process. Every section in the game addresses and challenges the player’s perception of the two brothers and about how he or she controls those brothers in the world. It really is a style of gameplay that I feel may stand alone in terms of control innovations this year.

To discuss “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” too much more would tread ever so closely towards major spoiler territory, and I am unwilling to take one more step in that direction. Just know that “Brothers” is an absolutely fantastic experience, and one that I would recommend to any gamer I know. It’s heartbreaking story, beautiful scenery, and exceptional use of the controller make it a surefire hit when end-of-the-year awards season is upon us. This game belongs on the top shelf of any gamers’ digital collection, alongside masterpieces like “Journey” and “Limbo.” “Brothers” can’t be missed.

About: Zack:
Zack