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Adventure games with minimal narratives have a beautiful resonance to them, if done properly. Works like Limbo, Journey and the small catalog of Team Ico immediately come to mind. The pre-release word-of-mouth regarding Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons certainly had me intrigued about its potential in this gaming category.
The plot of Brothers is a simple quest. The father of the titular boys has mysteriously taken ill. The village medicine man hands them a map and points to a far-off mountain. That is all the "exposition" you're given. In fact, the player never sees the map's contents, and you only show it to NPCs on the quest route as an instrument of passage at some obstacles. The ensuing landscape is predominantly a fantasy realm with rope bridges, waterfalls, cliff-side cabins and medieval castle ruins. There is a DaVinci-esque Renaissance vibe to some of the later set-pieces. The encountered inhabitants range from farmers/herders to helpful alpine trolls. There is evidence of larger humanoid denizens and some recent strife involving them. But that is one of the unanswered and unexplored aspects of the game.
Now I am all for artistic works that leave much to the imagination and slowly unfold their secrets. But as time drew on, I found the mystique of Brothers unappealing and nonsensical. For starters, the unintelligible speech of the characters is just too trite, and at times, unintentionally reminiscent of an offensive ethnic stereotype. Other illogical plot issues arise from the nature of the quest. For a tale about curing a contractible illness, the plot involves the characters wading and bathing in some incredibly unsanitary conditions during a significant section of the game. And at various spots in the game there are benches (an apparent homage to the save points in Ico) where the brothers can stop, put their feet up and enjoy a sweeping scenic overlook...all while their father lies tragically dying back in the village. For a premise based on morbidity, there is never any sense of urgency. And the hyped, unspoken goal of their journey is an all-to-familiar Pandoran Tree-of-Life, or Amalur Tree-of-Life, or you-name-it Tree-of-Life, which elicited an audible groan from this reviewer when it was revealed. If that wasn't bad enough, then there is the trivial deus ex machina moment in the game's denouement when the ghost of the boys' mother (hitherto unknown) imbues the surviving son with the spirit of Michael Phelps just outside the village. If only the Neverending Story cat-owl creature had simply dropped our hero off a lot closer to the house where his debilitated father was, we'd have been spared what was a deplorably out-of-the-blue and saccharine bit of misplaced drivel.
The unusual (hybridized) fauna of the game reminded me of the creatures from Beyond Good and Evil. But here they really serve no purpose. Although, in a random moment, I was apparently killed by the most fearsome boss in the entire game - a circle of cuddly mutant rabbits that just made me inexplicably disappear and respawn a short distance away.
That leads me to the Unreal engine, which just seems tired and poorly utilized in the game. The brothers at various points have the superhuman ability to defy physics, especially when tethered together. But they can't climb a simple rock barrier or hop a fence? Even worse - the characters appear detached from the environments as if they are floating and skidding over the terrain. During a boating scene, an orca-like creature landed squarely on my canoe and just glanced off, leaving the on-board characters unscathed. So much for danger. The vistas and backgrounds appear to be liberally borrowed from the artistic vision of Maxfield Parrish, and I suppose that their rendering was handled competently.
The music is sparse, unobtrusive and New Age-forgettable. The audio design hardly adds anything to the gaming experience - other than trophies/achievements for speciously fetching and tooting some out-of-the-way instruments. That is not what I would call an enveloping or interesting use of sound.
The main detractor from this game is its incomprehensively and frustratingly asinine gameplay mechanics. I understand that there is a striving need in the gaming industry to offer something novel. But deviations from the tried-and-true controller setups can irreparably damaged a potentially fun gaming experience; in fact, it is what destroyed any possible enjoyment in the otherwise interesting Too Human by Silicon Knights. And unfortunately here, the separate stick per character control implementation comes across as gimmicky and downright atrocious. One brother can easily be sent veering off against a wall and into a spastic whirl while you are focused on maneuvering the other brother. Coupled with the aphasiac dialogue of the characters, these movements gave the boys the unsettling apoplectic appearances of stroke victims. Although, in these particular instances, I found the unrealistic presence of invisible railings both fortunate and fortuitous; otherwise my accidental death count would have been exponentially higher. I also disliked having to maintain a trigger squeeze for all action controls. This awkward convention was quite uncomfortable especially during long climbs with both brothers. I would often have to release one (or both) of the spongy P3 triggers, resulting in a plummet. If not absolutely necessary to operate both boys simultaneously, I resorted to moving each character forward one-at-a-time. Of course this defeated the entire purpose of the contrived dual stick setup. But it certainly facilitated matters. Luckily, the majority of the game's puzzles are simplistic - never taking more than one or two tries to master. That's unless the flawed game mechanics resulted in abject failure despite sincere effort.
Before taking the aforementioned majestic soar home from the magical Tree-of-Cliché with our super-special panacea in hand (p.s. it's really not a "cure-all"), you have to trudge through a macabre mini-game of burying your sibling. And here I thought the one stick/one character gameplay would have to be better than the crazy dual control method. It's not.
That pretty much sums up my experience. I had high hopes of something new and interesting from Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. But it had nothing to say literally and figuratively. The essential novelty to the game, the two character control scheme, is its biggest flaw. The only redeeming aspect is its visual inspiration. Nearly everything else is either illogical, underwhelming or poorly executed.