Starbreeze’s award-winning indie game gets a proper co-op mode for the first time, but does that make the experience better or worse?
With original creator Starbreeze Studios currently in dire financial straits the appearance of their most critically acclaimed title on Nintendo Switch might come as something of a surprise. But the Payday developer sold the rights to the game to publisher 505 Games and this new version has nothing to do with them, or original director Josef Fares – who left the company to make the similarly themed, but considerably less wholesome, A Way Out.
At first glance, Brothers looks like an unofficial Fable spin-off and at first seems to have a straightforward fairy tale plot to match. You play as two brothers sent out into a stock fantasy world to find a cure for their dying father. There’s no dialogue though, or at least none you can understand, as everyone speaks in an invented gibberish language and there are no subtitles.
But thanks to the clever scene construction it is always very easy to understand what’s going on, as the game takes one step back from Nintendo’s insistence on no spoken dialogue to having no formal script of any kind. This immediately imbues the characters with more personality than any amount of clumsy dialogue and bad voice-acting could manage, while also personalising the experience for every player.
It’s not even that everything is conveyed through animation, as when the game does zoom in for a close-up you realise that the graphics are actually a lot more basic than the usual overhead view pretends. Instead it’s the actions of the two brothers – and the differences between them – that lend much of the character.
For example, approaching one elderly villager with the older brother might see him ignored and sent on his way, while the younger is able to charm his way through. However, many interactions are purely for character-building purposes, from the younger brother gobbing into a well to test its depth to the two exhibiting very different skill levels when it comes to playing the harp.
When we describe the game as a fairy tale we do so in the Brothers Grimm sense of the term. The game’s tone and nature gets increasingly dark as you progress, from an entirely optional opportunity to stop a man from hanging himself to the nightmarish battlefields that become the backdrops to the game’s final hours.
The game’s storytelling techniques are not its only novelty though and we’re yet to mention what at first seems the game’s most defining feature: the fact that you’re controlling both brothers at the same time, literally. The bigger brother is controlled via the left analogue stick and left trigger and the younger brother with the right stick and trigger.
It’s a bizarre idea, and to be brutally honest it’s not always a successful one. You can probably already imagine the sorts of puzzles this leads to, from simply giving a boost up over a wall, to acting as a decoy to avoid enemies, or work machinery and switches to allow the other past some unfeasibly complicated obstacle.
The control system is never frustrating enough to put you off playing though. And it’s worth all the trouble purely for a puzzle right at the end, that is spectacularly clever in its combining of gameplay mechanics with the weight of three hours of increasingly ominous storytelling. Although the we do warn you that the very ending of the game is more a test of your tear ducts than your trigger finger.
Brothers has been ported to multiple formats over the years, since its initial appearance on the Xbox 360 back in 2013, but the Switch version is the first to include an actual co-op option. Which is a surprising decision because we distinctly remember, when it was first released, Starbreeze saying that that would defeat the whole point of the game.
It doesn’t, but the more raucous nature of co-op play means that some of the subtler elements of the storytelling can be lost in the shuffle. It is only option though, so there’s no reason to complain about its inclusion. Especially as the game is cheaper than its initial release, which we wouldn’t have taken as read given how Switch pricing usually works.
However you play it, Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons is still an enthralling storytelling experience. One which gets its point across through action and inference, not bludgeoning you with non-interactive cut scenes. We assume 505 Games bought the rights in order to turn the game into a franchise but so far there’s no sign of any kind of sequel. But that doesn’t really matter when the original has lost none of its potency.
Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons
In Short: The worldless storytelling is as compelling as ever and the purposefully frustrating control system still seems an excitingly daring experiment – now softened by an optional co-op mode.
Pros: Superb characterisation that works almost entirely through gameplay. Deceptively dark plot with a memorable final act. Attractive visuals and a great score. Welcome co-op option.
Cons: Single-player control system can often be frustrating and many of the puzzles are fairly one note and predictable.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Turn Me Up Games and Fractured Byte (original by Starbreeze Studios)
Release Date: 28th May 2019
Age Rating: 16
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