After the bloat of sci-fi shooter Syndicate, it's back to basics for Starbreeze: a fairy tale land, a dying father, and two sons set on saving him.
You control the pair on independent thumbsticks. You might rotate a lever to open a passage with your left thumb, for instance, and mosey on through it with your right. Dodging an angry dog in a corn field requires one brother to distract while the other legs it over bales of hay. With only the trigger used in conjunction for contextual interactions, it's a scheme you'll certainly remember but never quite master, like patting your head, rubbing your belly, and occasionally prodding yourself in the eye.
Fiddly controls result in familial co-operation, seeing as you'll often pause to untangle your fingers and thus reunite the characters. But you wanting to keep the kin together is more than an unhappy accident. Because of their chemistry, it feels almost perverse to separate them. If one drifts, the other beckons in some desperate, indecipherable tongue. The theme here is solidarity, a quite literal bro-op rooted in the ties that bind.
Each has his strengths: little brother lacks the muscle to crank heavy pulleys, but he's light enough to scramble up big brother's back and knock down rope ladders for him. A dip in sparkling waters has little brother standing on the shoreline nervously shaking his head; when big brother offers himself as a human ferry they doggy paddle with twice the speed.
The message here is that no puzzle can be solved alone, whether it's shifting weight to guide a da Vinci-esq flying contraption through a colossal stone canyon, operating a great wooden trebuchet to launch little brother into a frozen castle where he can open the gate, or paddling a canoe down an ice-strewn river as mystical orca whales leap and play before you. Virtually no riddle is repeated - Starbreeze would rather offer a constantly inventive five hours than a lazily recycled ten. This results in a game with fresh surprises around every corner.
Differences endear through optional interactions, a touching dynamic developed outside puzzles themselves. On the left stick, the level head; on the right, the playful scamp. Where older brother can ask directions from the town drunk using the left trigger, little brother steals his booze with the right and takes a swig, immediately blurting it out in a fit of disgust; where older brother casts a curious eye upon a giant magnifying glass and inspects it with hand on chin, little brother blows raspberries down the lens.
Benches further colour the world. Interacting with them sees you take a seat and drink in sights ranging from cavernous troll mine, to misty mountain, to frozen sea, to clifftop castle - a great technique to show off Starbreeze's European folklore-enthused landscapes whilst giving players a quick breather, even if the achievement/trophy which triggers upon doing so somewhat spoils the mood.
The game is, of course, not built on kill chains or fizzing dialogue (not a word of English is spoken or written), but human moments such as these. They thin out, however, as plot thickens. Surreal nightmares involving the brothers' sick father remind them of their purpose, and the world intensifies accordingly, conspiring fauna, flora and even weather against the duo.
What begins as a laddish misadventure where the biggest danger is a small dog soon puts lives in peril, diverging from leisurely romp through sunny farmland to desperate midnight defenses against vicious wolves (swing your torch to scare them off), gory treads down forgotten battlefields strewn with the bloodied limbs of gigantic warriors, and a spider boss fight recalling Super Mario Sunshine's Blooper mixed with a touch of Monkey Ball.
Throughout the world lie opportunities to perform good deeds, and these also get progressively darker. At one point you'll kick the chair from under a man about to hang himself, in mourning over the death of his family who lie in a burned and blackened heap just feet away. Who killed them? Should you interfere? It's for you to decide.
Grand Christian Anderson
Brothers' world feels lived in, rich in incidental detail and dripping with mysterious character - like Fable's Albion cast in the forlorn expression of Ico. You often spy remnants of long abandoned settlements or decaying pieces of grand architecture that feel like they've been documented by a historian in some great doomsday book you haven't got around to reading.
Brothers' world is one which feels lived in, rich in incidental detail and dripping with mysterious character.
The one criticism of Brothers' puzzles is they lack peril. Invisible walls stop you slipping off high peaks, and jumping is automatic. Most tasks are fairly self explanatory, too; you don't so much decipher as you do simply experience, and rarely will you stop to think. Keep on your guard, though. Like Limbo, death disturbs, inflicting ragdoll trauma on adolescent protagonists, and although rare, it's enough to earn this a 'blood and violence' PEGI warning. Piercing the tranquility, death is jarring. And suitably so.
What Brothers loses in difficulty, it makes up for in serenity. This is a not a game to test your metal but rather slow your pulse, lulling you into a wordless world and embracing with warmth and subtlety. And when you you reach the conclusion? There won't be an ending this year that will move you more.
Brothers lacks length, combat and dialogue, but skip it because of this and you'll sacrifice a smart, tender and worthwhile adventure. It moves slowly, so use this to your advantage - savour it.
Short, simple but immensely satisfying, it's Ico meets Limbo in Fable's world. One word: spellbinding.
- Virtually no puzzle is repeated
- Contextual interactions delight
- A truly touching ending
- Dual stick controls will inhibit most players
- Short, slow and lacking action, it's not for everyone