Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a journey. One that explores mature themes of family and loss while retaining it's ability to be utterly endearing. If you are one of the many people who experienced and thoroughly adored the story when it was released on Xbox 360 in 2013, you may well understand how excited we were to be able to play through it again on Xbox One.
Brothers is - as the title suggests - a tale of two brothers who set off on a journey to find the Tree of Life and heal their father, who has fallen gravely ill. As the game begins, we are shown Little Brother by a graveside. The score is instantly moving and in flashback, we are shown that this is a family who has already experienced a great personal loss. This immediate tug upon the heartstrings is hardly surprising, when you learn that the game was directed by Award winning Swedish film director Josef Fares - a man who has long been critically applauded for creating fantastical worlds and intricate stories. The characters, while perhaps not as delicately rendered as the world that surrounds them, instantly become relatable and cherished despite them talking in a nonsensical language that might be off-putting under other circumstances. You will find yourself wanting to set off on the quest that lies ahead, not simply for the adventure but to keep this family from being shattered any further than it already has been.
And thus, the journey begins.
The most notable aspect, aside from the story, in Brothers is undoubtedly its unique take on co-op gameplay. While it may at first appear to be a game that is suited to couch gaming with one of your closest loved ones, it is in fact a singleplayer experience only with the player taking control of both brothers at the same time. The control set-up, while innovative, is actually pretty simple. The left stick and trigger control Big Brother while the right stick and trigger controls Little Brother. The player is immediately given the task of ferrying the boys' ailing father home on a cart and while it can be tricky to master the technique required to make the brothers work in tandem, it is totally gratifying when you "get it" and realise how the game will play out.
Coming back to the game from the Xbox 360 version, we were prepared for it to take a while to get to grips with the controls again but - surprisingly - we took to it much quicker than we expected. There were a few tricky moments, which is to be expected for a game that does not hold you by the hand in any way but we quickly remembered a good rule of thumb that we learned before - keep Big Brother to the left hand side of the screen and Little Brother to the right and the whole control scheme feels a lot more natural. Before we knew it, we were running along hillsides and jumping over crevices like we had always gamed that way.
This unique control scheme allows for some innovative puzzling. For example, there is a section early on in the game where one brother must traverse a gap using the sails of a windmill, in order to extend a bridge for the other brother to lower a platform onto so that he can cross. Each obstacle can be passed in a certain way and once you work out how it is done, it makes for some remarkable scenes. This game is undoubtedly about teamwork, only it is one player manipulating the team.
The story of Brothers is driven by the interactions that the pair have with the world around them, as well as people and creatures that they encounter. At any point while travelling, each of the brothers can interact with the world in a way that is unique to their character. For instance, when Big Brother is flatly refused assistance from an inventor who reminded us as much of Engywook, the scientist gnome from The Neverending Story as he did Leonardo Da Vinci, Little Brother can then challenge him to a tournament of Rock, Paper, Scissors to secure the use of his flying machine. Each brother has their individual strengths and weaknesses and you will need to work out who might be best to call upon in each possible situation that arises.
It is during this interactivity where some of the best moments in the game happen. You will feel genuinely tense as you creep around piles of scattered bones as Little Brother, while he tries to sneakily relieve a troll guard of his key. You will giggle with delight when the brothers commandeer a pair of goats. And you will experience genuine shock when the brothers stumble across a villager whose house has burned down and has sought desperate measures to end their sorrow. It is only a shame that the two brothers cannot be made to directly interact with each other, suffice the yelled orders from Big Brother when you are not sure of the way forward or the frantic waves between them when they travel too far apart on screen. It is a minor niggle but it felt that even just a grin or a silly face being pulled from one to the other if you turn them towards each other and hit the interaction buttons might have gone a long way to cinching that feeling that they are their own little unit, whose bond is greater than their appreciation of the fantastical world that surrounds them.
The world in itself is vast and impressive though. The level designs range from the sublime to the bizarre. We found ourselves gasping in surprised awe as a strange killer whale / koi-carp hybrid somersaulted from the icy depths as we rowed down an arctic river. The level where you navigate the brothers through the fallen bodies of giants on what would appear to be a vast battlefield is as gruesome as it is a delight to traverse. Each part of the world has its own unique characteristics and you will find yourself pushing forwards to see what might be waiting around the next corner as much as you will to experience the story.
There is an event towards the end that turns the whole game completely on its head, in every possible way. We will not spoil this part of the game for you, suffice to say that we wish that it was our first time playing, so that we were not anticipating the big "moment" when it happened. Still, the climax has as stark an emotional impact as it did previously and the story is not lessened by foresight. If anything, we began to feel a slowly building sense of dread as we maneuvered the brothers through the level leading up to it as we knew that once we reached that certain point, there was no going back. The adventure as we knew it was over.
In terms of game mechanics, the final segment is truly a work of brilliance. The entire journey trains the player to act and think about the way they traverse the world in a certain way but it has dramatically and abruptly changed. The game does not hold you by the hand at this point either. You have to find the solution on your own and the moment that you do, it makes all of the awkward moments getting to grips with the singleplayer co-op worthwhile. The emotional payoff is huge and while you may not feel happy with the overall outcome of the story, you will see how the journey impacted and changed those who were involved and be ever so thankful that you were there to witness each step of the way.
As endearing and emotionally impactful as we remember, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons still stands out for it's moving story, incredible world design and innovative control scheme. The Xbox One version comes with the addition of a neat little art gallery of conceptual art designs, a soundtrack and some director's commentary but no real extensions to gameplay or incentives for those who have purchased it previously and therefore some may find the higher price tag difficult to swallow.
For a version of a game that has not been as polished as we have come to expect of a re-release from past generations of consoles, it still looks superb and while It may not be a lengthy experience - most players will get through the entire game within 3-4 hours - it is one that has undoubtedly earned the praise it has received.
Brothers is a game that will endure in the hearts and memories of those who have experienced it for a very long time and should feature on many "Games You Must Play" lists. Fans of the game will find themselves once again transfixed as they embark on the journey once more and for those have not yet taken the plunge, now is definitely your chance. Just remember to keep the tissues handy. You might be in need of them.