You don’t associate Starbreeze Studios with story-driven adventure games. Heck, with a résumé that includes The Chronicles of Riddick, The Darkness, and Syndicate, you’d be forgiven for assuming that any Starbreeze product has to be a gritty, violent first-person shooter. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons not only looks set to radically alter the studio’s pedigree, but it might be the best downloadable title I’ve seen since Journey. Which is fitting, because it looks and feels like a cross between Journey and Fable…but not Fable: The Journey.
“I see Brothers as a fairy tale, as a book where something new happens all the time,” says creative director and award-winning film director Josef Fares, an avid gamer and Swedish resident who brought the project to his countrymen at Starbreeze three years ago.
Out next spring on Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, and PC, Brothers is a single-player quest where you control two young siblings through a fantasy, medieval-tinged land in search of the “Water of Life” – a cure for their ailing father. The older brother is more mature while the younger boy is more mischievous. For example, you approach a young girl in a town playing a makeshift game of basketball. Big brother grabs the ball and shoots it through the hoop. Little brother, on the other hand, grabs the ball and then, if you guide him over to a nearby well, he’ll drop it down . The girl weeps as a result of your mean-spirited act.
Of course, it won’t always be simple NPC interactions in a town. Out in the wild, you’ll need to slip by a big, aggressive dog running in a field amidst a plethora of hay bales. You must to alternate actions to get by: one boy whistles while the other advances. Later, a drawbridge can only be lowered by running on a giant hamster wheel; if you stop moving, the bridge raises back up. So you’ll have to put little brother on the wheel, walk big bro across, pick up one of the flock of sheep milling about, then return to the other side and place the sheep in the wheel so that you can both proceed across the bridge and into the next area.
The scenery in Brothers is a bit reminiscent of Fable -- and that's a good thing.
The control scheme is simple: the left thumbstick steers the older brother with LT/L2 being the lone, catch-all “interaction” button, while the right stick and RT/R2 do the same for the younger sibling. Through intelligent camera work, big bro is almost always kept on the left side of the screen and the younger charge on the right – you’ll have to work hard to switch their places. A strummy, acoustic guitar soundtrack helps set the fantasy tone, and when interacting with others, you’ll only ever hear their gibberish language; there’s no proper dialogue. It also helps that there’s no on-screen interface to remind you that you’re playing a game.
For once, a film director’s involvement in a video game project isn’t a public relations stunt (see: Steven Spielberg) or, worse, a bad idea altogether (John Woo). Fares is not only dead serious about Brothers, but he appears to be on the right track. These basic gameplay examples might not sound like Game of the Year material, but that’s the point.
The art style in Brothers is charming -- somewhat reminiscent of Fable.
Like Journey, Brothers is as much about your emotional response to what’s happening on the screen as it is about puzzles or game mechanics. It’s an adventure game in the literal sense; it’s not meant to be difficult. It’s simply meant to be experienced over the course of its 3-4 hours. And it’s one of the most inspiring and engaging tales ever to grace the downloadable game services, whether you’re convincing a troll to toss you and your brother across a gap or just sitting idly on a bench, admiring the gorgeous mountain in the distance that you’ll soon climb.
Let me put it this way: Brothers is an extremely rare case where I actually don’t want to tell you about a game, because anything I say just spoils a little bit of something better absorbed without previous knowledge. That’s precisely why, despite the fact that I saw much more of Brothers in action, I’m going to stop right here. It's for your own good, trust me.