Thursday, January 23, 2014

Review: Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons

It's hard for me to review Brothers as a video game. It certainly has all the credentials of a video game, being available on the PS3, XBox 360, and as a PC download. It requires a decently strong video card, and is probably best played with a controller in your hand, as opposed to mouse and keyboard.

Yet, it is much more of an interactive story than it is a video game. For instance, the game, while ostensibly a puzzle solving adventure game, doesn't actually have more than a couple of puzzles that aren't completely intuitive. Only a handful of puzzles would be considered challenging by even a puzzle-game-hater like me. The game deliberately eschews many of the conventions of video games. There's no leveling system, there's no real escalation of puzzle difficulty, and the designers even wisely omitted the trophy system from the main story, eliminating the usual carrots games usually dangle in front of you to keep you playing. The only thing that keeps you playing is the story, which is whimsical, charming, and gorgeously rendered. The game even provides many benches from which you can sit and just admire the scenery, which is something I used more than a couple of times. The story is told completely without dialog, just murmurings between characters, and a soundtrack that hovers barely at the edge of your perception.

The story begins with two brothers going off on a quest to find a treatment for their ailing father. What's interesting about the design of the game is that you control both characters with one controller. This sounds challenging, and it is, to the point where the design nicely eliminates time based puzzles, for instance, since most humans would have a hard time completing anything too quickly. There are a few places where you have to move by a certain time, but they're far and few between and not a big challenge even if you're not a twitch gamer.

The game excels at putting you in a state of flow, because the puzzles are well designed and intuitive. You really feel as though you're there, linking one puzzle to the next, and encountering one interesting event after another without being bogged down. The adventures are a lot of fun and the game teaches you everything you need to know as you go along without hints, prompts, or dialog. To me, this is the hallmark of an excellent UI and a coherently well-thought-out design.

It's only at the climax of the story that you realize that the game's major goal was to get you attached to the characters, learning their quirks and differences. This enables the director and story to take you places emotionally that most games cannot touch. I won't spoil it for you, but the game takes about 5-6 hours to play through and the ending defies conventional fairy-tale, movie, and video game endings.

Brothers is short, non-violent, with very few elements of horror. It's reasonably priced, at $15 full price and is currently free if you're a Playstaton Plus member. In short, you don't have any excuses for not playing it, and you should. Recommended.

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