Friday, January 10, 2014

Oh, brother!

The relationship between two brothers is a special one. Big brother protects, guides, encourages and helps Little brother along the rocky path of growing up; while Little brother follows along and assists where Big brother cannot manage on his own. At some point, Little brother learns become his own person, and that's the journey of two brothers.

For indie developer, Starbreeze, the telling of this journey in "Brothers: A Story of Two Sons" is such a bitter-sweet tale set in a gloriously beautiful landscape. Part fairy-tale, there are also dangers and obstacles to overcome on their quest for a cure for their father who is presumably dying of food poisoning, going by his symptoms. It is an acute sense of loss that drives the Brothers' motivation and creates the sense of urgency while simultaneously cementing the bond between the two as they work together towards their objective.

Gameplay is made very simple with the use of a USB-compatible Xbox gamepad (it's almost impossible to play on a QWERTY keyboard -- the brainpower required to move 10 fingers in a certain way with a certain timing is beyond most human mortals). Each brother is controlled by the two joysticks for movement and the two trigger buttons for action. Little bro is operated by the right hand, Big by the left; that's all there is to it. Despite these minimized controls, there are many different kinds of activities the brothers can undertake, so the interactive elements are never boring or repetitive.

The brothers have to cooperate with each other almost the whole time, activating switches, steering vehicles, outsmarting enemies, that sort of thing. Because the two have very different personalities and physical traits, certain tasks are meant for one brother or another, so it seldom gets too difficult to figure out how to solve a problem. No inventory system means that the puzzles are solvable on the spot using the elements present in the location. Some practice is needed from time to time to get the manipulations right, but the game is forgiving in that fatal failures result in restarting at the point of failure without necessitating a Save function.

What's impressive is the game's ability to depict communication between the characters, bringing out their intentions clearly without the use of an intelligible spoken language. Unless they're speaking Swedish which I wouldn't be able to identify, I guess they're speaking Sim-gibberish. Body language and gestures are all the player has to go on, and it's animated skilfully enough to be crystal clear.

The main storyline is straightforward: cooperate to overcome obstacles, find the cure. Off the beaten track, though, there are others who may need some assistance, so it's good to keep an eye out for side roads or NPCs to interact with. These side-quests are not essential to the mission, but they add a further feel-good payoff (with one or two exceptions) and an Achievement token to collect for the trouble -- 12 in total.

There are some very emotional moments that balance off the exhilarating ones in the game. Through the journey, horrific backgrounds balance the scenic and pastoral. The narrative engagement is strong because inasmuch as it gives, it also takes away. It's a bit of a risk to place moral victory at such a premium, but the game pulls it off beautifully.

Assuming you're willing to shell out for a gamepad, Brothers is a great little game to pick up. US$14.99 from Steam (I got my copy at 50% off during the limited special offer period!) for a game I completed in 3 hours -- perhaps a tad short for a game but a terrific emotional rollercoaster for an interactive movie.

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