Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is an essential treasure to play. I promise, the game's sincere quality absolves the terribleness of its title, which is barely a step up from "Characters: A Story of Them."
And yet it truly is a story of them, two boys who leave their humble village behind in a quest for a mythical cure. Their father has fallen ill, and with the loss of Mother ever-fresh in mind, the brothers hope to pluck the solution from a far-off magical tree and undo the fragility that has befallen their family.
The involvement of Stockholm-based film director Josef Fares is in plain sight, the camera looking down upon the two boys as they crawl under forests and over frigid mountains. Keeping both characters in frame emphasizes the necessity of cooperation between the two, while the top-down view makes their movements easier to comprehend, as if they were twin hockey pucks gliding across the ice. As much as it may seem to be a traditional co-op game, Brothers divides the attention of a single player between two bodies, with tall Big Brother on the left analog stick and golden-haired Little Brother on the right. Your movement is both coordinated and independent – a bit like rotating your outstretched arms simultaneously, but in opposite directions. And just like that motion, which you are probably doing right now, it is oddly rewarding to concentrate on a task that is, well, unnecessarily complicated. When your brain does fail on occasion, you may find the plot's attempts at seriousness undermined by a pair of crazy kids running in circles. The late and great Roger Ebert once fretted over games making Romeo and Juliet "go through the story naked and standing on their hands," so maybe this is what he meant.
Of course, we've been trained well to erase player-inflicted failures from canon, and Brothers is made a better game – not to mention a superior attempt at storytelling – by its tests of dexterity. The children's early run-in with a vehemently territorial dog shows that the puzzle solutions come naturally if you have imagination, requiring only the unspoken communication between your two halves. To make it through the guarded golden field, the brothers must take turns in running out and distracting the dog while the other sibling advances to higher ground.
Each brother also has a single context-sensitive action tied to the trigger on their side of the controller (left and right), which usually manifests as pulling or holding something. In simpler instances, the two might have to carry and maneuver an object of inconvenient shape through awkward spaces – perfectly relatable if you've ever helped a friend carry a couch through the turn of an inhaling corridor. In more complex scenarios, you have to pay attention to which brother is here, which one is holding a rope over there, which one has to let go now and oh god you weren't supposed to let go of that trigger and now half of you is dead.
The challenges are a tad too sensible for use in a traditional co-op game, as neither brother ever performs elaborately enough to be fun for just one person. Orchestrating their action in unison is satisfying in a way that is different from real-person cooperation, though it's no less true to the game's touching theme, echoed in elegant mechanics. Our family affects us in ways that can be practically measured, and in ways that extend beyond the time we have with them.
Guiding the brothers to their curative destination imparts what I can only describe as a smooth state of mind. This is not a game felt through staccato button jabs, but through analog strokes. There is a feeling of cursive authorship in how you interact with Brothers, and it leaves just enough room for younger and older Brother to express a little bit of themselves as you play. Big Brother is strong enough to pull large levers, while his shorter counterpart can slip through iron bars. Little Brother is also terrified of swimming, and must cling to his more confident sibling when the water becomes deep. You're the one who binds them together, though it's a shame their glimpsed personalities aren't always considered in the challenges paved across the game's craggy trails and dark descents. If we're shown that only one of them gets along with animals, for instance, why not test that knowledge and reward our attention?
That overhead camera, which keeps the brothers in view and always together, crops the journey into its most economical and potent form. Some will read this as Brothers having a less-than-marketable running time ... which is true. Others will fairly suggest that it stifles agency in favor of a single theme – of having a clear point. But that's exactly what makes this moving game inseparable from its story, just as one brother can't stand to be pulled from the other.
It's rare for a game to forge a connection so strong, and even rarer for you to become the connective tissue.
This review is based on an XBLA download of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, provided by 505 Games. It is also coming to PlayStation Network and PC in the future for $15.
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