This article was originally published in PC Gamer UK issue 252.
Starbreeze are making a game that doesn't involve shivving someone. That alone should be remarkable, but Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (opens in new tab) is a more unusual project still. It's mechanically novel: you control two siblings simultaneously, one on each thumb-stick of the (very much required) gamepad) navigating puzzles through a process of asymmetrical cooperation between the brothers.
You're guiding them on a quest to obtain medicine for their ailing father, Each obstacle is different, deploying tricks that are never seen again for the rest of the game's four or so hours. It creates a lively pace to what might otherwise be a decidedly gentle adventure.
"One minute you're dancing across hay bales, the next you're using sheep to run a treadmill"
No challenge is especially onerous – even if operating both brothers at once adds a minor trial of coordination to every set-piece – but one minute you're dancing across hay bales, the brothers alternately distracting a vicious guard dog, and the next you're using sheep to run a treadmill, to power a drawbridge.
It's gorgeous to look at. It opens in a mountainside idyll, clear rushing streams weaving through a rural hamlet, perched on the rocks below a towering white peak. Light filters in beams through the pine branches and paints the thatch cottages and stone pathways in a rich autumnal light. It's a wondrous place to explore, even when restricted to a linear path.(opens in new tab)
"Players who focus only on the critical path to progress will be missing the point"
It's all rather touching, too. The brothers' different interactions with the world around them deftly sketch two different, but sweetly codependent, characters. Each has a separate single interact button, but the game deploys this with considerable imagination and variability. Just through their simple, nonverbal encounters, you quickly come to know the brothers: the older is responsible, practical and protective, the younger funloving, mischievous and daring. Interact with a lady sweeping the steps of her house, and the older brother will help her out while the younger will balance the broom on his palm. Grab a ball off a young girl and the older brother will toss it back to her; the younger will attempt to shoot for the hoop, or, with the player's additionally mischievous intervention, toss it down a well. The little girl cries.
If this makes the younger brother seem like a bit of a shit, then he's also naturally gifted at the harp, compared to his sibling's atonal twanging, and loves animals – petting sheep and freeing caged birds. All of this is optional of course – but players who focus only on the critical path to progress will be missing the point and much of the joy of exploring this fiction. Once renowned as the guns for hire in triple-A development, Starbreeze may just have discovered that their heart lies with indie adventuring.