Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons begins and ends with death--and what's in between certainly has its fair share of dark, dysphoric moments. So, as one might expect from such morbid subject matter, this isn't the kind of game you can just play for an hour and expect to wash over you. There's a certain amount of emotional investment required to get the most out of A Tale of Two Sons' grand adventure, but--despite a few slip-ups along the way--it's more than worth it. There are moments here that can squeeze a tear from the iciest of souls, or leave you gawking at the screen in amazement. It's a story that's told with heart, elegance, and a lightness of touch that make exploring the vast vistas of its fairy-tale world utterly bewitching.
Part of the charm of its story lies in what it doesn't tell you. There's no discernible dialogue, for instance, with only a Simlish-esque garble for you to interpret. There's no text either, and cutscenes are used sparingly; more is done with less here than most narrative-driven games would ever dare to attempt. The opening scene, a grand sweeping camera pan onto a brother in tears by a gravestone, sets the tone. From then on you're at the mercy of garbled dialogue and the expressive mannerisms of the two starring brothers to push you on to finding a cure for your debilitated father. Shoulder shrugs, the odd pointing of a finger, and the concerned yells of the brothers keep you on the right path.
You certainly need guidance too, as navigating the pair through the Nordic-inspired world is a challenge on both a cerebral and technical level. The latter is due to your ability to move the brothers independently of each other using each analogue stick. This is very much akin to trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time--a tricky task, and even when you do manage it, chances are you won't be able to do it again five minutes later. It's a clumsy experience that you never quite master. But it's that very clumsiness that has been cleverly exploited to create puzzles.
The puzzles themselves aren't all that difficult to decipher, but the challenge comes from actually performing the required solutions. They start off simple enough, relying on the individual strengths of each sibling; the smaller one can squeeze through tight gaps to open doors for his brother, for instance, while the larger one's brute strength lets him pull large switches and activate bridges. Soon, though, you're forced to think a little differently; often this means splitting the brothers up.
For instance, you might have to use one brother to pull a set of chains while the other clings on for dear life and hops off at just the right moments to avoid obstacles. An inspired climbing section sees you swinging the brothers from each other via a piece of rope onto different hand grips. This makes them sit on opposite sides of the screen compared to their corresponding thumbsticks, making it very tricky to try to swing them back again. It's a challenge that messes with your head as you perform all manner of confusing finger gymnastics to see the pair safely to their destination.
The brothers are certainly put through a lot in what is a relatively short three-hour experience. But it's the close scrapes, the wonderfully eccentric characters they meet along the way, and the sheer enormity of their undertaking as they scale vast mountains and take on vicious beasts that further strengthen the relationship between the brothers, and indeed yours with them. And remember that it's all accomplished without a word of proper dialogue, and nary a hint of drawn-out exposition in sight, a testament to the tight direction and grand cinematic feel that envelop each and every frame.
That's the true aim of A Tale of Two Sons. Sure, the puzzles are suitably challenging and mighty clever in places, and the imposing environments are beautifully realised, but it's all there to build those emotional ties, and create moments that hit you right in the pit of your stomach. Brevity is the only real misstep here, and you can't help but feel that with a little more time to build up the characters those emotional highs would have an even greater impact. But it's not enough to detract from what is a great achievement: an ambitious, emotionally affecting adventure that's short, but oh so sweet.