Two Brothers is one of the oddest games I've played in a while. As a game touting fairly accurate Game Boy-era monochromatic visuals, it exists as a curious pastiche of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and countless other classics. It takes for granted that you're familiar with their aesthetics and constantly plays off of those expectations to create an unnerving second look at life, death, and the magic of that which we can't fully explain.
Roy Guarder and his brother, Braville, are the eponymous protagonists. In the first few moments, Roy and his wife die on an expedition in the Cursed Lands. Roy crosses into the afterlife, where he experiences color for the very first time before being told that it's not his time to die yet. He's dropped back into the mortal world with a sort of tempered fatalism, and a new life goal: to discover the source and the nature of color. It's a jarring sequence specifically because Two Brothers plays itself off as just an average-looking Game Boy game in all of its sepia-tone glory.
Much like with the Game Boy, you have only four buttons and some movement controls to do everything. Besides select, which opens up your item bag, you have one projectile attack and one melee attack. The game also auto-saves at every screen transition, so start only pauses; it doesn't bring up any sort of menu. It's all very straightforward. That said, many puzzles push those limited mechanics as far as they can possibly go. For example, while picking things up and carrying them isn't possible until you get an item bag, you can push people to different places to trigger new events. And shooting arrows can trigger switches and in some cases cause you to switch places with a block, allowing you to cross gaps or reach new areas.
This is a game that ruthlessly jerks back and forth between helping you empathize with and embody Roy and utterly confusing you as to just how this world, or any gameworld, really works.
Unfortunately, that cleverness doesn't always work out. The combat isn't on par with the puzzles. Some ways into the game you're introduced to combos and power attacks, neither of which amounts to anything substantial. Occasionally, bombs and other objects enter the mix, allowing you to set up some devastating ambush attacks, but the AI is too terrible to do anything more than wander around aimlessly. Enemies don't rigorously pursue you, and I recall an entire boss fight that I won simply by using the power attack over and over again and waiting for the boss to impale itself on my blade. The best battles add bits of puzzle here and there, but this tendency often goes too far the other way. Some puzzle bosses are unforgiving in terms of where you need to be and when. Combat can come across as a bit of a mess at times, and it goes a decent way to reminding us all why turn-based combat was so common in the early days. It allowed for a lot of options and strategy that rudimentary controls couldn't bring to real-time play.
Besides the haphazard attempt at combat, mechanically Two Brothers doesn't do much to shake up the conventions of 8-bit game design. Instead, its real innovation is in its writing, world, and story. This is a game that requires some fluency with older games. Throughout, Two Brothers relies heavily on your understanding of tropes and cliches of the late '80s and early '90s. For example, in the Zelda series, cutting down enemies or grass with your sword often caused hearts to pop out. These could be picked up to restore a small amount of health. Two Brothers does the same thing, but instead of being heart-shaped video game power-ups, hearts here are actual, physical hearts--blood and all--that you eat to gain power. The game is brutally self-aware, and while complete fourth-wall breaks aren't common, it tends toward this strange approach to pseudo-realism that attempts to play all of its bizarre quirks completely straight.
The total package is often unnerving. One moment has Roy crossing paths with a stranger that refuses to identify himself. Several times, the unknown man causes the screen to glitch and reset. Roy's memory was never fully wiped, however, and his growing confusion and anger closely matched my own. Later, an ancient, sacred beast trusts Roy simply because his name is Guarder, which sounds a little like "guardian." This is a game that ruthlessly jerks back and forth between helping you empathize with and embody Roy and utterly confusing you as to just how this world, or any gameworld, really works. As uncomfortable as it all sounds, it really works.
Two Brothers never gets so bogged down in its witticisms that it becomes a game about games, but it does trigger a lot of questions about the nature of death and how we value life. There is a message here, and while the world itself is jittery and frenetic, the theme doesn't get lost in all the weirdness.
Where this weirdness does sometimes break down, though, is in the game's actual glitches and bugs. Because Two Brothers tries too hard to be subversive and odd, it's not always clear when the game is broken or when you're just not understanding what's happening. For instance, the second time I started up the game, I began to float above the world unable to interact with or do anything. It was weird, but it was very similar to the scene where Roy first ascends to the afterlife. I couldn't tell what was going on, and I ended up spending about an hour trying to look for clues before frustration set in and I gave up. The next time I started up the game, everything worked as normal. I didn't notice any severe bugs beyond that one, though I sometimes found myself moving through walls to other areas, but I couldn't control it or find any pattern to it.
Even without the bugs, Two Brothers could definitely use another round of editing. There are a number of typos and graphical oddities that can take you out of the moment from time to time. It's possible that they could all be part of the pastiche aesthetic, referring to poorly translated games of yesteryear, but that's never made clear, and given my experience with bugs, I was more ready to attribute them to carelessness than purpose.
When Two Brothers works, when it lines up whole scenes that bounce between funny, disturbing, and touching, it shows just how powerful the ideas it's working with are. The human experience is one that's dominated by our fear of death, our pursuit of love, and the belief that the world, more or less, makes sense. But what if death was really the secret to life? What if we didn't love what we thought we did? What if the world only makes sense because we're delusional? These are fun questions, and they are deep ones that we'll all probably wrestle with at one point or another, and mediocre combat and bugs aside, they're subjects that Ackk Studios manages to treat with a surprising amount of respect, bringing with them a clever twist on the tropes we expect to see.