Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons Review

The video game industry has seen its fair share of crossovers by the illustrious members of the film industry; titles as successful as Steven Spielberg’s Boom Blox to more ambitious projects perpetually caught in development hell, like Guillermo del Toro’s shot at survival horror, InsaneBrothers: A Tale of Two Sons, is a smaller, quieter, more poignant title by Starbreeze Studios, in collaboration with Swedish film director Josef Fares. Here’s someone who’s done a remarkable job at coalescing the stipulations of film with the interactive essence of video games, all during his maiden foray into game design.

Set in a village straight out of a Brothers Grimm story, Brothers chronicles the adventures of two boys, trekking across forests, mines and mountains to find a cure for their father’s ailment. The characters in the game speak in gibberish, conveying feelings and instructions through gestures akin to the stars of the golden age of animation, but with a subdued elasticity. Like every mute narrative that came after them, similarities will be drawn between Brothers, and Team Ico’s games: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, but while there are some commonalities between two — with a minimal set of controls and a narrative conveyed through implication rather than vocalization — Brothers succeeds in holding its own dais.

A puzzle in which the two brothers distract a dog for each other and escape its bite.

The aforementioned games are designed to express solidarity*, even in their most intimate scenes. Life for these two brothers never quite feels that way; the world is riddled with colourful denizens, elaborate creatures and even when they’re in the most forlorn of venues they still have each other — which is structured as the crux of the gameplay. The analogue sticks control a brother each, with the triggers on their respective sides executing an interaction with an object of interest. Think of this as a tongue twister for your thumbs, forcing you to grasp this binary disposition and for the most part, control the brothers simultaneously. As perplexing as this may sound, you’ll find yourself accomplishing this with ease, your thumbs only seizing when you think about the feat they’re performing.

Simple environmental puzzles ply the majority of the voyage, never quite challenging in terms of arriving to a solution but immensely satisfying when you learn to work your thumbs in congruity. The solutions themselves aren’t vexing or require any time sensitive inputs but instead rely on your patience and dexterity. There’s a pittance of coordination in relation to the brothers themselves, because along with their unique personalities, they also have unique abilities. For instance, the younger brother is able to maneuver his way around bars, while the older sibling can pull large levers. It’s in these situations that the brothers’ teamwork really comes into play, tasking you with dichotomous thinking and absolute harmony between controlling each brother.

The mechanics of the game clearly work as metaphor, with the very mode of thought and control acting as an analogue for the brothers’ cooperation. However, there’s a dissonance between what this game dictates as cooperation between two entities, and what the player assumes as control. While this method of input is refreshing, and demands full mental and physical attention, it doesn’t come into confluence with anything above the agency of the player; the game serves more of test of mind and body than the connection between two beings. Gameplay persists as entertaining despite this detachment but undermines the themes of teamwork and brotherly love, leaving one to imagine how this game would’ve fared as a cooperative title, with a multiplayer akin to that of That Game Company’s Journey**, or an offline multiplayer with the controls split between two inputs.

The brothers navigating a dexterous climbing puzzle.

Players can interact with the inhabitants of this fairy-tale, each brother expressing their personality in their interactions. Where the older one asks for directions from a gardener, the younger one will hit him from behind. Where the older brother looks down a well, the younger one spits down it. It’s these short moments that exhume their personalities, reflected even in the most dire of situations and haunting of environments. You can see these brothers enjoying their time together, laughing and yelling during their escapades, making the most of all they have left: each other. By virtue of their dependence on each other comes their progression as characters also; as they suffer loss and gain they learn from each other, strengthening, and in some facets completely changing their composure. The only splinter to this approach is that a certain brother evolves substantially more than the other, abandoning one to begin and end his journey as the same character.

Fares and Starbreeze use isometric camera angles to show you the beautifully arranged world of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons through their revolving pans and wordless narrative. The fairy-tale is flatly lit to give a psuedo-cel-shaded appearance, a veneer that pulls shadows from even the smallest of objects, giving dimension and detail to every polygon that adorns the game. Dual stick navigation has been done before, but not quite like this. The controls of this game serve a purpose, and that purpose is camaraderie and osmosis, a concept that gradually develops into full effect by the game’s conclusion. The best of moments are the brothers’ time in repose. There are benches scattered across the game where they just sit. The camera pans and tilts to into a fixed outlook, letting you bask in the game’s resplendent scenery and be carried away by the Scandinavian flutes and vocals. The visuals, music, and the very silence between the brothers converge with the zephyr to create an ambient cliff top gaze. They’re relaxed, and at peace, to simply have each other’s company.

* I mentioned Ico as a solitary adventure in terms of interaction. Yorda may be Ico’s companion, and she does eliminate solidarity in the diegesis, but as far as interaction goes her progression is contingent on Ico’s interaction with the environment, with her acting more as a companion cube for puzzles.
** Journey used a continuous anonymous multiplayer, in which two players’ games converge (in accordance to their location, and without disrupting their point in the game). They inhabit the same world, unable to hinder each other’s progress or communicate beyond simple chirping noises; the multiplayer exists purely for the sake of providing company during the adventure.
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Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon Review

Over the past year there’s been a reinvigoration of the Adventure genre. They never went away, but nowadays they’re not quite as present outside the esoteric circles of point-and-click crowds on PC. Games like Telltales’s The Walking Dead and Double Fine’s The Cave, however, are bringing this Jurassic style of interaction to a new generation, although the genre still holds a degree of disconnect by virtue of its interaction. Sure, The Walking Dead let’s you steer the plane with your own morality, but the interaction itself is just a cursor scrolling on the screen. The Cave grants you access to the cockpit, trading traditional pointing and clicking for digital control, though it still feels like you’re staring into a dollhouse. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon lets you assume full control by making every object and entity in the game feel tangible and in reach of your grasp. 

The ghosts that inhabit the spooky community of Evershade Valley have taken a turn from their cooperative and jovial selves, to meet more insidious demands. The titular Dark Moon has been shattered by some unknown assailant, and Luigi’s tasked with picking up the pieces throughout the several manors that adorn Evershade Valley. Local paranormal researcher, Professor E. Gadd, arms Luigi with an updated model of his vacuum companion and sends him into the thick of the night for another spectral outing.

Scaring a ghost in the bathroom.

A lot has changed from Luigi’s initial venture back in 2001, from complex puzzles to an entirely fresh layer of interaction by means of the Dark Light, a flashlight that let’s you see objects naturally hidden to mortal eyes. While not the most original idea, the Dark Light adds a degree of exploration, especially for perfectionists, given its necessity in finding various jewels and Boos scattered about the mansions. Amid the act of ghostbusting this supernatural torch serves a greater purpose: exposing any craven ghouls.

Couple clairvoyance with a chargeable flashlight and you can net yourself a myriad of ghosts in a single inhale. The room to room combat is satisfying, and the game continuously thrusts variations of ghosts at you, causing you to always think on your feet as you’re impelled to master control of space and timing. These nuances in enemy design take the form of ghosts simply adorning objects found in the given room and makes for some rather charming animations while adding varied gameplay. Unfortunately, this inventive enemy design doesn’t carry over to boss fights, which are positioned as the final room of each mansion. Barring the first and last boss, these fights tend to be rather banal and depend on taking ancillary mechanics from familiar environmental puzzles and replicating them on a larger scale. What you get is a lot of been there done that, with a more malicious visage that doesn’t change much.

Unlike Luigi’s first solo journey, Dark Moon doesn’t offer any elemental powers, squashing any hopes of a fire-breathing vacuum. Instead the puzzles in this game task you with using objects found in the environment to further your progress — like a traditional point and click adventure, minus the point and click. They’re rather simple tasks though immensely satisfying because of how tangible the environment is, assembling puzzles as the most compelling aspect of the title. You’re in a room, it’s clear something isn’t clicking, and that search for the right object in the room or the right trigger to pull never manifests as a frustrating endeavour because of your connection to the setting. Everything you vacuum shakes, rattles, moves, falls — the environment is entirely palpable, often with occurrences unique to the room you’re in. It’s with this corporeal structure that the level design allows for substantial experimentation and exploration, with treasure chests to be exposed by dark light, and money pouring out of every nook and cranny. To an extent cash is used to pay for upgrades — namely the speed at which you can vacuum a ghost and the length of time your Dark light can be used for — but you quickly max out these provisions, reducing the collection of coins and bills to a mere peripheral to gauge high scores.

Luigi vacuuming a tablecloth.

Each locale has a distinct theme from one another, depicting individual puzzles and histories that shed light on their owners. What’s disappointing with Luigi’s Mansion is how it’s diverse in every facet of the game except that of enemy design. They’ll arm themselves with a number of objects to affect gameplay but you won’t see new ghosts after the halfway point of the game; a stark contrast from the first game where there were countless ghosts that were unique in both appearance and weakness. Be that as it may, the limited designs of ghosts are still flushed with colour and radiate their own personalities and inadequacies, with their nature fully expressed in their animations. Catching a Boo even makes an adorable squeaking noise as you force it into the vacuum, giving texture to even the most vaporous characters. Amongst the living there’s even less variety, but there really isn’t variety to be warranted. Although Dark Moon does possess the toads’ most endearing performances; their fear and inadequacies push Luigi to displace his cowardliness to be the older, more courageous brother to these merry stewards.

Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon oozes that old-fashioned Scooby-Doo charm that is taken seriously by the characters in the diegesis, and plain goofy fun for the audience. Luigi mumbles and hums along with the music to comfort himself as he quivers about the mansion, but by the end of the game the story strays away from his fearfulness, as he grows confident and realizes he no longer stands in Mario’s shadow. The 3D effects add an extra dimension to the cross-section you play through, though it’s not as polished as other titles, leaving muddy textures and aliasing issues to cloud your enjoyment. The real star of the game is the interaction uniting the player, Luigi, and the environment, allowing for a harmony between player input and the game’s output and creating a pull that’s hard to escape.

Thomas Was Alone Review

More often than not, videogames use violence as a justified substitute for problem solving. It’s a trope sewn into the fabric of the medium, securing the label of tradition as it becomes the norm for gameplay in contemporary titles. Because of this, the term ‘ludo-narrative dissonance’ is a hot topic these days; defining a thematic disconnect between the story told and the interaction the player assumes. Mike Bithell created Thomas Was Alone as a comparable puzzle-platformer, but the distinguishing feature of the geometric caper is how the gameplay serves a significant purpose beyond the enjoyment of the player: it exists as metaphor.

Thomas, an orange rectangle, awakens one day to find himself well, alive really. He’s just been conjured into existence by means of a computer error and immediately finds himself at odds with solitude and suffering from an existential crisis. The thought of dying unaccompanied sends a shiver down the AI’s (metaphorical) spine, so he decides to carry forward through life’s obstacles in search of camaraderie and purpose.

He comes across other AIs, each with their own personality and physical traits. Some friends can crawl through small apertures, some can jump to great heights and some just carry a buoyant sense of goodwill and vigilantism. Throughout the game Thomas learns the ins and outs of every cliché on the topic of friendship and life, but it’s presented in such a manner you can’t help but be enamoured by.

Thomas was alone.

Simple puzzles compose the majority of the game’s stages, requiring skillful collaboration between the given characters to progress, but how this works as an allegory for friendship and teamwork allows the simplicity of the endeavours to be overlooked, as there’s a sense of accomplishment and absolute delight with each step of the way. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself in a stage where your only objective is a simple romp from point A to point B, though there’s a feeling of frigid isolation when a level is completed without the help of friends. These solitary courses present an opportunity for silent reflection; a character contemplating their loneliness while falling down endlessly, speaks as a surprising analogue for someone being at their wit’s ends. The characters all radiate emotion, their own quirks and ineptitudes coming to light with each passing trifle — you begin to feel like you know these people.

Though to merely look at these “people” would undercut the infusion of charm that concocts the narrative. Various quadrangles shape the visual design of every character, but their nuances in animation inject plenty of vigour into their polygonal visages. Their stature, height of jumps and speed of movement mirror their personalities, from a short square striving to prove himself, to a pretentious rectangle with a prodigious double-jump. Even their jump animations add to their composure; each character contorting during leaps in their own unique way.

At crux of this polygonal coming of age story lies the trenchant narration by Danny Wallace. The coterie of misfit shapes that spearhead the game speak volumes with their body language, though they depend on Wallace to vocalize their sentiments through the comedian’s cheerful and sarcastic demeanour. His tone couples harmoniously with the reflexive script to remind you how absurd the game’s premise is, and how lonely it can be to experience an adventure in recluse — much like this single player game.

Teamwork comes naturally; the only way to succeed.

Minimalism is at the heart of the game’s art direction, creating a beautiful array of menu and level design that blooms in absenteeism. The lack of substance on-screen in confluence with the monochromatic palette, contributes to the crushing sense of isolation — and where there is substance a shadow is cast, jerking solidarity to the forefront of every asset and painting an inescapable dissonance. David Housdens’s ambient soundtrack flows throughout the arteries of the game, streaming the cold pings of chiptunes and the subdued chords of a violin to complement this yarn of the little rectangle that could.

Each level holds variances from the last that never make you feel like you’re hopping about the same abyss of cyberspace. However the story does dither towards the end, taking a step back from the developed characters’ journey of self discovery, to deliver a more conventional plot. Suffices to say, the game does end with a poignant conclusion that coalesces with Thomas’s plight, blending together an adhesively indelible game. As you become more acquainted with the characters in Thomas Was Alone, you’ll begin to catch similarities to people you know — your friends, family, and maybe even yourself. You’ll notice that after the time you spend with these colourful shapes, it’ll be difficult to see them as mere quadrangles ever again.

Kentucky Route Zero – Act II Review

There’s a spadeful of damp vulnerability sown in the first act of Kentucky Route Zero. Our delivery man protagonist, Conrad, doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into. You and I, don’t know what we’ve gotten ourselves into — and that’s really the beauty of this game: we don’t belong in it. There’s a certain vampirism that feeds off the player’s role as a voyeur, a consumption of trust and perception. We know what’s real, what’s not, what physics and logic permits in reality, and which intangible arrangements can only manifest themselves in dreams.

The first act, for the most part, used dialogue to disorient you. You drive up to an old farm-house and ask a strange woman about a broken TV, only to have her respond with a non-sequitur, oblivious to your tone or that something was even asked. While this Lynchian dialogue is still present in the second act, what rises to prominence are the contrastive visuals composed by glacial vector graphics. Once again, a heavy sediment challenges your perception of the natural and unnatural, but in this visit to the eponymous highway you’re stifled by the uncanny settings and their interactable objects.

An office, in a cave.

Hermit crabs are walking around in caves, carrying about their business. But to interact with them would reveal an unsettling comment on how our inorganic consumption in everyday life, affects the way nature intended things to be. The cave is the initial scene of Act 2, and in it you’ll find an office building. Yes, you read that correctly, but while you’re running hoops through bureaucratic paperwork, you can take a break from white-collar life and head to the third floor, where you’ll find some burly employees simply watching you. The inorganic setting of an office is out-of-place for them, but you don’t belong around them either, or whatever sphere of existence Kentucky Route Zero adorns. You can only walk across the eerie, antiseptic office, and they’ll watch your every movement, like the ugly duckling you are.

The perverse espionage that comes with every art is heightened and brought to the forefront of this demented escapade. Film, television, literature — you’re always peeking through a keyhole, getting a narrow cross-section of the events in someone’s life. Though with the participatory narrative of this second act, these roles seem to be reversed. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, the first act handed you the power of judgement. You could reflect on your opinion of the town by speaking to your dog and choosing how to respond to the patrons of the haunted highway. It always felt like you were the kid watching ants endlessly toil about a farm. But being the ant in the farm feels disturbing — all the attention’s on you, as naturally, you’re the stranger in these parts.

Any semblance of solitude and privacy that existed in the first act has been robbed of its vitality. Not only do characters watch your movement, they inspect your every action with detached judgement, enforcing a further state of dissonance between your visiting of the Zero, and the people who call it home. An entire section of this episode dictates this dissonance, and efficaciously writes history as it’s being made. Rather than following the structure of the first act and scribbling a tableau of what used to be, this second act forces you to experience history in the making and through another being’s perspective. The aforementioned section has you pointing and clicking as you would, but interacting with objects summons a conversation between citizens of the town that describe the events as if they’ve already happened, but with their own unique and vindictive judgement. Your participation is still part of their commentary, but it’s something etheric and supernatural; the act of taking possession of new character with each engagement.

Relaxing in a forest.

Characters change in this new episode, and express their personality with more credence in their utterances. Most responses hold a dichotomy that subtly allocates a gentle and tapered tone with Conrad, and abrasive demands by Shannon. It’s a kind of contrastive dyad that let’s the player decide how to deal with a situation while also adding strata to the composure of the protagonists. We’re introduced to new characters as well, their own histories and quirks adding more questions to this tumble in the rabbit hole. Though my only gripe arises with a certain character who is a little too farfetched for the uncanny valley the game presents. This game thrives on taking the realistic, and twisting and construing it to a point that makes you feel like something’s crawling beneath your skin. But when you’re acquainted with a character that seems larger than life, in a game that’s just weird enough to make things creepy, you feel like you’re waking up from the hallucination that Cardboard Computer designed.

There’s ample choice in this game but it’s all intrinsic to who’s playing it. The choices you get to make aren’t the moral decisions you typically see shoehorned into games but instead reflect the characters you create. You participate in the creation of Conrad, Shannon, and how they navigate this chasm between our world and that of the Zero. There’s no gravity to your decisions, only character development and the feeling of co-writing a book. I can’t say what this game is pointing to; it’s a hodgepodge of bizarre events and behaviour. But the most conspicuous facet of the game is how unsettling it is, because of how personal it becomes. Not in the way you make decisions in Mass Effect. Kentucky Route Zero proffers no question of whom to bring along, or which choice will benefit gameplay or story — just how you wish to perceive the narrative. You start to see yourself in these characters, your memories bleeding into theirs, and you’ll get a chill down your spine when you realize how idiosyncratic this game gets, and yet remain at sea with how this feeling came to surface.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Review

Outside the clout of the Pokémon series, Japanese RPGs sustain a quiet release in the West to a humble audience and modest sales. You’ll find your Tales game here, your Disgaea there, but no JRPG has released with as much fanfare as Level 5’s latest title, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Coupled with Studio Ghibli’s reputable animation, the game serves as a gorgeous love letter to JRPGs of yore, filled with every mechanic you’ve come to expect from the genre, and with that its most significant issue: it’s locked down in ye olde claustrophobic conventions and functions of the 90s. But the game’s premise is what changes the pace of the typical JRPG trifles you’ve come to expect, coated in a heartbreaking primer and a heartwarming finish.

So let’s not beat around the bush; this game is famous for its good looks, and its arduous localization project (at least for us in the West), though the two-year difference between Japan’s release of the game and ours was well worth the wait. You’ve never seen a game as brilliantly localized as this one, lending side mission titles as pop culture references, excellently characterized dialogue and all the — daft, yet endearing — puns for the names of familiars, the Pokémon-like monsters you catch to use in combat scenarios. However some of the trite and kitschy “save the world through virtue” speeches do manage to squeeze themselves through. Along with the overly sentimental monologues you’ll also have to endure the traditional gasps and chokes followed by an exclamation of a character’s name. The localization may not be perfect, but it’s the best you’ll get, and furthermore the fully realized characters, who carry a gamut of emotion and depth conveyed through exceptional voice acting, are more than enough reason to overlook faults in the writing and immerse yourself in the fairytale the game offers. Though the most disappointing facet of the writing lies with the protagonist, Oliver, who is the lynchpin of this enchanting tale, but suffers from one-dimensional voice acting and platitudinous dialogue.

Oliver and Mr. Drippy gazing across the stunning landscape.

Oliver’s a simple kid living a perfect depiction of your nowhere whistle-stop: he plays outside, dreams of driving a car and involves himself in general childlike mischief. After suffering a tragic loss, Oliver’s stuffed fairy, Mr. Drippy, comes to life and takes him to another world where his journey of growth and camaraderie flourishes in somewhat of a wizard’s coming of age narrative, set in a whimsical realm. Despite being a young boy with a mouthful of pedestrian text, Oliver’s maturation is perceptible, as he’s shaped by the obstacles of the bizarre sphere he finds himself in, the friendships he builds, and how he learns to persevere through the emotional and physical tribulations that are forced upon him.

This harlequin dimension of Ni No Kuni is magical in every meaning of the word. There are the essential elemental sceneries like “the forest level” or “the fire level,” but what really stands out are the unique kingdoms with their rich politics and histories, each domain harbouring their own enthralling secrets. Every inch of this game is peppered with that Studio Ghibli flavour, from a nursery rhyme kingdom ruled by a tabby cat, to an industrial and communist city hellbent on efficiency and rigid laws. But what brings colour to these vibrant domains are the citizens that inhabit them, and the ordeals that they suffer.

Of course, this is a JRPG, so expect plenty of bounty boards that ask you to complete side quests, but don’t expect any variety. Besides bounty hunts, Ni No Kuni offers little in terms of ancillary gameplay beyond fetch quests. The game does, however, offer an interesting premise for a certain grouping of side quests, in which the villainous wizard Shadar went about breaking people’s hearts, and you’re tasked with mending them. A broken heart in Ni No Kuni entails the dearth of some sort of positive emotion, such as confidence or kindness. So naturally you have to find to an NPC with too much of the given emotion, and use magic to take some it and heal the dispirited. The most compelling aspect of these quests are their initial and concluding interactions with broken-hearted characters, which compose some of the game’s warmest insights and cheeky banter. Having said that, these interactions do get quite repetitive as they are mere fetch quests with a veneer of charm, and recurring characters battle similar issues ad nauseam which takes away from otherwise nuanced dialogue — saving the same marriage five times does get old.

Combat in Ni No Kuni.

Now when you’re done helping overindulgent soldiers and finding lost possessions for unfortunate souls you could turn to the main quest, traversing the lushest of vistas and exploring the dampest of dungeons. The level design of these areas tout a degree of exploration and treasure to pillage, but you’ll spend more time engaging in combat by means of random encounters and boss battles. These encounters are a hybrid of turn-based and real-time combat, which let you take control of Oliver, his friends and his familiars, with a cool down meter that dictates the frequency at which you may use the myriad of options bestowed upon you. With these combat and provision limitations comes a great deal of strategy to be honed; impeccable timing and multitasking becomes a necessity for later engagements. However when assuming control of a character (human or familiar) in combat there are restraints that leave much to be desired. You have absolute control of your avatar’s movement, though to attack and defend you’re forced to shuffle through a list of moves in real-time whilst avoiding and preparing for incoming attacks. This adds an awkward level of agitation, teasing real-time combat but forcing the player to adhere to the interface of turn-based combat.

A further hinderance to the combat design are the familiars themselves. Grinding is a constant in Ni No Kuni, some areas being near inaccessible for a long while because of the strength of enemies in random encounters. Catching familiars is a mere game of chance; wild familiars randomly choose an interest in you upon defeating them. A newly caught familiar starts off at a low-level and has to ascend its way back to relevance. Unfortunately the same applies to familiars you’ve evolved to a stronger state, impelling you to grind even further since their level resets to one, and drops most of the stats you’ve accumulated.

A fan of JRPGs will absolutely love Ni No Kuni with its dozens of hours of gameplay and hundreds of pieces of equipment to find and craft. After all, it’s a standard JRPG with a fresh coat of paint. You may even enjoy the cacophony that is its gameplay. But anyone looking for any new goods in the department will be out of luck. The layer of charm and whimsy may create enough momentum to carry you through the game but if you don’t already enjoy JRPGs, chances are this game won’t sway your opinion. For some, the game may suffice on aesthetics alone; the writing being quite enchanting for the most part. Coupled with beautiful level design and a wonderfully harmonious soundtrack, Ni No Kuni conjures an unrivalled trek through a fairytale odyssey.