Two Brothers is a difficult game for me to review. It’s a game that I had been looking forward to because I liked the vidual design. However, Two Brothers was unplayable when it was released. Luckily, most of the game breaking issues has since been resolved, meaning I could finally play and review it; but Two Brothers still lacks technical polish, and the gameplay itself is not engaging. This is a shame as Two Brothers also has some of the most memorable scenes I’ve recently experienced in a game.
Two Brothers tells the tale of Roy Guarder. After he and his wife are killed, Roy discovers new colors in the afterlife, and he is brought back to life soon after. While everyone believes the grief-stricken scientist is going mad, Roy finds one ally in his brother, Bivare. Together, the two play with dangerous life and death experiments during their quest to find these new colors. Roy Guarder has the ability to explore the afterlife willingly. This means that death is not a punishment, and you even need to die in order to look down at the world from birds-eye-view, which is perfect for discovering the locations of the new colors. But other characters show up in this purgatory with whom Roy can communicate. For instance, Roy comes across a woman who had been fatally wounded by a monster, and he has to escort her soul back to the real world. The main plot is well written, and it finely balances humor and drama. Most of the humor parodies retro video games, but Two Brothers doesn’t shy away from tragedy. But thanks to its use of the afterlife as a hub, Two Brothers successfully connects the narrative to the gameplay.
Two Brothers has a shade of monochrome paint as if it were a Gameboy game; however, the sprites and levels look unmistakably 16-bit. The key to Two Brothers’ atmosphere is that it’s not afraid to push the boundaries of monochrome and 16-bit design. As this is a game about finding colors, Two Brothers occasionally shows splotches of color, as if a well known artist had started a potentially beautiful painting but ultimately put it aside. The soundtrack fits this odd-beat style, as it ostensibly sounds like the bleeps and bloops of a Gameboy game, but it’s not afraid to show off its orchestra side. All of these elements combine to create a beautiful atmosphere that isn’t finished, and it’s up to the player to see the job through the end.
As an actual game, however, Two Brothers feels unfinished, and I don’t mean that in the same way I described its atmosphere. I am under the impression that Ackk Studios placed far more emphasis on Two Brothers’ atmosphere than the actual gameplay. Part of this is because when the game was initially released, it was unplayable. I had to place the file in My Documents and run it as an administrator before I could play it. Even then, I still encountered many bugs and glitches that forced me to quit the game and restart it.
Thankfully, Two Brothers is now fully playable; however, the game still has plenty of bugs and glitches. Some of them are purposefully designed, but there are plenty of real ones that escaped user testing. Oftentimes I encountered hearts that I could not pick up, and I’m not sure if it’s because the game is purposefully trying to be glitch, or if it’s due to poor collision detection. Sometimes, enemies will disappear or puzzles won’t function. For instance, there’s a puzzle in which I had to push blocks to slow down the walls, and Two Brothers suddenly decided that I can no longer push those blocks, which meant I had to restart the game. Keep in mind that this is a game that uses glitches for both narrative and aesthetic purposes. It’s a maddening experience that left me quite paranoid about which of the glitches were part of the grand scheme, and which glitches were simply that–glitches.
But putting aside Two Brothers’ bugs and glitches, I never felt engaged with the gameplay. Essentially it plays like The Legend of Zelda with a dash of Secret of Mana. You fight and solve puzzles as in The Legend of Zelda, and you collect different weapons like in Secret of Mana. Testing these weapons is a chore. In order to equip them, you must explore a bag that’s somehow the size of an NPC’s house with a basement. The actual combat boils down to mashing one button to use your melee weapon, and then occasionally consider using the long-ranged secondary weapon. There’s a combo medallion that temporarily allows you to attack while walking, but there’s no other abilities to permanently spice up the combat. Perhaps Ackk studios thought that testing the weapons would be engaging enough; however, I never gained a full appreciation for the variety of weapons, as I did not notice any advantages one had over the other; not to mention I had to explore the bag every time.
But even the 2D Zelda’s weren’t known just for their combat prowess, and they had plenty of puzzles to provide variety. Unfortunately, the puzzles are oddly paced, and in many cases they feel uninspired. For example, there’s an ostensible block puzzle where the walls are caving in. The solution: bash the door in. In some dungeons, the puzzles are noticeably absent, so there’s nothing besides the boring swordplay to keep players interested.
Even with its problems, Two Brothers is imaginative. There is a boss fight in which Roy must fight a haunted village full of creepy children. The boss music also features childlike chanting with the occasional chilling scream, which, considering the Gameboy aesthetics, is terrifyingly out of place–in a good way. It’s horrifying, until you realize that in order to beat it, you have to reenact a glitch from a popular video game franchise–I won’t say which one. There are other brilliant moments in Two Brothers, but you have to trudge through a slew of technical issues and bland gameplay in order to enjoy them.
Two Brothers has drawn comparisons to The Legend of Zelda and the Secret of Mana series, but I think a more apt comparison would be to a Grasshopper Manufacturers’ game. As with Grasshopper’s games, so much effort was placed polishing the graphics, soundtrack, and story; and in many cases, this results in some of the most memorable moments in recent time. Unfortunately, the beautiful atmosphere fails to hide the technical flaws, and the game fails to provide engaging mechanics. I respect many things about Two Brothers, but there’s an old saying about gameplay over graphics—you know the one.
This review was based on a digital copy of Two for the PC provided by Ackk Studios.