Your masterpiece is most definitely in another castle
Before they ever hit the App Store, well-meaning mechanic siblings Joe and Jim had already been on quite the adventure. A valiant but failed Kickstarter campaign introduced them to the world, but left them with an uncertain future. Meanwhile, public fallout between the game's creators and close collaborators dotBunny put the poor duo in the middle, faced with the prospect of languishing in legal limbo forever.
Threats of a potential lawsuit, though, weren't any match for the this greasy duo, who managed to slip their way through trouble and onto iPhones and iPads everywhere after all. From real-world tribulations to digital mayhem, theirs is a tale of two tradesmen all too familiar, yet entirely different: after all, they're The Other Brothers.
Based on a retro tale you might have heard of, this is a platformer for whom same but different really is the central thesis. A princess that needs rescuing from a slew of baddies? If by “princess” you mean an ingenue right out of a John Hughes film, and by “baddies” you mean mobsters, crooked cops, and ninjas, then sure! Retro graphics? On the surface perhaps, but rendered instead with the combination of Unity and a custom graphics engine to produce a gorgeous modern sheen. Rock-solid timing-based platforming? Yeah...about that...
Don't get me wrong: all the right trappings are there for this promising title. The stills that have been trickling out for the last year don't do justice to how much TLC has been put into the game's aesthetic, which shouldn't be reduced with the buzz word “retro.” Complete with meticulous background art and smooth-as-butter animation, The Other Brothers oozes old school spirit with modern flare. Instead of recreating the visual limitations of our childhood consoles, developer 3D Attack flexes their programming prowess to deliver screens full of enemies whose motion lends them real personality, all within set-piece levels that take you through bubbling magma, toxic ooze, and across barrelling trains. It's by wrapping it all in a referential pixelated style that the game achieves a sort of “preserved nostalgia,” capturing classic gaming not as we know it in retrospect, but as we felt about in the moment: giddy at the adventure and newness.
And while a pair of plucky plumbers are obviously the titular inspiration for The Other Brothers, it's of Earthworm Jim that I'm most fondly reminded when it comes to level design. Where Nintendo's flagship series was all about digging joyfully for a select few secrets along a largely linear obstacle course, stages here are much more open and choatic. Certainly, the goal is to get to the striped flag on each level's lifeguard tower (who needs a castle!?), but there's a lot more traversal of the entire screen along the way. Collectible oil barrels will take you across massive spinning gears and up into the corner of the screen, or down into spike-laden pits of radioactive spillage, none of which may be conveniently located along your core “path.” In some cases, you'll stumble upon the exit before exploring whole portions of the stage. It's a structure that gives you a chance to play it safe for completion, or reap rewards in exchange for deft platforming.
It's here, however, that the game's engrossing visuals and clever design hit a wall created by its own poor controls. I find myself torn on whether I like virtual D-Pads, or prefer the “dynamic analog” stick of many mobile shooters, which follows your finger wherever you place it. No matter the preference, however, I can't imagine anyone enjoying the half-baked hybrid concocted for The Other Brothers. In essence, the screen's D-Pad is fixed, as it will only respond if you press the directional buttons properly. However, this is needlessly complicated by the fact that the entire cross will slide around the screen if you hold it and move your finger. If you hold down your finger in a different position, it will absolutely travel to where you are, but as a D-Pad, meaning you have to reorient yourself completely.
The result can be disastrous, especially in a game so focused on your character moving left and right for long portions of time. The need to hold down each button clashes with the frantic nature of the game, causing near-constant movement of the directional pad around the side and corner of the screen. Almost immediately in the game's first level, and from that point on, I would need to dash the other direction in the face of enemy fire, or jump out of the way to avoid an enraged bruiser, only to find my would-be hero standing dumbstruck and motionless where he was. Quickly, The Other Brothers becomes a metagame of seeing how long you can keep your virtual controls where they are, which draws huge focus from a game that demands precise reflexes.
This is to say nothing of the game's response time, which can't ever seem to keep up with the demands being put on it. It's not that you won't understand the need to carefully double jump to avoid an uppercutting enemy's first punch, or see the path you need to quickly take to escape the slamming spike wall, it's just that you simply won't be able to do any of it fast or smoothly enough. For me, clearly nuanced, otherwise interesting levels soon fell into two categories for me: stages I wanted to blast through as quickly as possible, ignoring the bonus “gold pigeon” and oil cain collectibles, or stages I was lucky enough to snag a portion of items within, but would never return to. 3D Attack could easily invalidate my concerns with an update allowing you to fix the position of your D-Pad, too, but for some inane reason, that isn't an option here.
As it stands, however, The Other Brothers is a great concept partially foiled by really shoddy implementation. The level select screen promises free DLC coming soon, but what's really needed here is a return to the drawing board on some of the fundamentals. The gaming equivalent of a word stuck on the tip of your tongue, this is a title whose potential is all right there in front of you, and yet inaccessible half the time. At its great price point, I highly recommend trying it to see if you fare better, and keeping it on your device for a future update. In its shining moments, this game felt like it belonged in my childhood living room. However, if there's any relation between these siblings and a certain Italian pair, it's not hard to see why Joe and Jim are the black sheep.
- What's old is new again: gorgeous graphics that straddle classic style but with AAA quality. Wonderful environments that are packed with doting visual detail. A cavalcade of personality-filled enemies and a couple clever bosses. Love the open, chaotic level design. Chiptune heaven!
- Tough-as-nails platforming aspirations are hugely undermined by inexplicable control choices. The mixture between a floating analog stick and fixed D-Pad goes from unique, to odd, to outright frustrating as the game progresses. Responsiveness of the buttons and controls is mediocre.