The Life and Suffering of Sir Brante - Review
The Life and Suffering of Sir Brante seems like a classic text-based choose-your-own-adventure game on the surface. You’re given a character to play and the ability to choose his name, and reminded repeatedly (perhaps a little too repeatedly) that “your choices matter”. However, underneath the unremarkable surface is a unique game that sets itself apart from the rest of the flock with engaging gameplay, gorgeous aesthetics, and a fascinating story inspired by 18th- and 19th-century Gothic literature.
The core gameplay loop is simple: you read some text, flip a page, make a few decisions, witness the effects of those decisions, and then (sometimes) progress time forward a year or two. You’ll also see your ability and relationship scores increase or decrease, based on what choices you’ve made previously. The plot, even throughout its many branches (of which I played several) remains consistently interesting, with engaging characters and fascinating lore. However, there are moments where the pacing definitely drags, and you might find yourself skipping through walls of text faster than the developers intended: surprisingly, and perhaps because of this, it only took me about nine hours to complete.
Regardless of the player’s choices, Sir Brante himself is inevitably a sort of Byronic hero – gloomy and brooding, a solitary man who seems resigned to his own titular life and suffering. However, suffering seems a near-constant for most people in Brante’s home nation of the Arknian Empire. The world in which Brante lives is one that seems somewhat dissimilar to our own at first. It takes a great deal of influence from the settings and political structures of the 18th- and 19th-century Gothic novels it’s inspired by; the visual design of the game itself shares in this influence as well, with its cut-paper illustrations and Victorian character aesthetics. The political commentary often included in Gothic literature is also deeply present within the plot(s) and setting of Sir Brante. The social structures of the world are entirely caste-based, with each individual given a “Lot” at birth that determines if they’ll be a wealthy noble or a poor commoner. These Lots are spiritually reinforced (or so the clergy says) by the Twin Gods, who rule over the universe; to follow one’s Lot is to live a holy life, in glory or in suffering. There are people who oppose these structures, of course, which eventually leads to full-scale revolution in most playable routes – provided that Brante doesn’t die first.
Death, too, is an interesting mechanic in The Life and Suffering of Sir Brante. The common video game trope of “multiple lives” is made diegetic by this game, and there’s an in-universe explanation as to why your character (and everyone else in the world) can rise from the dead and try again, at least a couple of times. The experience of death (at least, the “lesser deaths”, of which one can have three before succumbing to their “true death”) is one of the best parts of the game. The previously restrictive choice screen opens up to a sparse, blank page, and you’re confronted with the Twin Gods themselves. They speak to Brante in a way that both he and the player may not fully understand, asking him to define what “love” and “law” mean to him, respectively – my own Brante’s “love” was family, while his idea of “law” was based upon his own moral compass. Depending on the type of man you want your rendition of Brante to be, you might choose differently.
The true core of the game, however, resides in the ability scores. On the surface, they might seem similar to the ability scores that occur in some RPGs, but you won’t see any markers of Brante’s Dexterity or Intelligence here. Instead, the abilities are named after the personal qualities Brante may possess at certain points in his life, and shift as said life progresses. The choices you make while you progress through the story may add or subtract ability points; not having enough points will lock you out of certain choice options. The ability scores function as both a necessary limitation and a reward for the player as they progress through the story.
In my own playthrough, I began to find myself thinking of the ability scores less like vaguely malleable facts, as they would be in a standard RPG, and more like currency. I made more than a few decisions based on if I had enough points in Determination (for example) to “spend” on the choice I wanted to make. There were plenty of times when I chose options I didn’t love just because it would allow me to manage my points more prudently in the long run. This might not have been an aspect of gameplay if I hadn’t left on the “consequences visible” option in the setup menu, but this was the recommended mode of gameplay, so I can only imagine that this was part of the developers’ design. It would be easy to say that it works against the purpose of the game by taking the player out of the story and forcing them to look at numbers, but I’d argue that it actually works in favour of the narrative – the goal here isn’t to “win” by leveling up and defeating enemies, but to get the best (or most interesting) outcome for Brante. And for Brante to succeed in the cutthroat, caste-based world he lives in, he must play his cards exactly right or risk death – or worse, disgrace. The skill point system forces the player to do a sort of resource management that reflects how the characters in the story often have to sacrifice things they consider important for their own personal or greater good. Am I willing to lower my public reputation to improve my relationship with my mother? In most cases, the answer is yes – it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. And when said sacrifices are more tragic than anything, I’ve at least been warned that suffering lies ahead for our hero Sir Brante.
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