When One Door Opens, Many Doors Close
Most of us at some point find ourselves wondering about the roads not taken in our past. These times are often sad, but The Life and Suffering of Sir Brante practically revels in the finite, limited nature of one person’s life. Sir Brante, the protagonist, is born into a dying Empire increasingly buckling under political strife and social unrest. When he is kind, he will find he cannot help everyone, when he is ambitious, he cannot have everything. The paths not taken will painfully define him just as much as paths he does take.
It’s a visual novel that’s particularly ambitious because the game’s scope is not just a chapter in the story of protagonist Sir Brante, but the entirety of his life, where the player makes choices for him in every single year of his existence.
The world is one where class has turned into a religion. The people of Sir Brante’s world worship the mythical “Twins”, and believe that the world is best ordered where people accept their “Lots”. The lot of the noble is to rule, the lot of a priest is to teach and the lot of a commoner is to labour and suffer. The aforementioned suffering is vividly present right through Sir Brante’s childhood. His mother Lydia is a commoner, whilst his father Robert is a noble. The protagonist’s older brother Stephan, born by Robert’s previous marriage to a noble, is treated like a princeling whilst his sister Gloria is oft reminded of her common lot.
The class divide in Sir Brante’s own family is exacerbated further by the return of grandfather Gregor, a bitter old man whose obsession is the continuation of his noble line. He becomes increasingly unhinged throughout Sir Brante’s childhood.
Lydia faces humiliations as she is often treated like a servant in her own home by Gregor whilst Robert is shamed as bringing disgrace on his house by marrying someone low born. The young Sir Brante must choose, right from his infancy, whether to appease his cruel Grandfather and seek his mentorship on the path to nobility, or to defend his low born mother and sister. Sometimes the conflict will be simply too much for him to bear. It’s simply one of the most painful, raw and complex depictions of childhood I’ve seen in a work of fiction.
Lydia seems a particularly tragic figure as she has been so abused by the hierarchical system she lives in yet she has the most religious fervour of all the family – finding a sense of comfort, purpose and stability in her “Lot”. Often fantasy narratives feel too distant for us to relate to, but in our own world where social mobility continues to decline as inequality jumps, the religiously stratified Empire in The Life and Suffering of Sir Brante feels brutally relevant.
The gameplay mechanics are masterful at capturing the ebb and flow of a person’s life. For Sir Brante to do something bold, courageous or scary he’ll often need to expend points of willpower. When he simply goes with the flow or backs away from a dangerous situation, he’ll get willpower back.
These mechanics can create some incredibly tense points of decision. One moment has a young Sir Brante watching his childhood friend Sophia about to be trampled by a group of horses. Though my instinct is always to go with the heroic option in these sorts of games, I instead chose to step back in case I later needed the willpower to help a member of the Brante family (who are often in some sort of peril). This forced me into a situation unlike many games, where I could simply be a heroic badass, save everyone, and suffer no consequences. Instead it was emotionally affecting, as it forced me to feel Sir Brante’s guilt for not helping a friend.
It was even more painful because Sophia then came back to life, giving me only a cold stare and silent judgement for my calculating cowardice.
In this world, death is not always final. Most are allowed three deaths before they reach their final “true” death. I suffered my first death being viciously beaten by Gregor, after defying the nasty old patriarch. However, after Sir Brante came back to life, he had gained stronger personality traits for his daring decision. Again, this was an immersive mechanic, because we so often do things that hurt or scare us in life, but then we gain greater strength or wisdom from them that makes them worth doing.
No personality traits are treated as innately any better or worse, they simply allow Sir Brante to achieve different things. As an infant Sir Brante gains more simple traits like Perception and Bravery. As he gets older these coalesce into more adult traits like Valor and Diplomacy.
The branching paths in Sir Brante’s life are starkly different. Choosing Sir Brante’s lot in young adulthood mirrored my own choices in life. There are not only pressures from each of the family members, but also the factor of what personality traits Brante has gained. Since I found the religion of the Twins to be quite fascinating, and often listened to Sir Brante’s mother during childhood, I ended up making choices that led me to have a high Theology trait. I thought it would be a waste not to use my preaching skills to help pacify the upcoming strife, and became a priest.
I ended up rather surprising myself, as I usually like to be a dashing rogue who sleeps with every romanceable character under the sun, I instead ended up opting for a life of divine contemplation and ecclesiastical politics. Sir Brante gives an impressively organic simulation of life – where instead of your character’s abilities being a calculated progression up some skill tree, they end up being an often unexpected aggregate of life choices.
The music and artwork are worthy of particular praise. The monochrome pictures which illustrate the Arknian Empire’s dying days give a perfectly bleak tinge to the proceedings. The musical score perfectly gives an ideal ambience to the fantasy renaissance world, effortlessly evoking a world that’s many shades of sinister and mysterious.
Even as I often find myself dreaming about getting an 8K TV and blisteringly high-tech graphics cards, Sir Brante reminded me about the simple, low-tech power of a black and white visual novel employing good old-fashioned storytelling.
There’s plenty of replayability to be had should you choose to explore a different path for Sir Brante and his kinfolk. Though I chose the path of the priest, I’m really looking forward to playing again and exploring the life of a noble or commoner. That’s not to mention the romances missed or the friends not made.
It’s a world that’s richly drawn but ultimately limited in how much you can explore it and effect it. Perhaps this could be considered a flaw, but that’s part of the whole design philosophy. Though there’s a map of a vast empire you can look over, you can’t choose to arbitrarily travel to any of these places just to explore them. Often cutscenes will show squabbling Emperors, Chancellors and Archdukes debating in town squares with the wealth and stability ratings of the Empire changing, completely out of the player’s control.
There’s a sense of dire inevitability about everything – as predicted in the game’s subtitle: The Fall of the Arknian Empire. One man can make a difference, but only to an extent – the important thing is to choose what change he makes. This is what makes the game feel so powerfully real and the player’s actions so very consequential.
The Life and Suffering of Sir Brante is a remarkable storytelling achievement. Ironically, though the game is rendered in an artful monochrome, none of its frequent moral decisions are completely black and white. Every choice had my mouse wavering over the screen, considering the consequences of my actions. It’s one of those rare gaming narratives that’s equally tragic, challenging and exhilarating. The message I felt came across is: don’t weep for the paths not taken or the limited change one person can make, but choose the life you want to live and live it to the fullest. As painful and filled with sorrow as Sir Brante’s life is, it’s one that’s well worth living through yourself.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: 101XP; Developer: Sever; Players: 1; Released: March 4th, 2021;
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of The Life and Suffering of Sir Brante given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher