Metal is not dead. It can never truly die, for according to Brutal Legend, it was passed down to humankind by our creators, the Titans, and it is the weapon by which we defeated great evils (read: shitty music). Tim Schafer, the man behind Psychonauts, the game we’ve guilt-tripped you for not buying almost as much as we’ve mentioned Okami, is one funny game designer. He also clearly loves heavy metal, while at the same time poking fun at every aspect of its undeniable ridiculousness.
Hold up one second: please know that you don’t have to even like heavy metal to enjoy Brutal Legend. You might not get every joke or awesome guest appearance by a real-life metal legend, but there are many hilarious aspects to the game that will appeal to anyone with a sense of humor, and the creative world that roadie Eddie Riggs (Jack Black) explores isn’t just cool for headbangers. Hell, even if you HATE heavy metal music, you’ll be amused by all the ways Schafer points out its worst traits.
Brutal Legend’s gameplay is also broadly rounded enough that if you don’t like one aspect of it, you’ll probably like others. Part of it is a butter-fingered console RTS (with fun elements despite the awkwardness). Part of it is a competent third-person brawler. Part of it is a free-roaming driving game that makes exploration a joy. None of these three pieces stands out as truly excellent, but together they make a mashup of styles that holds interest all the way through the game’s conclusion.
Sprinkled into the core mechanics are a shit-ton of collectibles that unlock Fire Tributes you can spend on upgrades, or new songs to play in your hotrod, or gravely-narrated tidbits of legend that tell the backstory of Brutal Legend’s world. The world itself is hugely entertaining to scour, and the collectibles turn the exploration into tangible rewards. Still, even without powerups to be had, just seeing the sights will inspire awe or belly-laughs. Tucked away you might find a gigantic V8 engine or an entire coastal cliff made out of speakers and amplifiers.
The inhabitants of the Brutal world are another fantastic part of the experience – aside from the rock-god cameos, it’s the main characters that manage to not only make us laugh, but also evoke sympathy. Eddie Riggs, while emanating typical wise-cracking Jack Blackness, has multiple dimensions and manages to keep the more hyper aspects of Black in check. Lars and Lita, brother and sister rulers of Bladehenge, are simple but warm characters, and Ophelia, Riggs’ love interest, is badass and vulnerable at the same time, making her a girl you want to save.
The sheer love and enthusiasm that Schafer imparts to Brutal Legend’s world helps make up for the weaker points, but even the weaknesses aren’t a huge problem. The brawling elements are very simple – don’t expect God of War levels of combos. Eddie has an axe to sever body parts up close, and his guitar, Clementine, for ranged attacks (strumming produces lightning bolts from the heavens or flames from below). Combos can string together both forms of attack, so Eddie can lay down a few chops and then launch an enemy into the sky with a guitar-fire attack. Still, actually learning and purchasing greater combos is unnecessary – any enemy can be beaten with mashes of the axe or guitar attacks.
Driving around in the Deuce, Eddie’s hotrod, never gets old with all the sights to see. It also allows you to bypass almost all of the game’s enemies, meaning that getting around is hassle-free for the most part. There are a few escort missions where you’ll need weaponry attached to the Deuce, and you’ll find stunt jumps to launch over – look for swarms of lightning plugs, which are like lightning bugs, except they’re flying spark plugs. If you fancy a race, there are several scattered around the map as side-missions, and the banter between Eddie and the pathetic demon racing nemesis is always good for a chuckle.
Then we come to the RTS game, and this is where some players may not be happy. RTS on a console never truly “works” – instead, it just struggles, and how “good” a console RTS can ever be is how little it makes you suffer. Unfortunately, a lot of the difficulties we encountered playing the RTS portions could have been solved by a better tutorial. Consider that the game never even tells you that you have certain powers or abilities, and doesn’t convey properly the significance of other options it does tell you about.
These events are called Stage Battles, and you’ve got a concert stage that serves as your base. You summon troops by selecting them from a radial menu. While there isn’t much strategy, you still have to carefully consider what troops to purchase, because the enemy’s counter units will destroy your whole army if you don’t have the right counter yourself. Commanding the troops is the worst part – trying to select specific groups and giving order requires you to be near them, and it’s easy to give out the commands you didn’t mean to, leading to moments of “No, don’t go there! Stay here! Where are you going?”
One particular battle we encountered ended up being a roadblock: it seems we hadn’t built up enough upgrades, as our army was crushed repeatedly for hours. It was a weird difficulty spike, because the game had been a breeze up until that point. Luckily, a couple hours scouring the world and upgrading turned things around (in fact, made them too easy). It’s a good thing that the time spent looking for upgrades is a lot of fun.
The multiplayer component of Brutal Legend consists entirely of these RTS Stage Battles, so if you end up annoyed by them in the single-player game, you won’t have much interest in multiplayer. However, we found that by the end of the main story we were just getting the hang of these battles, so taking it into multiplayer was quite fun, at least for a little while. Taking on human opponents is much more fun, as positioning becomes more important as you fight over fan geysers (controlling the fans means more resources to spend on units and upgrades). Also, you get to try playing the enemy factions, and they are unique enough to play quite differently from the one you control in single-player.
Brutal Legend won us over with its complete package: the aspects that are decidedly outside “gaminess” are its strongest and most lovable. The dialogue made us laugh, and not just a little. We cared about the characters enough to feel sad to say goodbye to them. We never got bored of exploring its world and continued to do so after completing the main story. Sure, the basic combat and finicky RTS commands don’t hugely inspire, but they managed to satisfy enough. Brutal Legend is a love song to heavy metal, but also to gamers – it wants you to laugh, headbang to the rockin’ soundtrack, and scratch your fighting/driving/commanding itch. We wonder if Schafer may not be interested in a sequel, or if it will sell enough to warrant one, but for us, one Brutal Legend won’t be enough.
Oct 13, 2009