If there’s a way to appease the metal gods, Tim Schafer, the mind behind Brutal Legend, may have done it.
Brutal Legend is the game director’s vision of rock and metal, using an unsung hero (a roadie) as the vehicle to explore a fully realized, almost Nordic world built around the mythos of the music.
But while this game showcases Schafer’s and Double Fine’s considerable gifts for producing comedic, edgy wonder (remember Psychonauts), it’s also an example of what can happen when there are one too many gameplay styles. The result is an experience that falls just a bit short of legendary status.
Storywise, you assume the role of the Jack Black-voiced Eddie Riggs, known as the ultimate roadie. He’s something of a heavy metal samurai, seeking no credit for his array of talents, which include organization and the ability to fix or build practically anything.
After a piece of a massive stage falls on him, Eddie gets transported to a majestic land forged in the image of heavy metal fantasy. He discovers that he has immense power and weapons in this new land, such as a powerful axe and a guitar that can rain fire and lightning from the sky. He eventually finds himself as the hopeful savior of the land, which is under the rule of an evil emperor voiced by Tim Curry.
This vast land of legend is a treasure for the eyes and ears, something worth taking an hour or two to explore in the Deuce, a mystic upgradeable roadster Eddie gains at the start of the game.
You get the idea Schafer had fun crafting this landscape, with its beach, forests, and various ruined landmarks. Little viewfinders are scattered throughout to give the player a good establishing shot of whatever landmark he or she is checking out, such as the Screaming Wall (a wall of amps as large as a mountainside) or a statue of an ancient hero.
The land is also a portal into the game’s considerable playing elements. On the surface, it’s mostly gory, hack-and-slash action as you fight your way through the forces of evil with your axe and guitar.
I love the game’s take on magic attacks, which are executed through guitar solos Eddie learns. You perform the solos by following a musical bar at the top of the screen and hitting the right buttons at the right time. A personal favorite is the “Bring It Home” guitar solo, which summons a flaming zeppelin out of the sky to crash onto your enemies.
You can unleash musical hell either in the game’s main story missions or through a litany of side quests ranging from ambushes to beer runs. You’ll fire turrets to defend positions, engage in road races, hunt evil-looking wildlife and save the world in the process.
However, there’s something floating in this otherwise awesome gameplay punch bowl, and it deals with how some of the major confrontations are handled.
In addition to the racing, button-mashing action and role-playing elements, Brutal Legend then throws in a curious curveball of real-time strategy (RTS). It’s themed around the concept of dueling concerts, where you have to take out the enemy stage (or fort, or whatever) as well as assume control of geysers of etheral “fans” by building merchandise booths around them. The more fans you get, the faster it takes to build up different kinds of battle units you can use. There are soldier units, ranged weapons, snipers and a rock-crushing machine.
On one hand, I get it. Eddie’s a roadie, a master of organization and crisis control, so he’d be a natural fit for this makeshift role of war commander. It’s also a way of challenging typical gamer archetypes, asking them to leave their comfort zone of playing.
However, if I wanted to invent a way to completely put the brakes on the momentum built by the other gameplay elements, this would have been it. Even the best strategy games take time, as units need to be built, attack plans need to be made, and positions need to be defended. It’s an elaborate game of chess.
The problem is, the game doesn’t exactly handle the RTS elements with the precision of other games in the genre. Instead of being able to build several units at various positions at the same time, you have to queue them up and wait for your stage or other entry point to churn them out. Being able to command specific units at the same time is a chore with the control scheme, so I spent a lot of time running back and forth to tell my squads what to do.
My biggest issue with this element is that it can slow the game to a crawl, making it groaningly tedious for stretches of time. It would be especially maddening to people who don’t normally play (or actually avoid) RTS and are not accustomed to having to wait to build units.
Granted, Eddie can do more than his part in annihilating chunks of the enemy forces himself, but the key still lies in your units overwhelming the enemy. Halfway through the game, I remember letting out a sigh every time I saw the big stage go up.
However, it wasn’t impossible to grind through, simply because I found the story and characters so compelling. Black does an outstanding job as Riggs — when he raises a relic from the ground, he explains it as “creating beauty by simply rocking.” There’s also the Killmaster, voiced by Lemmy Kilmister, the lead singer of Motorhead; Rima, voiced by Lita Ford; and of course, Ozzy’s Guardian of Metal persona. Topping off the experience is a truly epic soundtrack, which is to be expected given the nature of the game.
The road from the conception of Brutal Legend to our consoles has been long, and overall, I think the wait was worth it. I just hope that if there’s a next time, rocking out will take less strategy.
Xbox 360, PS3
Electronic Arts / Double Fine
Rated M for Mature