Tim Schafer games are rare and unusual, and Brütal Legend is perhaps his most ambitious project to date – an attempt to mix elements of third-person action, real-time strategy, and sandbox-style exploration. Whilst it doesn't quite master this act of fusion, you might be surprised by how much you won't care.
Our hero is Eddie Riggs, an old style roadie voiced by Jack Black, who is transported through time and space to the world of metal. In a place where the electric guitar is the most powerful tool of all, Riggs is able to become a powerful warrior who will soon find himself at the centre of a violent revolution.
The backstory is revealed slowly; humans have been enslaved by the evil Emperor Doviculus and no-one believes it is possible to overthrow him. Eddie's arrival changes all that, as he bears the symbol of Ormagöden and can read the language of the Titans – guitar tablature that teaches riffs that are capable of magical effects. Taken by the sexy Ophelia to meet Lars Halford, leader of the human resistance, Eddie can use his new powers and roadie skills to organise a Tour of Destruction across the land of Metal to overthrow Doviculus.
This is the main conceit of Brütal Legend: if heavy metal is the ultimate source of power, then a heavy metal gig would be a force to be reckoned with. As such the main part of the game is a repeating sequence of missions where you first escort the tour bus to a destination, and then set up stage when you arrive in order to have a gigantic battle. This is broken up by the free-roaming aspect of the mission selection, and the liberally dispersed side quests located around the gameworld.
The game is divided fairly equally between story missions and side quests, and it's so open ended that you can work your way through the plot of the story without really doing any of the other missions at all. However, the stage battles themselves represent the RTS aspects of the gameplay, and are by far the most difficult parts of the game. They are set up in large arenas with several control points (these are 'fans' and form an energy source for your road crew) and you must direct your troops towards these whilst simultaneously fighting the enemy, and aiming for their main stage.
You have a variety of different troops that you can direct onto the battlefield, each with their own abilities and weaknesses which is reflected in their cost. The more fans you have, the more troops you can send out, so controlling the fans (in Brütal Legend-speak that is 'setting up a merchandise booth') is crucial if you want to outnumber the enemy. However, pursuit of the merchandise booths can lead to a war of attrition where both sides are concentrating on attacking or defending the fans and unable to progress to the main stage, which can draw these battles out for long periods. This is where you will need to develop a strategy, and once you get the hang of it these fights can be a lot of fun.
That said, the controls can be a bit awkward from time to time, but it's entirely possible to direct certain troops to certain places whilst sending others elsewhere, and to really deal with problems as and when they arise. You are controlling one man in the middle of a huge conflict, and to be able to get into the thick of it and fight whilst also giving orders to others – all manually – is a really engrossing experience, and certainly one you should approach with an open mind.
These battles can also be immensely frustrating when you're up against the more powerful enemy units, and when that happens there are numerous additional abilities and upgrades available that go some way towards tipping the battle in your favour. To find them, you must venture out on your own into the landscape.
Frankly, this aspect alone makes the game worthy of purchase. It's similar to a Zelda game, except instead of Epona you've got a hotrod, the sky is full of fiery comets, "Symptom of the Universe" is playing, and you're smoking a cigarette – it's effortlessly badass. The world itself is fairly large, and it encompasses a wide variety of terrains – from the Stonehenge-esque to Tim Burton gothic, you'll enjoy each change in scenery against a selection of beautiful weather effects. Brütal Legend also has an excellent day/night cycle, and as the open-world exploration part of the game has no HUD you'll be able to savour the high-definition visuals even more.
In fact I remember something Tim Schafer said about how their aim was that you could pause Brütal Legend at any time and you would have a Heavy Metal album cover. Well, that statement is not as hyperbolic as we first thought. And this is where the soundtrack really comes into its own, because the number of times the sun would drop off the horizon, nebulae appear in the sky and a portentous carven massif appear in the distance whilst the game threw out a random metal riff at me that somehow was the only appropriate music for that vista... well, it blew me away. The art direction in Brütal Legend is out of this world - it's on a par with Grim Fandango, and I suspect the game may convert as many people to Heavy Metal as that game did to Art Deco architecture.
There are several things you'll be looking for on your travels. Most important of these are the Solos – monuments depicting guitar tablature that teaches Eddie a new magical ability. You actually have to play these riffs yourself in-game each time you need its effect, and whilst some have likened this to a mini rhythm game, it's actually very simple. (Think of the way you control the winds in Wind Waker for a more accurate comparison.)
Eddie can receive upgrades to his own health by finding ten Bound Serpent statues, and you can hear a more detailed history about a particular aspect of the Brütal Legend world by finding the Legend statues. There is also Buried Metal dotted around the landscape, which is indicated by red flowers. You can raise these monuments by playing the Relic Raiser riff on your guitar, and this unlocks some more of the soundtrack for you to play in your hotrod. Lastly are the Landmarks, which can be viewed through binoculars and are really just an excuse to show off the incredible detail that's gone into the game.
Finding any of these things will earn you Fire Tributes – literally, the approval of the gods of Metal, which functions as Brütal Legend's currency – and you can use these to buy upgrades for your hotrod and weapons in the Mouth of Metal. This is all a very esoteric way of including a shop in the game, and it's strange and delightful to find Ozzy Osbourne as the merchant.
For fans of Schafer's previous games there's a lot here to enjoy. The closest parallel can be drawn with Full Throttle for obvious reasons, and the game pays homage to Ben's opening speech from that game in its introduction. Eddie is set from the same mould; the tough guy whose moral compass is in working order, and like Ben you'll enjoy stepping into his skin for a little while.
Riggs is a metalhead, and one thing all metalheads have in common is a hatred for bands who 'sell out' – who compromise their artistic vision for fame and money. Metal is, and always has been, a sub-genre of music that's lacked true mainstream appeal, and this gives the bands an image of being in it for the music. It's a fallacy for the most part, but Brütal Legend imbues Riggs with that same attitude without giving in to sarcasm – perhaps the most common attribute shared between character and actor – and Jack Black gives just one of the many great performances in this game. Tim Curry as Doviculus deserves special mention, as does Ozzy for putting in the best acting performance of his entire career.
I don't think Brütal Legend is going to change the world, or even just the gaming world. But it's clearly the Tim Schafer game with the broadest appeal so far, and easily the best chance for one of Double Fine's projects to become one of the major selling titles of the year. And whilst so much effort has gone into its World of Metal, so much detail and beauty, perhaps there was a trade-off between this and the size and length of the main story. The ending arrives almost out of nowhere, and other games have possibly tricked us into expecting something a little harder to beat. And as much as I loved playing it, there is still a slightly disjointed feel to the implementation of the various styles of gameplay that I can't quite put my finger on.
But this doesn't change the fact that this is the most out-and-out fun I've had in a game for years. There are some great side quests, some enormous battles, and an incredible world to explore. It's a masterpiece of art direction, a fully functioning landscape like nothing you've ever seen before. As I said at the start, it's a game that falls a little short of its target and you just don't care. It is a brutal legend, and it is awesome.
22nd Rocktober, 2009
Pros: Incredibly well realised gameworld, awesome soundtrack, immensely fun to play
Cons: Stage battles can be tricky at first, story itself could be longer
Second Opinion by The Tingler
Now I'm most definitely not a heavy metal fan, so I'm less forgiving of the flaws (of which there are many). However, I think I do agree with the score. It's still a fantastic game, made with the love, care and devotion that Double Fine always puts into its games, but those flaws do exist and some can really aggravate, mostly within the strategy sections of the game.
As elTee said, once you get the hang of them they can be fun. On the other hand, you might dread the prospect of facing another one. Some people will enjoy them, some really won't, and as they're not featured in the demo you're really going to have to have bought and played the game to know whether you like them or not. The closest gaming comparison is to Sacrifice or the Reaper section of Giants: Citizen Kabuto (the first and best game by Armed & Dangerous developer Planet Moon). If you didn't like either of those, you may have trouble enjoying Brütal Legend. It certainly doesn't help matters that the game forgets to explain some of the finer elements of the strategy sections too, like what Rally Flags do or how to upgrade units.
Nevertheless, I agree with what elTee said wholeheartedly. Even not loving metal I still started to enjoy a few of the songs, and despite not getting most of the references, the characters, story, acting and world itself are just too cool not to love. Truth is, you just can't stay mad at a Double Fine game. They're too full of fun and creativity to make any flaw truly matter in the long run.