The collective reverence held for Tim Schafer across the video games industry is truly something special: one of the two minds behind the first two Monkey Island games, involved with Day of the Tentacle and The Curse of Monkey Island and writer of the cult classics Psychonauts and Grim Fandango, anything that has his name attached to it is bound to be pored over into the most minute of minutiae in the lead-up to its release and beyond. The pinnacle of the hysteria around the work of Schafer is the wonderful reception that the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter had, raising $3.45m, only having a target of $400,000. This sort of personality cult that can emerge around developers often only leads to disappointment in the final product, with no change in public opinion of the artisanship of its creator: the decline of the work of Goichi Suda is perhaps a good example of this. In Schafer’s case, everything that makes him so revered is contained within Brütal Legend, resulting in a game that takes place in a wonderfully realised world – so wonderfully realised that its gameplay flaws can be forgiven.
Brütal Legend‘s world is an odd one: it is a world reminiscent of a medieval western Europe, populated by members of metal bands who were in their prime throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, where the “power of rock” is a real-world force praised by the human populace with a conviction that borders on the religious and with the logical culmination of the low fantasy implied by the medieval temporal setting being delivered by human oppression by demons. So far, one might think that the only thing that separates this game’s narrative setting from the likes of Dragon Age or certain Final Fantasy titles is the inclusion of metal music as the supernatural power, rather than the more traditional “magic.” To make this assertion, however, would be mistaken: we are not dealing with rolling, idyllic hills in this world, we are dealing with a gameworld that would be best described as an imagined amalgamation of metal album covers, enough to create an entire continent. We see dilapidated highways, bridges fallen into disrepair, lava flows coursing through hellish environments and skulls adorning things that generally should not be adorned with skulls. The essence of the world is clearly the produce of someone who truly loves metal music and wished to see a world realised premised upon it.
This impression of the game’s narrative being a labour of love by a lover of its subject matter is only furthered by the selection of voices used for the speech of the game: Ozzy Osbourne, Lita Ford, Rob Halford and Lemmy Kilmister all engage in great performances in the game, much as they are essentially playing their metal personas. Jack Black’s performance as protagonist Eddie Riggs is stellar, but does fall foul of being an issue of typecasting: Black very much performs the role in the same goofy, effervescent manner as his performances in High Fidelity and School of Rock. This serves as a boon in the favour of Brütal Legend, however, due to the excellent writing of Schafer injecting an obscene amount of humour into the world. Brütal Legend succeeds where many other games have failed: its humour is neither crass nor simplistic, and rewards even the most peripheral knowledge of metal music with little cracks even down to the name of the game’s achievements.
The core gameplay elements of the game lie in combat: Eddie is armed with both an axe (tool used for chopping things) and an “axe” (a guitar): the former acts as a traditional melee weapon and the latter acts as a ranged weapon that aims bolts of lightning at enemies. Eddie is also blessed with a motor (designated “Deuce”) near the start of the game, which can also be used as a weapon. The three of these items can be upgraded at Motor Forges in exchange for Fire Tributes awarded to the player after the completion of missions. The first quarter of the game’s combat is played out in traditional live third-person style, with the general aim of stringing together combos between the use of the axe and the guitar, sometimes stopping to play riffs (a special attack or ability used by completing a Guitar Hero-like rhythm minigame) that are unlocked at some hidden and some less-hidden locations over the course of the game. One thing that Brütal Legend is not, however, is a one-trick pony: the game seeks to add some diversity to its play by including several different types of secondary missions, including races, killing a certain number of certain types of critters in the game world and sneak attacks on groups of enemies. There is also a substantial secondary combat mechanic that plays more like a real-time strategy game than a conventional third-person brawler. The larger battles tend to take on this real-time strategy form, with a variety of units on hand to be built from the energy produced by merchandise booths being built around the battle area. This is a novel approach to resourcing and interesting one to play.
In spite of the real-time strategy combat mechanic taking up a fair chunk of the length of the game’s main story arc, it is this which truly lets the game down and prevents it from obtaining the Schafer-classic status. The key annoyance of this mode of play is how difficult it is to order certain units rather than others to perform any given action. While this is a matter of merely pointing and clicking in most games of the genre, in Brütal Legend, it is an issue of approaching the unit in question, making sure that Eddie is nearer to this unit than any other, holding Y, issuing the order and releasing Y. A minor delay in the release of Y or having the right unit selected may mean the loss of a merchandise booth, which are ridiculously difficult to regain after their loss, due to an apparent favouring of the enemy horde’s presence near a fan geyser than that of the player. These battles can become very frustrating and overly lengthy because of this. The true let-down in this game, however, is the repetitiveness of it all: there are only a certain number of different mission types and they all feel much the same. The amount of discoverables in the world is a nice touch, but whether the player would deem these worthy of the trudge around the game’s not-inconsiderable map to locate them in another question altogether.
It is a good game with some minor niggles in gameplay, and perhaps this is to be expected from someone whose fame was made in the point-and-click adventure genre. The way in which the world is realised and the amount of care, attention and love that has clearly gone into the game’s production overshadows these flaws however, and only the coldest of hearts could not be taken in by the likeable protagonists and supporting cast and truly horrid antagonists of the game. Though repetitive in places, the combat can be rewarding and customising vehicles and weapons does make enough difference for the completion of submissions to be worthwhile.