Video Game Review: Brutal Legend

Tim Schafer, founder of Double Fine Productions and designer of Brutal Legend, is one of the very few people in the industry who could say his resume doesn’t include a single bad game. Unfortunately, those games–particularly Grim Fandango and Psychonauts–are notorious for not selling well. With Brutal Legend, Schafer seemed to be consciously trying to break that tradition. He got a big name voice cast, including Jack Black, Tim Curry, and metal legends Ozzy Osbourn, Lita Ford, Lemmy Kilmister and Rob Halford. He licensed 108 heavy metal tunes for the soundtrack.  And as the game neared release, he and EA proceeded to market the hell out of it with comedic Jack Black ads, several gameplay videos narrated by Schafer and other, less conventional, promos. Of course, the question is whether it’s worth all the promotion. And if you’re okay with the game not being quite like what was advertised, then the answer is yes.

Brutal Legend was hyped as an adventure through a heavy metal fantasy world, and that’s exactly what it is. The environments are incredibly detailed and would look perfect on a heavy metal album cover. The enemy and ally units, who were crafted to represent specific flavors of metal (such as hair metal and death metal), are all very eye-catching and clever. And, of course, there’s the music. The storyline missions put the licensed songs to great use. I’m not a big Dragonforce fan, but having “Through the Fire and the Flames” blaring through the speakers during a particularly tense and frantic vehicle sequence made me feel like a total badass. As an added bonus, those 108 songs can be accessed any time through your car’s “radio”. If you don’t like a specific tune, you can just remove it from the tracklist.

The huge soundtrack will be a nice thing to have when you’re driving around Brutal Legend’s world map. You’re given free reign to explore within the first half-hour, and that freedom is never taken away. Besides the side quests that litter the map, there are plenty of Motorforges (which you can buy upgrades from), statues and tablets to be found, all of which help make the main character, Eddie Riggs, a little more powerful. None of these pseudo-collectibles is strictly necessary (even the Motorforge can be avoided, though they’re easy enough to find that ignoring them would be a bit foolish), but they’re nice rewards that encourage players to take time to enjoy their surroundings and not simply rush from one story mission to the other. And the side quests are all short enough that I was never bothered by how repetitive they were.

So, the problems aren’t with the presentation, but the execution. First, there are the little details that are noticeable by their absence. There is no minimap, which for an open-world game is a bit of a mind-boggling decision. And with the exception of the Motorforges, none of the other pseudo-collectibles I previously mentioned are marked on your map, even after finding them. This makes figuring out which of the 120 bound dragon statues you’ve discovered and which ones you’ve haven’t more frustrating than it should be. Second, the whole game is a bit of a bait-and-switch. Everyone assumed Brutal Legend would be a hack-and-slash action-adventure game with some vehicle sections thrown in, because that’s all that was shown. What all the marketing never mentioned was that there’s a significant amount of real-time strategy mixed in. By the time you get half-way through, Stage Battles–where the player builds units and commands them to attack, defend or follow–become an important part of the campaign. The RTS aspects aren’t bad by any means. It’s just that the transition is a bit awkward and the proper way to approach Stage Battles isn’t communicated effectively.

Tim Schafer wrote a blog post about how you shouldn’t play Stage Battles like an RTS, but if it was a little more streamlined then he probably wouldn’t have needed to do that. He says you should split your team up only in rare circumstances, and that you should usually be moving on the ground with all of them in one big clump, using Double Team attacks whenever possible. However, when you make a system that’s basically a simplified Starcraft and don’t do anything within the game to say, “Don’t play it like Starcraft,” people are going to play it like Starcraft. I read that post after beating the game, and I did all the things I wasn’t supposed to do. I split up my units to accomplish multiple tasks at the same time, I micro-managed, I rarely used Double Teams and I spent most of my time surveying the battlefield from the air, only coming down to play guitar solos (that can create rally flags, build resource-gathering buildings or trigger an insta-kill area-of-effect attack) orwhen it looked like my army needed my combat abilities to survive. I never had any problems doing it the “wrong” way, nor did the game ever indicate I was doing it the wrong way. Simple design tweaks, like having newly-created units automatically move to the player’s position and putting a time limit and short recharge time on flight, would have encourage players to play the game like Schafer intended them to.

The story had its share of surprises, too. Brutal Legend is a Tim Schafer game, so I knew it was going to be hilarious. It definitely lived up to that expectation, but I wasn’t expecting it to have several genuinely touching moments. Video games usually don’t manage to make me care about character deaths, but the one that occurs in Brutal Legend actually saddened me. The voice acting, dialogue and animation combine perfectly to create the memorable characterizations that Schafer is known for. There were also a couple of plot twists I tried to predict and got completely wrong, and I always appreciate it when a story can keep me guessing without becoming convoluted.

In short, Brutal Legend, like Psychonauts, is a great game that’s held back by a few noticeable design problems. Tim Schafer fans like me should definitely buy it, but anyone without a fanatical devotion to him should give it a rental first or wait for the price to drop, as they may find it lacks enough replay value to justify $60.