It’s been a long, bumpy road for Brutal Legend. Tim Schafer and Double Fine’s follow-up to their first game, Psychonauts, was originally going to be published by Sierra. However, when Sierra was shut down in the wake of the Activision-Blizzard merger, the growing publishing giant cut Brutal Legend loose. Enter Electronic Arts, who eventually snatched up the publishing rights and began hyping the game into a media darling. Realizing their mistake, Activision took some loosely-grounded legal action and the once invisible Brutal Legend found itself being tugged by the arms by two of the largest publishers in the industry.
All the marketing and drama put Brutal Legend on the hype express train. However, Brutal Legend still has some big shoes to fill, being the latest game from a man whose accomplishments include classics such as Psychonauts, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, and Money Island. Can Brutal Legend possibly meet such Peter Molyneux-esque expectations? Well, I know this sounds like kind of a cop-out, but the answer really is: yes and no.
Brutal Legend’s story isn’t terribly complex. Eddie Riggs is the greatest roadie ever, able to build, fix and tune just about anything. However, being a roadie to modern wannabe metal band Kabbage Boy isn’t the most fulfilling gig in the world and Eddie longs to go back to a time when music was “real.” Thanks to an on-stage accident and his mystical belt-buckle, Eddie’s wish comes true as he’s hurled back to a time before history, when metal was the only way of life and the world looked like a Judas Priest album cover.
Like Double Fine’s first endeavor, Psychonauts, Brutal Legend is a game that defies simple genre categorization. What starts as a simple but fun brawler becomes a Zelda-inspired open-world adventure. Soon enough, it becomes a mini-RTS, along the lines of Pikmin or Overlord, before eventually turning into a much more full-blown RTS/action hybrid game (but still open-world).
No one of the these elements is robust enough to carry the game alone and it’s where they all come together in the RTS battles that the game really meshes. This isn’t an RTS in the vein of a Starcraft or Command and Conquer. While you will be taking over resources and upgrading units, you really aren’t playing the game correctly if all you do is lord over the action like you’re watching it from the war room.
Eddie is a man of action. You’ll be constantly switching between observing the battle from the skies, issuing move/attack/defend orders and building your army, to diving down into the thick of battle, hacking away at enemies and unleashing all manner of devastation and empowerment with guitar solos.
However, it is only in multiplayer where these different genres fully come together. After playing the multiplayer it becomes clear that the singlelayer RTS battles – which introduce new units and tactics right up until the game’s finale – are really a tutorial for multiplayer. Double Fine has done a pretty amazing job of creating three wildly different factions that are balanced against each other quite well. Sure, the singleplayer only teaches you to play Eddie’s faction, Ironheade, but a little experimentation in battle is all it takes to learn the other two. The multiplayer in Brutal Legend is arguably its most robust component, at least in terms of pure gameplay.
While the ways in which those disparate gameplay elements mesh together in the RTS gameplay are arguably one of the game’s biggest strengths, they’re also one of its biggest weaknesses. Brutal Legend simultaneously suffers from a lack of focus and too much focus. I know that sounds like I’m just trying to squirm out of having a solid opinion but bear with me.
The adventuring and exploration, the intricacies of combat that you’re introduced to at the start of the game, the small-scale squad tactics — all the fine details are lost in the big picture that is the RTS battles. The open-world game that’s a mash-up of competing game genres gradually becomes extremely focused and linear. This change highlights a much more encompassing issue with the game: pacing.
This issue is echoed throughout the game; it pops up in the gameplay itself, in the story and even in the design of the world. It was a bit of a shock to feel disappointed with the plot in a Tim Schafer game. To be fair, what’s there is fantastic. The problem is that there simply isn’t enough of it.
I never felt as though the plot or characters were developing organically, simply because the plot itself moves too quickly. Relationships are formed and broken, characters come and go, the battle between good and evil pulls back and forth, and the whole time I just felt lost.
The strong dialogue and performances keep it entertaining throughout, and even though I never felt like there were parts missing, these parts just never felt like they were fully explored. Most disappointing of all though, was the feeling that the plot basically ended in its second act, and the third act was no more than a final battle and a boss fight (and a whole lot of exposition).
The “open” world faces similar issues. The first area you’ll explore is large, with lots to see and do. Furthermore, as you’ve come to expect from this game, it’s very, very metal. Canyons are lined with engine parts (awesome), giant swords are stuck from the ground as if they rained down from the sky (awesome), volcanoes spew out chrome lava (awesome), trees are made from stage scaffolding (neat), and the skies are streaked with lighting and falling comets (yeah, awesome). However, the rest of the world simply fails to fit in with that aesthetic.
After moving beyond the initial area, you’ll encounter the standard snow, jungle and swamp zones, and finally a gothic undead-land area. Each one of these is built in a much more confined, linear manner than the starting zone and none maintain its initial aesthetic.
Aside from panthers shooting lasers (f**king awesome), they all feel sadly generic. While the final, gothic inspired area opens up a bit more, it’s so dreary and oppressive that I never enjoyed exploring it. In fact, I wanted to spend as little time there as possible.
The scope of the actual game falls short of its ambition. What’s most unfortunate is that Brutal Legend’s ambition always feels like it was attainable. I’m no fan of games that drag out the length so they can boast more hours of gameplay but Brutal Legend really needed more time and more space to adequately convey its epic tale.
However, this is still a Tim Schafer game. The dialogue is brilliant and hilarious, the characters are endearing, the mythology of the world is wildly imaginative, and the aesthetic is simultaneously comic and captivating.
Despite its numerous shortcomings, the pure imagination and love that goes into any Tim Schafer/Double Fine game is still on full display. While that doesn’t give the game a free pass to greatness, and while it doesn’t quite live up to Psychonauts, fans will still find a lot to enjoy in the land of metal.