Double Fine’s Brutal Legend is one of those rare games that takes a concept and utilizes it in nearly every available aspect of both gameplay and presentation. The core of Tim Schafer’s latest is the idealized Nordic garage world you see on the covers of heavy metal albums. The ridiculous epic-ness that results from the pairing is the life-blood to Legend, and it’s a good thing that its execution matches it’s most awesome aspirations.
Eddie Riggs is the best roadie in the modern metal scene. But his acute fixing and tuning abilities don’t stop him from feeling isolated in a music business that has gone glitzy and pop since its 1970s glory days. After an on-stage accident nearly kills Eddie, a drop of his blood gets into his mystical belt-buckle and summons the fire beast-god Ormagöden. Who then transports the roadie into a medieval world drenched in glorious heavy metal paraphernalia. Eddie is then left and at the mercy of a tyrannical Emperor Doviculus (voiced by the always delicious Tim Curry.) Eddie Riggs joins up with the few other humans in the world, and uses his roadie skills to amass and train a massive army of heavy metal caricatures to combat the evil demon emperor.
The overarching plot is just the epic melodrama one could expect from the source material. The sheer manliness of the narrative is matched with a pervasive wit, led by the mumbling improvisational riffs of Jack Black as Eddie Riggs. The rest of the cast is brought to life by actual metal performers – like Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Lita Ford of the Runaways – their emotional performances an impressive shift from their respective screeching and/or shredding work on stage. The fact that Double Fine got understandable, competent performances out of Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy Kilmister is even more unbelievable. The comedy does run out of gas towards the story’s end, but remains a new pinnacle in video game humor as a whole. Every cutscene will make you laugh, sometimes just from the expressive character model’s reactions. You’ll find yourself looking forward to story segments more than probably any other time this generation.
The meat of the gameplay is evenly split between open-world exploration aboard your car – known as the Deuce, or Druid Plow – straight-forward hand-to-hand combat, and real-time strategy battles when a couple of the game’s many armies clash. The game suffers from the common modern ailment of your car getting stuck on rocks and trees after blazing through giant beasts with no problem, but driving is still very fun – mostly due to a truly massive selection of metal tracks on shuffle. Hitting the road will also afford you a more intimate glance at the world’s album-cover design. True heart and appreciation for the manliest of music is evident in the smallest detail: from trees made of tail-pipes to gigantic rock formations in the shape of a guitar. The world also sports a variety of – admittedly stupid – wildlife, existing for the simple joy of getting run over or, later in the game, spell-casted into submission to be ridden.
The game takes a heavy metal approach to even the smallest control. Hand-to-hand attacks coming from a combination of magical elemental attacks from your axe (Clementine, a guitar from the modern world) and basic melee damage from your battle-axe (an axe.) Using your guitar’s magic attacks too often will over-heat the instrument, forcing the player to adopt a more strategic approach to hack-and-slashing. Both methods of damage-dealing control relatively well, barring the occasional sticky execution. A basic lock-on system is on hand to help you slash through the bigger groups of enemies. Both the Deuce and Eddie can have their skills and components upgraded with various effects and skins with a trip to the Guardian of Metal – the aforementioned Ozzy – the game’s rotund menu of expansions taking place near the center of the world. Upgrades are purchased with fire tributes, which can obtained through completing the game’s various mini-games (which unfortunately amount to little more than a couple of copy-pasted gameplay routines.) You also gather them through unlocking the game’s various collectibles: which include freeing bound dragon sculptures and taking in some epic pan shots of the game’s visuals through view-points.
The real-time strategy component takes over when the story’s plot points reach a climax, and control with similar simplistic ease to direct combat. Controlling and summoning ally forces with guitar solos (which play out as quick button-pressing mini-games) and instructions mapped to the directional pad. While easy to use when the time calls for it, you have to position Eddie close to the units you want to control in order to be heard, which can get frustrating when battles become multi-faceted affairs. The RTS segments also take up the bulk of the game’s multiplayer options, with up to four players selecting their own heavy metal cliché to battle it out against friend and foe alike. They control similar to the single player missions, and are just as frantic and fun – if not more so – than their in-game counterparts.
The three-sided gameplay divide fits well together, each element mixing well without overstepping the others. When splitting the design this way, however, each does suffer from oversimplification on an individual level, feeling truncated compared to game’s where just melee combat or real-time strategy is the main focus. The game still remains fun, especially with the near-constant riffing from Black and company. Enemies also tend to explode into bloody bits when killed, which is always nice.
Even at first glance, Brutal Legend doesn’t visually impress on the same technical scale as most AAA releases coming out this holiday. Rough textures abound and the occasional pixilated shadow or shoddy animation will pop up, but it will never draw you out of the experience. That’s mostly due to the strength of the game’s metal aesthetics and consistent comedy. Character models loss an immense amount of character and complexity outside cutscenes, but all of the game’s visual faults never detract from the enjoyment. A taste for metal is most definitely not required to enjoy this magnificent world Double Fine has created. There are few games that work with such an enthusiasm for its source material, and this fandom creates a riotously funny – if a bit simple in gameplay – experience. The gods of metal are strong with this one.