Let’s face it; the odds were stacked against Brütal Legend from the start. Tim Schafer games? Niche market. Heavy metal? Niche market. Jack Black fans? Niche market. Needless to say, the commercial appeal of this title was limited at best. Factor in the fact that the game was dropped by a publisher who shall remain unnamed before EA picked it up, and that it was shipping the same day as one of the most highly anticipated sequels of the year, and you start to see just how much of an uphill climb Brütal Legend would have before even arriving on store shelves. But even through all the adversity, the doubt, and the worry, Brütal Legend manages to be a fun title with a great story that can be enjoyed by everyone.
Eddie Riggs is a roadie who questions whether or not he was born at the right time. It’s not until a terrible accident and a mystical relic combine to transport him to a world of metal mythology that Eddie finally feels as if he might have found the place where he belongs. When he awakens, he’s thrust into a fight against a demon horde known as the Tainted Coil, and is able to escape thanks to some help from a mysterious woman named Ophelia. She introduces Eddie to the resistance movement, led by Lars Halford and his sister Lita, whose goal is to overthrow Doviculous, and return freedom and metal to the land. Along the way, you’ll come across references to just about every era of metal from glam rock, to emo, to death metal, and encounter all manner of characters based on familiar stereotypes like meat-headed headbangers, spiked stud wearing bikers, and gothic beauties. It’s a story of trust, betrayal, love, redemption, and freedom, all hallmarks of the most epic of rock ballads, and all captured perfectly. A large part of that is due to the fully realized world that Schafer and company have created, but it mostly comes from the wonderfully acted script. Clever, humorous, and full of heart, Brütal Legend’s story just might be one of the most memorable adventures of the past few years.
As you explore the game’s world, you can’t help but gaze in wonder at the stunning vistas straight out of the minds of Frank Frazetta and Boris Valejo. From the mountains made of bones, to the waterfront cliff made entirely of speakers, to the dreary cathedral filled wastelands, there’s hardly an inch of this world that’s not home to a reference to the music that inspired the game. The characters are also stylized perfectly. Despite looking like an oversized Glen Danzig, Eddie has a look that conveys both an everyman and a hero. Each of the different characters, allies and enemies alike, you encounter are also expertly realized. Headbangers have huge muscular necks from rocking so hard all the time. The Zaulia all look like models straight from the shoot for the cover of Kiss’ Love Gun. The entire Tainted Coil army is reminiscent of HR Geiger and Clive Barker designs emphasizing skin mutilation, bondage, and horrifying deformities. Everything is animated very well, and main characters have some of the most emotive facial expressions for a game not reliant on motion capturing actors’ performances. While much of the performance comes out in the terrific voice acting from pros like Tim Curry, Jennifer Hale, and a surprisingly calm and collected Jack Black, the facial expressions in the game add a wealth of personality to already well-developed characters. Add in appearances from rock luminaries such as Lemmy, Ozzy, and Lita Ford, and you’ve got not only one of the most interesting casts for a game, but also one of the most impressive assemblages of revered music industry names ever.
There are a handful of elements that make up Brutal Legend’s gameplay. When playing as Eddie alone, you’ll have two types of attacks at your disposal. Your axe deals out the melee damage utilizing simple two-button combos, while your guitar handles what could be considered magic attacks. Able to blast foes with lightning, shockwaves, and fire, you’ll find the guitar serves as a solid companion to the axe. You’re also able to cast spells by learning any of the eleven guitar solos scattered across the game. All the solos you learn in the game pertain to Eddie’s faction, and can do various things like melt enemy faces or raise relics hidden around the world, but once you get to the multiplayer, you’ll find the different factions all have their own variations on the solos you learn. It’s a shame you never get a chance to use the other guitar attacks in the single-player game, but at the same time, it’s completely understandable. The combat isn’t overly complicated, nor is it so simple that it’s boring, but there are times when it can be a bit button-mashy when switching back and forth between the two main weapons.
Eddie also has access to a fully customizable hot rod, dubbed the Deuce, which, once unlocked, can be summoned at any time with a solo. It doesn’t handle very well, and sometimes you’ll go careening off a cliff because you missed a turn, but it gets you around faster than walking. The few driving missions aren’t all that tough, nor do they require you to do any clutch driving, but it would have been nice if the Deuce drove a bit better. Scattered throughout the world, you’ll spot locations with what look like the top of engine blocks sticking out of the ground. These relics are known as Motor Forges, and that’s where you can purchase upgrades for both the Deuce and your weapons. The first time you enter one you’ll be introduced to the Guardian of Metal, played by Ozzy Osbourne, who in exchange for Fire Tributes will upgrade your weapons with better attack power, or add weapons, nitro, and armor to the Deuce. Completing missions, defeating roaming enemies, finding relics, freeing bound serpents (the game’s version of hidden packages), or unlocking legends (which expand on the history of the metal world), earn you Fire Tributes to spend on better equipment. I was able to make it through the game without upgrading everything fully, so if you don’t want to put in the time to earn extra Tributes, the game doesn’t punish you.
Rounding out the gameplay is the Stage Battle system, which is how all boss battles are fought. Both Eddie’s faction and the opposing forces build a stage to hold a battle of the bands, and the only way to win is by destroying the other team’s stage. Once you’ve started a Stage Battle, you’re required to tap into Fan Geysers, which are the Brütal Legend equivalent to Tiberium or gold, and draw their mystical power to your stage to recruit your army. You have forty available slots for soldiers, and any of the friendly factions you encounter during the game can be summoned pending you have enough resources. There’s a bit of a real-time strategy element involved, as you’ll be directing your forces on the battlefield with simple commands like follow, attack, and defend a location or an enemy. It was a bit surprising to find RTS elements in Brütal Legend, especially considering that nearly every bit of footage prior to the game’s release focused on the hack-and-slash elements. Adding the RTS style makes for a nice change of pace, but I can see people getting easily frustrated by the way that part of the game controls. It’s not overly difficult, but there’s quite a bit to manage, especially late in the game.
Thankfully, you’re never really taken out of the action because you’ll still be fighting side-by-side with your people. Brütal Legend’s combat system allows you to team up with any of your followers for special attacks. Some team-ups only strengthen specific attacks, while others have you throwing your fellow combatants at an enemy, while yet others combine for status bonuses for all your troopers. There are some helpful solos to learn for massive engagements, like Rock Block, which stalls your enemy from creating new units for a brief amount of time, or Fan Tribute, which converts any open geyser to your side, and finding as many as you can serves to make the more arduous encounters a bit easier. In fact, the biggest issue I had with the Stage Battles is just how steep the difficulty curve became towards the last third of the game. Battles can last upwards of an hour, and if you’re unlucky enough to lose, it’s back to the start for you. If it does get a bit too hairy for you, the option to change the difficulty on the fly is there, but after adjusting your strategy, you should be able finish it on Normal.
The multiplayer for Brütal Legend relies exclusively on the Stage Battle. You and up to seven other people split into two teams, each in control of one of the three factions from the game. Everyone plays as the leader of a particular group, be it Eddie, Doviculus, or the leader of the Drowning Doom. While this can be fun, it’s actually more frustrating than the standard Stage Battles because with multiple players on one side, the “too many cooks in the kitchen” axiom goes into effect, especially when nobody’s using headsets. Seriously, it can be extremely detrimental to your chances of winning when all the soldiers you just summoned are sent off to die by another player, or when one person hastily spends resources before you’ve had a chance to build up enough units. It is fun to play as either the Tainted Coil or Drowning Doom, if only because they play so radically different from Ironheade. Both evil factions rely much more on negative status effects to control the battlefield than they do going on the offensive. Getting to use the different guitar solos is also a nice change, but like the armies themselves, many of the evil factions’ solos rely on causing status effects instead of dealing physical damage. Lag can become an issue, and is more pronounced the more people you add, and there are only a few different maps available, but multiplayer is definitely more than just a tacked-on game mode. Strangely enough, even though I like the Stage Battle system in the single-player campaign, it just doesn’t feel as fun to me during a multiplayer match.
Much has been made of the game’s soundtrack, and with good cause. There’s enough metal in here from various genres and times to satisfy everyone, and simply driving around blasting Black Sabbath can cause you to lose huge blocks of time. There’s an original score that doesn’t quite pack the punch of the previously recorded tunes, but it does a solid job of filling the silence moment to moment. The few times that licensed music is used to emphasize the story, it’s used to great effect. The way the game uses “Mr. Crowley” has changed forever the way I’ll think of that song, and despite some obvious choices like “Through the Fire and the Flames” during a chase, every song seems perfectly tailored for this game. Admittedly, a few songs began to grate my nerves (is there anyone who actually likes 3 Inches of Blood?) towards the end of the game, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few dozen people converted to the musical tributes to the dark lord from any of the 50+ bands that contributed to Brütal Legend’s track listing.
Brütal Legend may be a mixed bag of genres, styles, and interests, but with the guiding hand of Tim Schafer, the title is able to become more than the sum of its parts. It’s hard not to become engrossed by the characters and their story, but that’s not the only reason you’ll keep on playing. The combined gameplay styles work well together to provide players with enough variation that the game doesn’t become too repetitive, save for the times you’ll die and have to replay lengthier portions of the game. I had a great deal of fun living in this world for a few days, and when the holiday season quiets down a bit, I’ll likely dive back in to play through the game again. Brütal Legend isn’t the game of the year contender the hype had led many to believe, but it’s still a good game, and despite a few flaws, would certainly be a welcome addition to any game library.