HIGH The world is metal.
LOW Almost everything else isn't.
WTF "Everybody thinks I'll betray them someday. Now gasp as I betray you!"
It's an unfortunate reality that games are often accused of delivering "style over substance." The basic notion is that developers coat a mediocre game with some sort of stylistic hook that keeps the player interested in spite of themselves, and is nothing new. However, given the big name behind it, one would expect Brütal Legend not to fall into this category. One would be wrong.
From the normally-amazing imagination of Tim Schafer—of Psychonauts and Grim Fandango fame, with an odd 10-year gap in the middle—comes Brütal Legend In it, you play as Eddie Riggs, a roadie with a crappy heavy metal band. Through a freak accident involving getting crushed and his belt, Eddie is whisked off to a land carved out of the ideals of heavy metal, to free the humans from enslavement by an evil emperor, restoring the former Rock Gods to their former glory.
No wait, let me try this again.
In Brütal Legend, you play as Jack Black, wandering around a barren land, mashing buttons, blindly following what others tell you in a convenient, linear fashion and meeting other heavy metal artists in cameo along the way.
Yes, that's more like it.
Make no mistake; this game is all about Jack Black, the source of inspiration for the game. Eddie is modeled after Jack—albeit without the gut. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a fan of Jack Black, and his performance is the highlight of the game. But if the actor's performance is the highlight, the game is sorely lacking.
Jack… sorry, Eddie frees people by using an axe to slay enemies. Of course, he just happens to find said axe as soon as he lands in the strange world, as well as a guitar that he just so happens to find at the same time. Everything Eddie encounters or experiences is a little too convenient, even with suspension of disbelief.
Combat in Brütal Legend is vapid. Resigned to being a simple button masher using two buttons, there is little depth or combo system here. Even after upgrading Eddie's skillset, special moves are performed by accident more often than not. Combat lacks a certain flow to it; after Eddie performs a powerful final swing, the motions reset. The guitar is used to rally troops, raise relics or summon your car to you, amongst other actions. However, every time this happens, it becomes a standard quick time event. While this isn't necessarily a horrible thing, the action around you doesn't stop while you input the button commands. If you're in the middle of a big fight, this often leads to either death or having to run away long enough to play the solo you need at the time.
Even though Eddie travels through an open map (a sparsely-populated one, but open nonetheless) there is a definite linearity. There is only one main mission at any given time, and the side missions are a joke. The main reason for them isn't to add insight to characters or the story, but to gain Fire Tributes from the Rock Gods—basically, the game's currency for upgrading weapons, stats or your vehicle. But there are only three basic side quests: ambush the enemy, protect your troops, or race against this guy with pipes for teeth because… well, because you're a jerk.
There is little joy in these quests, particularly the driving portions of the game, which end up being annoying memorization-style arcade games. By trial and error, you will eventually win. If you've ever played the Xbox 360 version of Alone in the Dark and remember the broken driving levels, it's almost as bad here.
Finally, or worst of all if you will, the main "boss" levels are a weird combination of massive action levels crossed with real-time strategy. Gamers have been so confused by this that Tim Schafer himself had to write an open letter about how to play these levels if you don't want to lose. In a nutshell, you have to gather fans that come out of geysers from the earth to create resources that allow you to bring infantry to the battlefield. There is a "load," meaning maximum capacity for your army at any given time, so there is a bit of strategy involved when selecting which troops to create.
However, in order to command them, you have to be physically near them. That's right: no matter how large the playfield, you must be nearby to command your troops. Without an overview map, you're left running from place to place, trying to rally your troops. Of course, you can always direct them all to a single goal (such as destroying an enemy's gate, which will finish the level), but they will abandon defending your fan sources or not even bother to defend themselves. Eddie must join in the slaying while managing the troops simultaneously. Add in single characters from the opposing side who can often kill you in one or two hits, as well as trying to navigate commands with a clumsy combination of shoulder buttons and analog sticks (the game doesn't stop while you're working, by the by, leading to a lot of deaths while trying to manage things) and the reason why World of Warcraft is not being ported to consoles becomes abundantly clear.
So what's so great about Brütal Legend? It isn't the story, one so predictable that the twists are often foreshadowed and revealed in the same damn cut-scene. It certainly isn't the gameplay, a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas sewn together. What makes this game's existence worthwhile is the aforementioned style.
Brütal Legend's world is one of pure metal aesthetics. The sky is always a fiery crimson, the land is barren, and skulls are plentiful. The animals, few that there are, are imbued with a certain "badassery" that adds to the world. Picture porcupines with metal spikes, or deer with razor horns, or boars that, when killed, somehow have a pump-action high-powered shotgun for bones. Yeah, totally badass.
The design aesthetic extends to the characters and their animations. Brütal Legend features some of the best lip-synching ever seen in a video game, and the designs can be downright hilarious. The first time Eddie meets the headbangers—metal guys with long hair whose neck muscles are overdeveloped due to their headbanging—it truly is a laugh-out-loud moment. And while the story is flat, the individual lines can be very funny. The script was definitely written with Jack Black in mind. Cameos from such artists as Lemmy or Ozzy Osbourne (as the best shopkeeper you've ever heard!) really help define this world as being truly "metal."
It almost goes without saying that the soundtrack, if you're a metal fan, is amazing. There are over 100 tracks, and while some are unlockable, they are all available to listen to at any time.
But if the best things that can be said about the game are its artistic elements rather than its gameplay or story elements, has it succeeded? Given the length of the game—around 12 hours or so at Normal difficulty—Brütal Legend gets more tiresome the further in you go. Stage Battles (the official name for the RTS sections) kill the pace, and the side missions are repetitive and boring. Somehow, all these negatives don't counterbalance an amazing artistic style.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 12 hours of play was devoted to single-player mode and 0 hours of play in multiplayer modes
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language and suggestive themes. Parents, don't even waste your time listening to your child justify them playing this game. It may have Jack Black, but it's definitely geared towards an older audience. Besides, many of the in-jokes are over 20 years old, so they probably wouldn't get it anyway.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game is fully subtitled, and while the cadence of delivery is lost, all the dialog is there. There are no major audio clues that deaf and hard of hearing gamers need to worry about.