The Two Brutal Legends

Brutal Legend is a difficult game to comment on because in truth, there are two Brutal Legends: Brutal Legend the vision (and most of the main questline), and Brutal Legend the game. Brutal Legend is perhaps the greatest traditional expression of an artistic vision in the videogame format in recent memory. It is a unique creation in an industry that often seems content to cannibalize itself, reusing the same tired tropes and play-styles. But at the same time, the ambition of its setting is rarely matched by the content. At times the game Tim Schafer and company wanted to make is painfully obvious, while at other times, it’s obscured by drab and meaningless side-quests and main story missions that are more cutscene than interaction.

The visual approach to Brutal Legend’s world, an amalgamation of every Heavy Metal album cover in existence, is beautifully realized. I will plainly say that, even without being a devoted Metal die-hard, driving around this world of spotlights, stage scaffolding, oversized skeletons, and mythical metal beasts is a joy. The world strikes a pitch-perfect balance between parody and tribute; it expresses its unabashed, unironic adoration of heavy metal, while at the same time recognizing that it’s the sort of thing that only a twelve year-old could take absolutely seriously. It’s funny, but it’s also refreshingly sincere.

This balance of tones carries from the world into the performances, in which Jack Black, such Metal luminaries as Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Halford as well as videogame voice-acting mainstays, all contribute excellent performances to something that is “of” Metal as well as “about” Metal. The narrative is ostensibly about the life of the roadie in the background, but more significantly, it’s about an abiding love of music. The story, which some have criticized for losing much of its humor later into the game, is nothing special, but it’s fitting to the themes of the music it celebrates and again reflects the sincerity infused throughout the game. More than anything, Brutal Legend has heart.

Of course, it’s also damn funny. The humor rightly takes a backseat to the more serious moments as the story develops, but it never disappears entirely. Any comedy that’s interested in more than just screwball laughs does this: it lures the viewer into its world and characters with humor, but it always holds an underlying seriousness. Comedy is a nightmare the characters eventually wake up from, and Brutal Legend adheres closely to that philosophy.

The problems Brutal Legend has are in its uninspired side quests and too-short main campaign. Once can’t escape the feeling while playing that the Real-Time Strategy elements of the game are the game, and the rest is just filler. I generally avoid RTSes due to a significant lack of skill in the genre, but even I could tell that these parts were the most fully realized design in the game. To call it an RTS is an unfair reduction. The game is more akin to RTS-RPG hybrids like the all-but forgotten Sacrifice and the recent Overlord. You control your main character directly and have access to his suite of powers, including axe and guitar attacks and solos, and you use him to issue commands to your armies, which each possess their own unique abilities. You have your basic melee grunts, your ranged troops, your heavies, and eventually you get tanks, stealth troops, and one massive machine that boosts everything around it while crushing all the enemies in its path. Using the right troops in the right situation and taking advantage of unique double-team moves that become available when you unite your main character with a group of troops is the name of the game, as is scouting out the battlefield using your main character’s flying ability. It’s a smart, deep mode that constantly tasks your ability to balance the influx of fans (which dictates what units you can build) by protecting your merchandise booths, with the need to strike at the opponent’s base before they overwhelm yours. Like many RTSes, trial and error is sometimes involved in determining what the best approach to a given situation is, but I only had trouble with one battle that took me around four tries to beat, and as I’ve said before, I’m no good at RTSes.

Furthermore, as my description may have suggested, the RTS, or stage battles as they’re called, fit beautifully within the Metal world. Here you have your main character, a roadie, whose work is compared to that of a general commanding forces into battle. He stays mostly behind the scenes, dropping in to lend much needed support and then disappearing from the limelight. It’s not only the most rewarding part of the game to play, but it’s the most fitting, theme- and story-wise.

The problem lies with the rest of the game’s missions. The early story missions can be forgiven for their fairly basic hack’n’slash combat because they are designed to get the Player accustomed to control of the main character, and the hack’n’slash-style game, while not very deep, is fun and visceral enough to sustain the game for a few missions. But past a certain point in the game, there’s no reason why every mission shouldn’t involve a stage battle, except the need to fill out the game between story scenes. I don’t know whether Doublefine were rushed, or just not very confident in the game’s ability to live or die on its RTS elements. As a result, the game feels very uneven through its middle, at times threatening to become the RTS it is deep inside, but retreating at the last moment. By the climax, the game seems once more to have found its footing, abandoning everything else for a series of increasingly frenetic stage battles.

But thi is not to mention the side-quests. I’m not usually one to tear into a game for its side-quests, since they are by definition optional, but in a world as open as Brutal Legend’s, it’s a real shame that the reward for exploration are a slew of repetitive and uniformly terrible side-quests. Fortunately, they are very optional: the game’s main missions give reward enough that you can progress without doing the side-quests, albeit with a little bit of extra difficulty. But the lack of more compelling optional content does leave the massive and otherwise inspired world feeling empty.

As if there was any doubt that videogames were a valid medium for artistic expression, Tim Schafer’s Brutal Legend proves that a game can be made with the same love, passion, and vision as any book, film, or painting. Every gamer ought to give Brutal Legend a try, and every aspiring game designer ought to study it closely, if only to learn how they can draw inspiration from media other than games. Brutal Legend proves (again, as if there was any doubt) that a fantasy game doesn’t have to be about orcs and elves, and that you don’t need to be a space marine to encounter some truly alien environments and have a blast.


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