Tim Schafer's latest game takes place in a pick-and-mix fantasy world culled from a thousand different heavy metal album covers. A love letter to the enduring appeal of chrome, valkyries, ramshackle skeletons and the artistic potential of a well-handled air brush, it's a gnarly, frightening landscape, but also an oddly familiar one. As you might expect from Double Fine, the studio behind the leftfield charms of Psychonauts, it's a place in which all the little details are just so: each mountain of skulls has exactly the right number of dinosaur jawbones peeking through the clutter of teeth and eye sockets, and every mysterious druid you encounter has a hooded tunic of the most perfectly malevolent shade of scarlet.
Seeing the game in motion at a recent EA press event, with a developer running through a few missions, it becomes apparent that there's another layer of familiarity at work, too. Beneath the reanimated corpses and golden eagles with flaming exhaust ports sticking out of them, Brutal Legend takes a lot of cues from Hyrule Field and the Legend of Zelda. Once again, you're plonked into a large, rolling landscape filled with set-piece locations and boasting a comforting framework of steadily evolving powers to lead you through them, and once again each mission we're shown throws in a handful of delightful new toys, while every fight is enhanced by an instantly recognisable no-fuss left-trigger targeting system. There's even an Epona of sorts, if you can look beneath the flaming panelling, eight-ball gearstick, and massive, steroid-enhanced tyre treads of The Deuce, the snarling custom hot-rod Schafer's team has built for you to race around the countryside, leaving a trail of shattered bones and smoking feathers in your wake.
So while Brutal Legend bills itself as an open-world game, don't expect the identikit streets and boroughs of a dozen crime titles, where the locations are simple templates for a brace of different mission types. Instead, it's the open world of a fantasy novel's end-papers map: a rangy, echoing place, taking in 64 square kilometres, where specific landmarks are built with specific purposes in mind. It's a setting to be patiently explored, each new tool placing a little more of the map within your reach, and, despite the fact that the whole thing looks like Skull Island renovated by Albert Speer, it's a setting you'll hopefully come to love during the process.
Unsurprisingly, given the company's lineage, Double Fine has crafted its story with easy charm. Eddie Riggs, voiced by Jack Black, is the best roadie in the world, and, following a backstage accident which sees him getting blood on his belt buckle (not a metaphor), he's sucked back to the fantastical Age of Metal, where the men have perms, the women have too much eye shadow, and giant V-8 engines swing from chains above flaming pits. As expected, a complex backstory has left the whole place in the grip of evil forces, and Eddie, using roadie skills such as building, organising, and hitting people with axes, must gather together and galvanise a team of hard rock heroes to overthrow a nasty gaggle of demonic oppressors.
As the developer playthrough begins, Riggs wakes to find himself stranded on top of a mountainous altar, surrounded by masses of creepy demonic nuns wielding sacrificial daggers. In other words, he's either wound up in Sittingbourne, or is locked deep in the fiery embrace of a tutorial level.
Combat is split for the most part between melee and magic attacks, the former handled by The Separator, a massive dual-bladed axe. With a charge move that can break through blocks and a range of increasingly complex combos, even a single swing is capable of sending the screen into a mangled blur of claret and waving stumps. Magic, meanwhile, is handled via Riggs' Flying V guitar Clementine, all of the available attacks resembling stage effects, kicking off relatively sedately with brilliant little eruptions of flame and flickering walls of forked lightning.
The trick, as ever, lies with using magic and melee together for strategic effect, stunning long-distance enemies with lightning, before moving in close to split them in two in a more hands-on manner. It looks like a viciously effective system, the comedy animations as your victims flail about never undermining the pleasing brutality of your attacks. And while the basics are simple, Brutal Legend is happy to pile on the complications even in the tutorial mission, loading you up with combos and eventually chucking in a new character, the large-eyed Goth fox Ophelia, to fight alongside you and double-team on one-liners and special moves, the first of which sees the her launched from Riggs' shoulders before spinning violently into a crowd of enemies.
With the demonic nuns finished off, it's time to introduce The Deuce, Riggs' main means of transportation, and the surprise third pillar of the weapon system. Summoned and upgraded by learning and performing guitar riffs at shrines dotted around the world - the exact implementation has not yet been revealed, but in theory the whole thing sounds similar to the short songs learnt during the Ocarina of Time - players will eventually be able to fit out the Deuce with anything from mounted Gatling guns to flaming side-jets. A convenient boss fight against a gooey, vertebrae-heavy snake-thing quickly follows, highlighting the Deuce's uses in combat - the short version: it does a mean line in ramming things - and from there, Ophelia and Riggs are thrown into a race down a collapsing stretch of highway, before the tutorial comes to a fittingly thunderous climax.
To illustrate the kind of things that will follow, as Riggs races around gathering together a resistance army to take on the demons, we're given a quick glimpse of two missions from later on in the game, the first of which is a simple escort job with a maxed-out Deuce protecting a tour bus full of comrades, while the second, more elaborate, set-up sees Riggs sent into a charming combination of mine and prison to recruit foot-soldiers for his army. The recruits in question take the freakish form of Headbangers: slaves clad in rags of finest leopard print, who boast massively over-developed necks after years of breaking rocks with their skulls. Won over with a special riff from Clementine, they can then be directed around the map with a large cursor, and given a range of orders including attacking, defending, and taking out obstacles. It's a mini-version of Pikmin with jokes, essentially, and provides plenty of strategic potential as Riggs works his way through the mines: stay back and let your crew take on the enemy themselves, or micro-manage, flitting between magic and melee, hoping you can handle directing your Headbangers at the same time?
It's a confident demo, and suggests a game that uses its traditional framework to contain a surprising range of different challenges, with a solid focus on brawling and exploration tying everything together. While we've yet to see anything that matches the invention of Double Fine's previous game, it's worth remembering that Psychonauts' stand-out moments were often wily spins on tradition themselves - the teasing, claustrophobic brilliance of the Milkman mission was, at heart, a humble chain of fetch quests with wobbly sidewalks flung in, and the magic came with the dazzling presentation and arrangement rather than the mechanics.
And in presentational terms, at least, Brutal Legend is shaping up to be everything you could hope for: Black's trademark mix of mock grandeur and sleazy punning fits perfectly into Schafer's world, and the bizarre excesses of the design, blending lighting rigs, Roman temples, and strangely enchanting piles of gore constantly throws up unexpected sight-seeing opportunities. There are dangers, after the genre-hopping of Psychonauts, with a structure that allowed individual levels to riff on everything from right-wing TV news to the Napoleonic wars, that such a focused narrative could mean Brutal Legend comes off as an over-extended in-joke for musos. But, while there's plenty in here for people who can tell Megadeth from standard-issue regular deth, there's also enough character, humour and thought to suggest that, in amongst the wisecracks, hot rods and golden eagles, almost everybody will be able to find something to enjoy.