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.