Brutal Legend Reader Review
Itís often been said that the video games industry is a callous mire of faceless corporate greed. After all, one canít help but notice the startling rate at which the most affluent publishers have divided and scattered into swarms of indistinguishable developer sub-divisions, all kept in line by their clinical, ruthless overlords at the highest echelons of the executive ladder. Employing multiple development studios to work on a single franchise on a rotational year-by-year basis is now an accepted business model, leading to widespread fears that the creation of video games is fast becoming a conveyor belt-style, mass production-like affair under the control of mercenaries for hire, with the capacity for individual creative vision falling ever more rapidly by the wayside.
In truth, that probably isnít an accurate perception of the situation, or at least not yet. What still gives the young, wide-eyed developers of the future the inspiration to see their dreams through to reality is the small list of individuals who have risen from the lowly underworld and made names for themselves, indelibly etching their own identities into the face of the gaming media. For instance, anyone with a relatively keen interest in the gaming industry is familiar with the likes of Sid Meier, Warren Spector, Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto, the mere reputations of whom can generate considerable interest in any product with which they happen to be affiliated, with or without the backing of the aforementioned publishing behemoths.
One of these figures is Tim Schafer, the creative mind behind such cult hits as The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and Psychonauts. Itís titles like these that have given Schafer his reputation as the gaming industryís plucky underdog, a genuinely innovative and daring figure who just canít seem to break the glass ceiling and sail into the promised land of mass-market success. If nothing else, these setbacks have earned him a small, loyal legion of followers, so many of whom continue to wait patiently for him to finally get his just rewards after years of toil and struggle in the face of adversity.
Iíve long considered myself to be one of those followers. For several years, I found myself dumbfounded at reports of Schaferís latest commercial disappointment, particularly when his offerings garnered such widespread critical acclaim. Just what was it about his games that didnít resonate with a mainstream audience?
Enter Brutal Legend, the answer to the question that had lingered in my mind for so long.
For those unfamiliar with Double Fineís most recent retail release, Brutal Legend is an open-world action-adventure game based on the surprisingly expansive lore of heavy metal music. Hang on; maybe itís more of a team-based hack-and-slash game based on the surprisingly expansive lore of heavy metal music. Oh, and it has real-time strategy elements too? And racing modes, complete with customisable vehicles? My word; how the devil horns can one game mix together so many in a way thatís both seamless and unwaveringly relevant to its overall plot and creative direction?
It certainly is a big ask, but Brutal Legend nearly manages it. Nearly.
You see, even though each gameplay mechanic present in Brutal Legend carries that heart-warming sense of charm and wit that only Schafer can bring to the table, one gets a distinct impression whilst playing through the game that none of them possess that level of fine-tuned polish needed to leave a lasting impression on the gaming landscape.
At the onset, most of Brutal Legendís flaws arenít immediately obvious, thanks in no small part to its superb visual presentation. From what might just be the most unique start menu in gaming history to the legitimately amusing cut-scenes, and then onto the artistically inspired scenery and environments, the game never shies away from its heavy metal roots, crafting an aesthetically delightful rock Ďní roll romp from start to finish. Admittedly, none of it looks as gritty and photo-realistic as many of its contemporary counterparts, particularly in the character model department, but, given its bombastic setting and larger-than-life premise, it doesnít have to. What matters is that Brutal Legend never backs down from its devotion from the source material from which it was inspired, and criticising it on the grounds of visual realism would be missing the point.
Aurally, itís very much the same story. The gameís sound design encompasses some of the very finest tunes from an eclectic range of heavy metal artists, embedding them almost effortlessly into both the cut-scenes and real-time gameplay in a manner that both complements and enhances its dynamic visual imagery. Quite frankly, it almost feels unnatural to return to the harrowing orchestral scores of God of War after experiencing the peculiar thrill of disembowelling heavy metal demons to the unmistakeable riffs of Black Sabbath and Manowar.
Not only that, but the voice work isnít half bad either. Anyone who followed the game with even a passing interest prior to its release knew that Brutal legend could just as easily be known as ďThat Jack Black GameĒ, and itís certainly true that a hefty portion of the advertising campaign centred around Blackís role as the voice behind Eddie Riggs, the gameís protagonist. Thankfully, the Tenacious D frontman provides a stirring performance as our lewd, crude and tattooed hero, delivering each line with every level of comedic aplomb and immature satire that a title of this eccentric nature demands. While that might have been enough on its own, Black is joined by a veritable ďWhoís WhoĒ of heavy metal icons, including Rob Halford, Lemmy Kilmister and Ozzy Osbourne, all of whom carry out their supporting roles with surprising conviction considering their lack of professional voice acting experience. All in all, for a game based on a cultural phenomenon driven by the pounding manipulation of music and sound, Brutal Legend does complete, unwavering justice to the ongoing legacy of the heavy metal way of life.
Touching upon the way in which a video game actually plays last in a review probably makes it seem like an afterthought, and itís this impression that sadly hits the nail on the nail when it comes to Brutal Legend. When it comes down to it, all the magic embodied in Legendís visuals and sound design ends up flattering to deceive because, as much as it pains me to say it, the gameplay does, indeed, feel like an afterthought.
On the surface, the idea of raising an army of uncouth, head-banging metalheads against the menacing forces of a glam rock-esque troop of self-obsessed posers might seem like an intriguing base on which to build the gameís mission structure, but what this ultimately means is that Brutal Legend quickly develops into what comes across as a half-baked, unrefined pseudo-RTS. Sure, assembling and micro-managing hordes of warriors, readily prepared to lunge intrepidly into battle in the name of heavy metal, can feel empowering at first and, yes, the ability to jump into battle and hack oneís foes to death at any time is certainly a welcome feature, but the whole process quickly becomes enveloped in a sense of tedium and monotony that represents everything Schafer himself would appear to oppose. The gameís strategy elements are too unresponsive, unintuitive and shallow to draw in seasoned RTS players, whilst those unfamiliar with the traditional conventions of the genre are likely to be turned off completely by their inclusion. What this means is that the main story missions fall into the dreaded outer reaches of the Venn diagram, lapsing into a crisis of identity from which it never really recovers. In fact, chances are that many players will end up having to force themselves through many of the longer, more plodding skirmishes simply in order to reach the next cutscene, which, whilst saying a lot about the gameís engrossing storytelling, is hardly a great inditement of its long-term interactive appeal.
One might have thought that the addition of a plethora of side quests, including racing challenges, creature herding and ambushes, would help address these issues. Unfortunately, this isnít the case, with these add-ons feeling just as lifeless and repetitive as many of the canonical story missions. Beyond this, what weíre left with is a series of collectibles and vehicle upgrades scattered around the large, sprawling landscape, but the search for these relics can often feel like a similarly mindless grindfest that exists purely for its own sake. Call me cynical, then, but I canít see anyone but the most dedicated of completionists sticking around to see these tasks through to their conclusion.
The game world itself isnít exactly as impressive as it initially seems, either. While itís pleasing to take in some of the towering landmarks and eye-catching structures, many of which have drawn significant inspiration from a vast array of heavy metal album artwork, much of the sandbox is simply empty, redundant space, with only the occasional, sparse group of creatures or enemies detracting from its overwhelming copy-and-paste vibe. With exploration forming a vital component of any open-world game, one simply canít help but notice the amount of untapped potential that exists within the realm of Brutal Legendís in-game world.
We often hear people talk about games that are greater than the sums of their parts, meaning that their flaws are never significant enough to detract from the positive overall impression one experiences when taking the overall product at face value. Well, Brutal Legend might just be the opposite. Despite doing so many things well, itís Legendís pronounced mediocrity in a few key areas that ensure that none of them come together to produce a solid overall package. Individual elements of brilliance are certainly there in plentiful numbers, but none of it is significant enough to prevent this from being a legend tarnished by the lack of a cohesive push by its developers towards a common, manageable goal.
That isnít to say that Brutal Legend is a bad game. That certainly isnít the case. In fact, when you look beyond the cracks, itís a Tim Schafer game through and through, for better or worse. Criticising the game almost makes me feel guilty, as if Iím insulting an old friend. But the fact of the matter is that Legend underlines how everyone, regardless of how creative they may be or how good their track record is, is capable of making a less-than-stellar product, and it shows that Schafer, despite all he has given to the games industry, is not quite infallible.
Sorry, Mr. Schafer; it didnít quite work out this time. But it was one legendary effort.