Tim Schafer has made some cult-classic video games over the past decade, with amazing creativity and humor in his catalog: Grim Fandango (consisting of a mystery in a society of grim reapers), The Secret of Monkey Island (a hilarious pirate-themed adventure), and the award-winning Psychonauts (a summer camp involving psychic powers and a plot to take over the world), even though none of those was a big seller upon release. Four years after the hilarious and highly praised Psychonauts, fans are treated to Schafer's latest project: Brutal Legend, a game set in a fantasy land inspired by heavy metal. Yet despite a vast mythology, a great soundtrack, and hilarious dialogue featuring Jack Black, the overall game delivers more annoyance than enjoyment.
Eddie Riggs (Black), the best roadie in the world working for the worst heavy-metal group, is transported back in time to this "metal" world where humanity is subjugated by the Tainted Coil, a race of demons that has spoiled the essence of heavy metal. Wielding a mystical ax and a guitar that creates lightning and fire when played, Eddie joins a small resistance effort to free humanity and bring down the Tainted Coil.
The shining success of the game is its unique presentation. Every environment in the game is inspired by heavy-metal album covers. The red skies have clouds that ominously flow as you stare upon them, the mountains are littered with bones and skulls, and the highways are in shambles.
Large-scale battles have the proper adrenaline-inducing soundtrack, with music from bands such as Motley Crue and Kiss. Jump into your car to cruise around the terrain and there are more than 100 tracks of music on the radio from legendary bands including Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Motorhead.
Voice acting delivers on all fronts as well, with Black leading the way. His side-splitting randomness and his history with Tenacious D make him a perfect fit for a game by Schafer. Several guest stars do voice-overs as well, including Rob Halford of Judas Priest, Lemmy of Motorhead, and Lita Ford of The Runaways. Most notably, Ozzy Osbourne plays the Guardian of Metal, a supreme being who upgrades Eddie's weaponry as reward for "pleasing the metal gods," leading to hilariously profane exchanges between the two.
The actual gameplay, however, is more confusing than would be expected. Early on, the play is simple, as you run around chopping up bad guys with your ax and race around in your demon-slaying hotrod. As with most Grand Theft Auto copycat games, it's not a fresh style, it isn't done as well as in GTA, and the block and attack buttons are placed awkwardly on the controller.
But a bigger problem is that the gameplay style switches unexpectedly to a real-time strategy game in which you manage your troops from the skies for many of the game's boss fights. You get eased into the beginning battles, but it's still not an easy transition after getting so used to slaying with your ax.
Once again, the play features simple commands such as attack, defend, and follow as you guide troops. There's very little depth in strategy, though; it just involves telling your guys to go to an area, kill everything in it, then repeat the process. Because every fight can be won by taking all your troops and having them annihilate anything in their way until they reach the enemy base, there isn't a whole lot of guesswork to be done. I had very little trouble with these battles, and this is coming from someone who isn't good at strategy games.
What bothers me most, however, is how this game was advertised. Commercials, trailers, and even the game's demo showed off nothing but the free-roaming hack-and-slash elements, with barely a hint of the strategy facet. It's like Nintendo showing a video of a Mario game that looks like a remake of the classic platformer but actually involves fixing pipes. It's not exactly fair to the consumers.
Deception aside, if the gameplay styles had been refined more, the bifurcation might have been a welcome change of pace. Yet the free-roaming aspects are stale and lack the ease of use and smooth controls of better games. More options for my troops would have been welcome, or even some challenging super-enemy that required more than brute force to beat. Both aspects of the gameplay feel like half-hearted efforts from the developers.
After Psychonauts rocked my socks off with its mind-bending story and gameplay, I was anticipating that Schafer's next title would blow me away. It's almost heartbreaking that this lackluster effort is all Brutal Legend amounts to. The brilliant humor remains and saves the game, but it just doesn't have what it takes to be another classic.
Brutal Legend is now available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for $59.95. For this review, the author played through the campaign on "brutal" difficulty.
Luke Hamilton is a buyer, creative designer, and online coordinator for Video Games Etc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.