Compelling, but spread a touch too thin.
Aside from a list of memorable titles logged away somewhere in the back of my mind, I don’t have any sort of connection to Tim Schafer. The attention he’s received in the past for being one of the few minds in game development to successfully incorporate humor into the medium is definitely something I recognize him for, but despite owning a copy of Psychonauts, I have never once played one of his games.
In a way I had no expectations going into Brutal Legend, and in another I’d caught enough word about the producer’s creative genius that I had become a bit more anticipatory than I would have liked. Fortunately, nothing on the creativity front disappointed me in the least. It would seem that Tim Schafer is every bit as imaginative as his reputation paints him out to be. It’s in the realm of gameplay that I personally his latest release lacking, and given the robust and quirky world that he’s created, that’s a real shame.
The game’s plot is considerably more enthralling than I would have figured from the various means of promotion I’d witnessed leading up to release. Eddie Riggs, a roadie from our world, finds himself summoned into the distant past where everyone has long hair and wears too much makeup. The world is one of fantasy, built upon the theme of heavy metal, where colossal guitar statues protrude from the ground and music ignites the sky in a storm of manipulable lightning. It all sounds very ridiculous, and it is, but that works toward the advantage of the game’s atmosphere. Everything from the design of the landscape to the personalities of the characters contributes a sublime level of charisma to this carefully crafted world that, while partially composed of several standard cliches, comes off as highly original. It’s also a huge attribute to Brutal Legend that it’s situations and character interactions generally range from “moderately amusing” to “laugh-out-loud” from start to finish, only letting up for the occasional dramatic, scripted narrative sequence.
The method through which you actually play the game comes off almost as strongly as the fiction right from the start. Fast-paced and fluid combat more reminiscent of something like Fable II than God of War provides the introduction to what you’ll be doing for much of the experience, and it’s as entertaining in which to partake as it is gruesome. You’ll also be promptly introduced to the (ahem) Deuce, which will serve as your primary method of getting from place-to-place in the open world, as well as something of a vessel to vehicular combat as the missions progress.
It’s about a third of the way through this relatively short title that the foundations of gameplay begin to crack and taper off into a sea of mediocrity. As Eddie Riggs begins his war on LionWhyte, so too did my war with the gameplay. At this point, the game seemingly evolves from a simple hack-and-slash action game into something of a close-up real-time strategy. You’ll summon units, upgrade your “Stage” and apparently harvest “Fans” as resources. You can play off guitar solos collected throughout the world to work toward your advantage by debuffing your enemies or beefing up your allies, all of this while opting to either participate in the battle yourself as the game’s flagship character, or simply observe and command from the air.
Even typing this, it all sounds considerably more engaging and innovative than it actually is, and that stems from poor execution. Not only does controlling an army from a close-up perspective feel a bit strange, but all of the pitfalls of transitioning the RTS genre to consoles are present and intact. The controls aren’t at all lending to what becomes the focus of the majority of the single-player campaign, and some maneuvers are just a bit too complex or unresponsive to pull off quickly enough to salvage your game in a dire situation. The system itself seems like something that could have been really fun and interesting, but it’s as if Double Fine just couldn’t find the right way to pull it off. The game does feature a sizable open world for you to explore as Eddie Riggs. It’s filled with your standard achievement bait, such as secondary missions and collectables. You can play off guitar solos collected throughout the world that work toward your advantage by debuffing your enemies or beefing up your allies, so passing up the required exploration for finding these could be detrimental to your experience. Most of the secondary stuff is satisfying for a while, but once you’re familiar with each mission type, you’re probably not going to want to do too much more of it. It’s really all the same with some added difficulty as your progress, and gets repetitive quickly.
Brutal Legend does feature an online multiplayer mode in the form of the same RTS gameplay you’re going to see throughout the campaign mode. It’s good for a few quick tries, but ultimately devolves into the standard online strategy fare. Basically, you’re either going haul-or-be-hauled over within the first few minutes, and it’s back to the matchmaking screen.
There’s a lot of potential here, but things just don’t seem to have come together for Brutal Legend in the end. It’s definitely worth a go for its creative charm and oftentimes hilarious dialogue, but you’d best be prepared for some underdeveloped and frustrating game mechanics. You’ll likely zip through the campaign at a strikingly fast pace, so I’d say that if you’re a fan of Tim Schafer, Brutal Legend is still a game for you.