It's a bit unfortunate, because Brutal Legend could have been a really awesome game, but thanks to its reliance on strategy gameplay that no one was really asking for, it's merely a pretty good one. I haven't really played Tim Schafer's older games, but from looking at them and having played Psychonauts, it's pretty clear his strength is in creating unique and interesting settings to go with good stories, and that's the best part of Legend, too. Jack Black plays Eddie Riggs, a roadie who wishes he could live in the time when metal was alive. He means the early 70s, but by the end of the opening he's brought to a world which is basically what 14 year olds imagine when they doodle in their notebooks while listening to heavy metal, a mix of fantasy elements with anachronistic musical technology. It may or may not be in the actual past of the Earth, but that's not really important.
So you're brought to this interesting, well-considered world, filled with some good characters and an interesting beginning to the plot, with some good humor. The gameplay hasn't picked one thing to focus on yet, but you're hacking bad guys up with an ax and electrocuting them with a magic guitar, and driving some interesting vehicles. That's when they start introducing the strategy elements. You can recruit different kinds of troops and order them around... follow me, stay here, attack that location. Before long you're setting up a stage to be your main base, building merch booths to gain control of geysers of "fans" to pay for your new units and upgrades, and trying to destroy enemy bases. The game never completely abandons its other elements, giving you some fun vehicle sections and opportunities to bash a few skulls in, but the core of the challenge is in increasingly difficult strategy battles, and while I didn't really hate the individual elements I found that I was forcing myself to get through them so I could see the next part of the story.
It's not that I even hate strategy games, although I really haven't played them much in a while. But because of the game's control system, the complexity of the strategy is necessarily limited and not terribly interesting. Even with the flying ability you get pretty early, moving around to find your units and command them is more cumbersome than pointing and clicking, and because of the pains it takes to give orders to a single group I mostly just set a target and spammed the command that sends allies towards it. By the end the difficulty of the battles was outpacing my skill with the limited system and the game wasn't really throwing me any bones, so I ended up turning the difficulty down for the last couple skirmishes. I might have been able to figure something out and push through, but I didn't want to waste twenty minutes failing again to find out. The strategy gameplay was certainly a way to convey the scope of the war the story was trying to convey, I just didn't find it interesting to struggle with.
The graphics are pretty nice, with a few issues here and there but good characters that feel like a cartoon come to life and a decent scope to the environment. The voice acting is really good including the scads of metal celebrities making appearances, and the all metal soundtrack was surprisingly entertaining considering my limited appreciation for the genre. The presentation is really the game's best element, and the story and characters are why I stuck it through to the end. I know from Psychonauts that Schafer can do his thing with a game that's actually fun, so I'm hoping his next product is something a little friendlier.