It's pretty clear within the first few minutes of Brutal Legend that the folks at Double Fine have a deep, profound love for heavy metal. There's a reverence here, not necessarily for the reality of heavy metal, but for the gleaming, violent, sexy, and well, brutal power fantasy that a wicked Judas Priest album cover, and the contents within it, might inspire in a 13-year-old boy. And while heavy metal has a tendency to be pretty self-serious, Brutal Legend is anything but, taking all of the demonic imagery, S&M gear, hot-rod fetishism, closeted druidic fixations, and ultra-macho barbarian warriors, and blowing it out to its logical and absurd extreme. This is, far and away, Brutal Legend's biggest strength: its ability to be both giddily ridiculous and fist-pumpingly badass, often in the very same moment.
The gameplay, on the other hand, seems like a really odd fit for the subject matter. Brutal Legend goes in several different directions at once, trying to be a third-person action adventure game, an exploration-based, open-world driving game, and an action-oriented real-time strategy game in pretty much equal parts. Those parts aren't as fleshed-out and fun as they ought to be, and they don't always mesh together terrifically, either. Points are given for Brutal Legend's gameplay ambitions, and while it's never out-and-out bad, I often felt like I was tolerating the gameplay so I could savor the rich atmosphere and fast wit that carries it.
After a clever meta-intro featuring Jack Black in a record store, Brutal Legend tells the story of legendary roadie Eddie Riggs. He's the best at what he does, even when he's doing it for the snot-nosed, pierced-lipped, text-messaging poseurs currently sullying the sacred name of metal. Eddie's a man out of time, a leather-and-denim-clad road warrior that longs for a time when music was “real,” like the '70s, or the early '70s. So, when a nasty on-stage calamity ends up transporting Eddie to a fantasy realm that looks like a heavy metal album cover, or the last part of the movie Heavy Metal, come to life, he kind of just rolls with it. The world of Brutal Legend is a most fascinating pastiche of all things metal. It's a heavy metal fantasy, but one in which heavy metal music and culture as we know it exists as well, so it's not uncommon to see a thick-necked headbanger doing battle with some prickly, dangerous-looking beast.
Riggs teams up with a small band of humans living under the oppressive boot-heel of the behorned emperor Doviculus and his general, the lycra-and-leopard-print-clad glam rocker LionWhyte, and quickly finds that his skills as a roadie can be rather handy when it comes to waging an epic battle against the forces of darkness, which ends up more or less resembling a massive arena rock tour. The greatest joy I got out of Brutal Legend came from watching Eddie Riggs calmly acclimate to a foreign land that's still weirdly familiar to him during the first few hours of the game. The game definitely gets a little bit distracted by its own very dense and very metal mythology as it goes on, but that's countered by a simple and surprisingly sweet love story, and the narrative manages to stay engaging throughout.
I came into Brutal Legend kind of expecting Jack Black to be a bit of a liability as the voice of Eddie Riggs. Jack Black often has a hard time playing anything other than Jack Black, and it would've been easy for him to play Riggs as a loud-talking heavy-metal goofball, but he actually reins it in rather nicely, bringing just the right amount of working-man's matter-of-fact-ness to the role. Besides Black, the game's voice cast is packed with heavy metal luminaries, often playing quasi-biographical versions of themselves, most notably with Ozzy Osbourne as the game's merchant, and Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister as a shaman-type character called the Killmaster. Comedian and noted metalhead Brian Posehn also makes an appropriately baffling appearance as a master hunter, and Tim Curry kills it as Doviculus, bringing just the right amount of measured British malevolence to the role. The voice-work is consistently solid, though a fair amount of credit is due to the game's animations for bringing all the characters to life. I wouldn't call anything about Brutal Legend subtle, but there's an expressive quality to the meaty, caricatured faces in the game that really helps sell the dialogue.
While it wastes no time getting the story going, Brutal Legend eases you ever-so-slowly into its gameplay. The game starts off resembling a third-person action adventure game, with Riggs cutting down evil druids and freaky nun demons with his oversized battle axe and his trusty guitar Clementine, the latter of which shoots bolts of lightning at enemies when played. You can use the two weapons in concert to create a variety of combos, and you can unlock more of them as you progress. It's not long before Eddie assembles the Druid Plow (AKA The Deuce), a Big Daddy Roth-looking hot rod--complete with flames and an 8-ball gearshift--which you can use to travel from one mission to the next, and to generally explore the world as you please. Once you're out in the open, your guitar can also be used to perform solos, which can have effects ranging from unearthing hidden artifacts to summoning your car. As stunning and full of detail as the world is, the game doesn't provide enough motivation to go out and explore it. There are a number of side missions you can choose to take on, which will earn you money that you can use to upgrade The Deuce, your axe, and your guitar, but there's a real dearth of variety to the missions. Ambushing enemy troops and checkpoint-racing AI opponents repeatedly gets monotonous fast, and on the normal difficulty, Brutal Legend isn't hard enough to require additional upgrades, so it's easy to just stick with the story missions.
The game eventually grants you the ability to command other troops around, starting off with the grunts in your burgeoning army, the headbangers, whom you can give basic orders using the D pad. Later missions introduce you to additional units, like the Razor Girls, blow-dried, feathered-haired rocker chicks who have a basic ranged attack, and the comically big-handed bouncers, who serve as heavier melee muscle. Everything leads up to the stage shows, which is where Brutal Legend becomes a full-blown RTS. Though it's relatively streamlined, there's still resource management, tech tree upgrades, and nine different types of units to deploy, each with their own specific and unique strengths and weaknesses. You can still hack and slash away at enemies from the ground level during these large-scale battles, though Eddie can also sprout wings and fly, giving you a very necessary bird's-eye view of the battlefield.
The game introduces new mechanics and units all the way to the very end, but I found that the more involved the gameplay became, the less fun the overall experience was. Real-time strategy is a genre that has struggled more than any other to adapt to the limitations of console controls, and Brutal Legend is not the game to crack that particular code. I just felt like the controller couldn't keep up with the relatively frantic pace of the action, and trying to juggle the third-person and real-time strategy combat at the same time was a struggle. Also, for as much time as the game spends trying to acclimate you to the ins and outs of the stage shows, there are significant, meaningful mechanics, such as the ability to mount the stage directly for some last-ditch defense, that barely get mentioned. It seems pretty bold of Double Fine to incorporate such vastly different gameplay mechanics into a single game, though there's also the sense that perhaps there wasn't enough confidence in any one piece to let it carry the whole game.
In a way, the single-player game--which, if you stick strictly to the story missions, can be knocked out in around four hours--almost feels like a lengthy tutorial for the multiplayer, which breaks the RTS element out onto its own. In addition to the Eddie Riggs-led army of Ironheade, you can also lead Doviculus' fleshy, abominable army into battle, as well as the pale, gothy army of the Drowning Doom. There's a good variety of maps that you can play online with, but the same fundamental issues I have with the single-player stage battles still apply here, and without the story there to hook me in, I didn't feel terribly compelled to revisit it.
Brutal Legend is an intense, unique, and fairly bumpy ride, one that puts developer Double Fine's strengths and weaknesses in pretty sharp relief. The vision of this heavy metal dream world is strikingly rendered, and the comic timing is some of the best you'll find in a video game. The gameplay, as singular a combination of gameplay styles as it is, suffers from being a jack of all trades and master of none. Like most teenage metalheads, this game has got issues, but if you're willing to look past some very uneven gameplay, Brutal Legend will rock you. Hard.