Brutal Legend: A Retrospective

Brutal Legend: A Retrospective

Most games don’t understand heavy metal. They generally don’t use it in a way that makes much sense, and it winds up feeling a little more like a garnish on a dinner plate: it’s pointless and no one really understands why it’s there. Most of the time it seems like there were just people in a boardroom looking at a Venn Diagram, one circle reading “people who like violent games” and the other “people who like heavy metal,” see that there’s an overlap, and demand that the soundtrack be nothing but crunchy guitars and original songs from such relevant bands as Adema. There’s no reason that heavy metal and games shouldn’t work together, though. With the way so many games are focusing on power fantasies, the chest-beating, overtly-fantastical and oft-violent lyrics, pounding drums and driving guitar riffs should be a good fit. No one really bothers to do that, though, instead going for a shallow understanding of why metal works as a genre, making it feel immature, a mere evolution of the doodles on a high school notebook. Most games seem to ask “how awesome would it be if there were boobs and then guitars and then BLOOD?!” and leave it there. But there’s so much more to heavy metal than that. And I’m not just talking about the ridiculous amount of subgenres or the fine art of placing umlauts. There’s a driving core mentality to it, to the imagery presented in the cover art, to the dress, the worlds created by the lyrics. This is what really makes Brutal Legend stand out. Rather than just bolting a metal soundtrack or some sick butt-rock riffs onto the base of an already existing game, they decided to make it heavy metal from the ground up. This game is about the music and experience of living in a heavy metal world, which it nails perfectly. If Brutal Legend could just be a game about exploring a heavy metal world, then Double Fine would have succeeded without a doubt. Unfortunately, though, Double Fine has never been the best when it comes to developing a fun-to-play game, and that winds up being the biggest problem Brutal Legend has to overcome.

It becomes very clear that the developers over at Double Fine have a great love for the genre. The opening cutscenes show how much the developers really wanted to emphasize the power of music, while still showing a disdain for a lot of the weird new “innovations” in alternative metal. It’s not difficult to draw comparisons between the band in the cutscene, Kabbage Boy, with some familiar acts from today. Once main character Eddie Riggs is whisked away to the heavy metal world (by way of a belt buckle that screams so loud once it gets blood in its mouth that it rips open dimensions), though, it becomes about the awesome parts of metal more than a lamentation over what the genre has become.

From the earliest moments, Double Fine nails the look and feel of heavy metal. They’ve stated that the main goal for the game was to make every screenshot look like the cover to a heavy metal album, and they pretty much succeed. There are even vantage points located around the world (one of the many collectibles) specifically to show this off. As you drive along through the world, with the Mouth of Metal (your radio) blaring out such disparate hits ranging from KMFDM to Dimmu Borgir to Michael Schencker, it’s impossible to not get sucked into the world and just want to explore it, find new songs, and see the backstory of the world, as told in the beautiful woodcut images that you find around (another of the collectibles).

I also want to give special note to the game’s USE of the music. Of course, as said before, just driving around and listening to the songs in the game is a joy on its own, but the team also went ahead and set several missions and cutscenes to specific songs. Leading a rebellion to the sound or “Rock of Ages” or watching an important scene in a character’s arc to a particularly well-timed “Mr. Crowley” is great, and these moments of specific use of the soundtrack emphasize the production values in this game. They clearly came at this with a vision of how they wanted everything to be presented, and they succeeded greatly.

The characters you meet also have a great look to them, many of them voiced by heavy metal luminaries like Rob Halford and Lita Ford. Some of these aren’t exactly great (Lita Ford is, at best, unmemorable), but there are some surprises in there, such as the remarkably articulate Ozzy as the Guardian of Metal. Even more surprising than that is the use of Jack Black in the main role. A lot of people had a very skeptic attitude towards this announcement, but he restrains himself well and fills the character’s shoes very neatly. It’s easy to forget that it’s him a lot of the time, and he definitely stands out as a great casting choice. The best performance in the game, though, is given by Tim Curry as Emperor Doviculus. It’s entirely chilling and threatening, and it’s one of the best vocal performances I’ve probably EVER heard. His character and the evil he’s capable of actually drip out through every syllable he speaks, and it’s the kind of delivery that makes you wonder just how freaked out people were in the sound booth as they recorded his dialogue.

This would be the best game ever made if it weren’t for the fact that you had to play it. The presentation is so well done that, just looking at it from the outside, you can’t imagine how it can be bad in any way. Unfortunately, once you do play it, you see a game that wants very much to be three different games, while failing to actually let any of them develop into something memorable. As you begin the game, it seems like it’s trying to be a heavy metal God of War type of game, what with two attack buttons and lots of enemies to dismember. It’s certainly not a deep system, but it’s serviceable enough that, if the game had just been that, it could easily have been forgiven.

Soon after, though, you get your car, head to a couple of dungeons, and find an open map that makes it seem like you’re instead on your way to playing a heavy metal Zelda instead. Some of these places even give you little squads of soldiers that follow you, and you can give them simple orders, which is cool and a welcome change to that style of gameplay. It’s simple, and the inclusion of these units makes the unremarkable gameplay easier to get through on your way to your next heavy metal landmark.

Then that’s all thrown out in favor of a fantastically half-baked RTS game. Despite Tim Schaffer’s statement that the game isn’t an RTS and if you play it like one, you’ll lose, that’s the only way to describe it. You’re gathering resources, researching upgrades, and making a lot of units to rush at an enemy. This mode is the most ill-conceived of the three styles, and it’s made even worse because it’s the most common one. The problem is that it completely lacks depth. Most of it can be dealt with just rushing because the computer has no idea what it’s doing. While the game does offer up all kinds of advanced units and strategies, there’s no reason to use them outside of the few spots where it forces you to. Make lots of headbangers and ranged units. Launch them at the enemy. Repeat until victory.

Playing against a human is barely any better because the teams aren’t exactly well balanced. There’s one team that’s clearly the strongest, which even has the advantage of spawning enemies anywhere on the field. Its most powerful unit is so crazy that it even does damage upon entering the battlefield. Another team seems like it’s been set up to be more technically oriented, using a series of debuffs and whatnot, but it’s really not an obstacle. It comes down to the same thing and the same strategy, no matter who you’re using.

It’s a shame that the game is so short, then, because it makes it feel like it’s meant more as a training ground for multiplayer, but since the only part of the multiplayer is this RTS section, it feels like it’s trained you for a part of the game that you’ll never want to play. At least the PC version comes with the DLC included, adding a little more length to the single-player campaign, but the problem is that there just isn’t much to hold your interest with the gameplay. While this was a problem with the original release of the game being a full $60, the Steam release is a much more palatable $20, making this length feel a little more forgivable.

As with most Double Fine games, most of what makes Brutal Legend great is in presentation. It really goes a long way with this one, adding character and interesting touches to a beautifully realized world. As with Psychonauts before it, though, once you start actually playing Brutal Legend, you’ll often find yourself wondering over the choices made in developing a feature, specifically the thought “did anyone stop and test to see if this was actually FUN?” While it’s very clear most of their effort went into developing the look, feel and sound of the game. With the next generation of consoles looming, maybe it’s time for Double Fine to take a step back and evaluate their strengths before delving into another game with as many poorly realized aspects as can be found in Brutal Legend.

With the recent Steam release of Brutal Legend, though, it’s nice to be able to step back and think about the game a little more, because despite all of the problems with the gameplay I’ve mentioned above, there’s something about the game that sticks with me. It’s difficult to put my finger on it without just saying that it’s because the game is awesome. I guess the biggest thing with Brutal Legend is that it’s a game that shows exactly how much your production values can help a game go from mediocre to something really memorable. If it wasn’t for the world, the writing, the visual style, there wouldn’t be anything about Brutal Legend that anyone would care about. It would be a middling game, at best, full of half-baked ideas.

But the fact that the team nailed the feel of the world and the characters so well is its saving grace, and it’s what Double Fine has been best at for years. It’s not like Psychonauts was the tightest or most precise platformer you’ve ever played, and I know I can still make people cry in a fetal position just by saying the words “meat circus” near them, and it’s another game that shows off their strengths. It’s the presentation of these games, the writing, and the look that really make you care. It’s a shame all of that gameplay has to get in the way.

Let Brutal Legend also serve as a cautionary tale to developers: know your game’s strengths and limitations. This is, of course, one of the most difficult parts of game development. In a world with infinite money and time, this wouldn’t be an issue. In this world, Brutal Legend would have a more developed RTS component, and they’d have been able to fully flesh-out the experience and make it, well, fun. The problem is they shot too high and overly-complicated a great idea. What looked good on paper didn’t translate well to the game. As I said, this is the most difficult thing to keep in mind objectively when you’re making a game. But they also need to know the limitations of the system they’re on. There’s a reason RTS games never really took off as a console genre: analog sticks don’t have the same precision and speed that a mouse does. While games have tried, most have failed, and Double Fine really should have considered this before trying to make a genre on a console that it’s not suited for.

So, almost four years since the original release of the game, and two years after I first experienced it myself, I feel Brutal Legend still serves as a great narrative on game development. The core of the idea is fine, the world is still entirely unique, but it’s not always important to be the game that innovates and redefines a genre. While I’m certainly never going to blame someone for trying a new idea, remember there is merit to just honing an existing concept. Movies like The Avengers manage to do something similar—they don’t redefine the superhero genre, they just make a damn good superhero game. A game like Darksiders fits in this as well, a game that’s so blatant about their influences they might as well have cut royalty checks to Nintendo at some point. Does this make these things worse? No. Their ability to focus on what it is that makes them strong in fact makes them better, and it’s something Double Fine, and really everyone, should remember as they develop their games for the next generation.

In my mind, there’s a way for Double Fine to exist as a company that deals exclusively with story and design for a game, while another company works on the gameplay ideas. I feel like this is the best place for them; a sort of second-party developer who creates the ideas and worlds and stories, but someone else develops the actual game. Maybe it’s a little cruel to say that, but even with games like Psychonauts, you don’t remember them for their gameplay. You remember them for their WORLD. Perhaps this is why I’m so excited about Double Fine’s new adventure game Broken Age. When you dial back to make a game about exploration and story and neat looking worlds, you’ve created something that’s much more in their wheelhouse.

Brutal Legend was an interesting game, but a little too bogged down and bloated to really be a great one. Yet I’d still recommend experiencing the game to see one of the best examples of world-building to happen over this generation. As your car screams down the road, Judas Priest blasting over the radio as you drive by a 100-foot tall stone monument dedicated to heavy metal, you’ll experience something like no game has ever really captured again, and remind yourself of the extensive artistry and creativity that goes on in games. It’s a strong reminder there’s more to a graphical style than being realistic, and more to characters than being gritty and ‘real’. It’s a charming game, and maybe if they get a second chance at the series, they can finally figure out the right gameplay style.