Those familiar with Tim Schafer’s previous games (Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Psychonauts) will know to expect ample laughs and ridiculous characters from Brütal Legend. Almost every line of dialogue has a pun or witty remark delivered by an incredible voice cast with stars the likes of Ozzy, Lemmy, and Tim Curry. Infused with the heavy metal aesthetic it lends the game a very unique atmosphere. What will throw players off is the hybrid of action adventure and real-time strategy gameplay that, for those going in blind, is completely unexpected. Even the demo available on PSN and XBL only presents half of what becomes a balancing act of genres.
At first, Brütal Legend will feel like a bare-bones action-adventure akin to The Legend of Zelda. Eddie Riggs (Jack Black) gets thrown back into the age of metal to bash demons with an axe, or zap them with pyrotechnics from his guitar. After acquiring a hot rod mowing down demonic nuns, he’s plopped down into a gorgeous open world, complete with plenty of repetitive side missions, and a clearly marked story mission to free the first group of enslaved metal fanatics. And then things start to get weird.
Now you’re not only controlling Eddie, but a small squad of headbangers as well. Send them to headbutt a target just by looking in its direction and choosing the desired command. It doesn’t quite feel like an RTS yet, but as you continue setting the imprisoned humans free, a startling realization occurs. The first “Stage Battle” introduces a base, resource nodes, training units and an identical enemy with an 80s hair metal style. At this point, the player has to make a dramatic change, and worry about their army more than what’s happening directly to Eddie. But the brilliance in this reversal is that it reinforces the theme set up by opening of the game: that Eddie is a roadie, and as such it’s his job to make the rest of the team look good, not to be in the spotlight.
But even though roadies are the unseen heroes of rock and roll, you’ll soon find that playing this game as a pure RTS is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Just sending your army at the enemy stage unaided will get them destroyed in no time flat. So while you’re securing resource nodes and creating a balanced force of grunts, healing bass players and ranged attackers, you also have to be on the front lines thinning the enemy forces and harassing the opposing general. Eddie and the other faction leaders can also belt out guitar solos with simple timed button sequences to buff up their teams or cause tide-changing special attacks. Finding the right balance in this juggling act of gameplay is the key to enjoying Brütal Legend, and eventually diving into the solid online multiplayer. But while this may seem nightmarish for people who don’t like memorizing multiple control schemes, know that this is RTS in its simplest form. With only a single building and no tech trees or defenses to build, you must only choose who to enlist within your limited army size. Late in the game, you can dump resources into upgrading the units you use the most.
And while most story missions consist of Stage Battles, these are also the only times you have to worry about resources and base protection. There are a ton of side quests to earn points for upgrading your axe, guitar and vehicle, and even more hidden objects to find that unlock songs for the in-car radio. Some of the greatest moments in the game are had simply cruising to your next objective blasting your favorite metal music, taking in the wonderfully crafted scenery. Many people will be surprised and turned off by the RTS aspects, given how secretive Double Fine was of them up until the release date. It’s apparent that the developers had grandiose ideas that got pidgeon-holed into a set of genres, not the other way around. Thankfully, what would have been considered a tangled mess of gameplay is tied together by a wonderful story and cast. This is the kind of pet project a developer gets to make only once, and if you love metal music as much as Tim Schafer, you’ll find something to love about Brütal Legend.