After the cult following that Psychonauts developed, I’d always been dead keen to see what would come next. Tim Schaffer’s latest project is set in a world of Bogans, a world where the four elements are Fire, Blood, Noise and Metal. If you were thinking Psychonauts reskinned (perhaps “Psychonaüts”), then you’re in for a shock. After all, given that Psychonauts was a platformer at heart, Brütal Legend occupies a far different space as a game where the only kind of jumping takes place when a hot rod takes a ramp at high speed.
Brütal Legend has had a pretty strange promotional life during its development, starting off looking like a character action game, then appearing to be action/exploration/driving in an open world environment with some unit interaction elements. The demo gave a taste of the action, some driving, and some basic unit stuff. Strangely, it’s not until you’re about a quarter of the way into the game or tried the multiplayer that it becomes apparent that the whole game has been gearing up for some big real time strategy battles. I’m not saying that like it’s a mark of quality in either the negative or positive, but it’s something that seems misrepresented in the marketing, almost to the point of being weirdly deceptive. Putting that aside, though, there’s a lot to like, so long as you know what you’re getting into.
Eddie Riggs is a man, nay, a roadie, born long after his time. The opening cinematic features a pretty good parody of what metal music has become (or what the lead designers at Double Fine believe it to have become), and the events that occur fling Eddie back in time to an archaic past that could only have been born within the mind of Tim Schaffer. It features a song called Girlfriend by a (made-up, I have to assume) band called Kabbage Boy, and I encourage everyone to look that up, if only because it compares the ‘fineness’ of the titular girlfriend with that of a porcupine.
It doesn’t waste any time getting you into the combat, calling for you to pick up a mysterious axe (“The Separator”) and your guitar from home (more humbly called “Clementine”). It then also hardly pauses before introducing the vehicle element, as Eddie assembles “The Druid Plow” to make a speedy escape into a boss battle (which at that point seems like it might be a staple for the game, but in reality is one of about three) before driving into the open word environment. From there the progression is rather slower as it introduces each unit and the aspects of play which you’ll need to be familiar with for the final third of the single player, and all of the multiplayer.
Thus, we get to the beating heart of Brütal Legend, which is decidedly RTS. It bucks a lot of the trends that are common in RTS games, but it doesn’t throw enough of them off to call itself something new. I have to say, it’s not terribly bad, but there’s certainly problems with cohesion as far as this package goes. For one, as an RTS with three playable factions, the single player game effectively acts as a tutorial for a single side, the Ironheade army. It’s not a huge issue, but it makes jumping into a multiplayer match as the other two quite daunting and confusing, as they differ drastically in play style. Another issue is the guitar solos. Effectively acting as magic, Eddie can pull out his guitar with the right trigger, bringing up a radial menu to select a solo (in any other fantasy world, it’d be called a ‘spell’), which then triggers a rhythm game sequence to complete it. It definitely feels like there’s at least one step too many in that at the best of times, and downright irritating to bust out during a battle. They also seem rather ill-conceived in the dual contexts of single player overworld and battles, and the radial menu will forever have an option missing in the multiplayer games to reflect this.
What Brütal Legend really excels at is the creation of the story and the world it take place in. Roaming around the world are various forms of wildlife, and porcupines with quills made of steel are as tame as it gets. The landscape is peppered with epic monuments, all of which look like they were inspired by a fifteen year old metal-heads high school text book doodles in a good way. There are plenty of collectable to keep you exploring, but by far and away my favourite was the lore-keeper statuettes. Once you find one of the 12 or so of these statues, the tale of this worlds creation and early days unfolds, telling of the Titans, the fire beast Ormagoden, the tainted coil and Atulia; it’s an exceptionally well crafted fable of the primordial age of the world, showing that Tim Schaffer and whatever protégés he’s currently grooming at Double Fine are at the top of their story-telling game.
Assisting in the weaving of any worthwhile yarn is the voice actors, and if they sound familiar, it’s because it’s a mixture of voice actors with solid careers of lending their voices to games, and real world metal luminaries. Richard Horvitz, the voice of Raz, makes a cameo appearance during the intro, with a subtle nod to his former role, doing the Raz victory dance. Lemmy, Ozzy, and Rob Halford all have decently sized roles, whilst the lead of Eddie Riggs is taken by Jack Black. All of their performances are really good, although this is partially thanks to the characters being caricatures rather than wholly original works. Jennifer Hale and Tim Curry fill out the videogame voice veteran cast, and the latter does an incredible job in the role of Doviculus, the emperor of The Tainted Coil, to the point where I wanted to see him involved further in the storyline, but as it is, perhaps part of the greatness of his performance is the moderation in which it’s served to the audience.
Brutal Legend is a mixture of several different games, and it would have to be rare for them all to hit the right notes in one person. The story and world that has been created here however manage to keep this products head and shoulders well out of the waters of mediocrity. It’s bittersweet though; I know it’s a media overrun with sequels, but, damn I’d love some more Psychonauts…