Reviews

New Growth – Brutal Review of Brütal Legend

Brütal Legend may have come out on console in 2009, but in this house that means nothing. It made its PC debut just a few weeks ago, so after all these years I’ve finally had a chance to delve into it.

Like Metalocalypse before it, Brütal Legend brings to life the ridiculous excess and gore-encrusted splendor of capital-M Metal. That two completely disparate pieces of visually stunning and aurally arresting pop-culture can come from plumbing the depths of Metal just goes to show how deep those quarries go… But as a game, is Brütal Legend any good?

Short answer: No.

Long answer:

Visual design has always been one of Double Fine’s strong points. Imaginatively-rich, visually distinctive worlds populated by Pixar-bright-yet-human characters is basically their calling card, and with Brütal Legend they certainly don’t disappoint. Everything in the game world is distinctly metal and distinctly Double Fine – from the flora and fauna to the ancient relics that lay beneath the ground, to the NPCs and the landscape – the design of every individual element is perfect, and they’re brought together seamlessly to create a perfect metal-fantasy world.

With Brütal Legend’s main character Eddie Riggs, Jack Black has found the role he was born to play; the man obviously knows and loves his metal, the humour-rich script makes him an obvious choice and he nails the wisdom, naivety and pure excitement of the character. His superb voice acting is matched by the soundtrack which is filled to the brim with brilliant metal tracks – it’s like a GTA, except you’re always on the good radio station.

Where the game falls short is in the actual game part. That sounds like I’m trying to be wry and witty, but I’m completely serious. The world and writing of Brütal Legend are so fantastic that if it were a movie it could potentially be one of my favourite films of all time. As it is, the bits of game feel too much like chores you have to do to get to the next good bit, ie the next story beat.

In melee combat, the enemies take too many hits to kill, making it a slow, repetitive affair. I’m certain this was done to discourage tanking and encourage the player to embrace the RTS elements of the game, but when a design decision leads to less fun, then perhaps you need to rethink your design.

RTS gameplay for controllers has never worked out – either the controls are awkward, overly-complex, slow, or some combination thereof, or otherwise the gameplay is simplified to such an extent that you wonder why you’re even bothering to play an RTS. Brütal Legend suffers from both sides of this equation – it’s simple and slow compared to any ‘real’ RTS and the controls are still clunky. It’s slightly better on PC, but it’s still just trying to emulate a gamepad with KBM as opposed to being a whole new, custom control scheme.

The driving and exploration portion of the game are fine, if a little soured by the sheer number of collectibles that litter the world, distracting you from enjoying it and reminding you that THIS IS A GAME! COLLECT SHINY THINGS! COLLECT THEM ALL!

I haven’t delved into the multiplayer yet, so if that is surprisingly good I’ll post some thoughts about that to balance this piece, but frankly I’m not expecting much. If the RTS sections are the worst part of Brütal Legend’s single player campaign, then turning them into the multiplayer would be like having a game mode in Call of Duty multiplayer where you run down grey corridors and wait for someone else to open a door for you.

The craziest thing about Brütal Legend is that it got made at all, and that it got made in conjunction with a massive publisher, because it’s so far from the usual ‘safe’ bullshit that publishers bankroll. On the flipside I can’t help but wonder how so many people saw, played and signed off on a game that simply isn’t very much fun.
If they had looked around for some mechanical inspiration they might have realised that Dynasty Warriors is a game they could learn a lot from – huge armies, strategic concerns, and fast, fluid melee combat that lets you feel like a badass without making you a god. Or better yet, a third-person DOTA-like in the Brütal Legend world could have been phenomenal.

With the final product we have here, it seems like Double Fine had a design document that said they were going to meld third-person action and top-down RTS, and when it became obvious that it wasn’t working they couldn’t change anything… because design doc.
It’s frustrating, because it’s a game I love and hate in equal measure. I love the design, the world they’ve built and Jack Black, but I hate actually playing the game. All we’re left with is an acute case of the Couldabeens.

Recommendations:

  • Play on easy. You aren’t coming here for the combat, and it’ll just make those sections between the good bits go that much faster.
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