Brütal Legend was Tim Schafer and Double Fine’s follow-up to the cult classic Psychonauts, and tragically denied a PC release. Only now, four years late, it’s suddenly got one. A strange, very hard-to-describe hybrid of hack’n’slash action, real-time strategy and open-world racing/exploring, it’s also an unabashed love letter to the golden age of heavy metal: a tale of a Jack Black-voiced roadie finding himself transported to a fantasy world of demonic tyranny and rock imagery. With a mixed reception on console, will its strategic elements and ramped-up graphics make it a better fit on PC? If you like to gamble, I tell you I’m your man.
It does help to know what you’re in for. On Brütal Legend’s initial console release 41 years ago, the world was rubbing its hands in anticipation for Devil May Cry with a hairy, sweary guy. Now we know full well that Double Fine’s follow-up to Psychonauts is in fact a real-time strategy game of sorts, so it’s hardly a shock when the camera zooms out and twatting hell-beasts on the head with an axe and a guitar plays second fiddle to ordering squads of roadies, fire-breathing cat-bear-things and Lemmys around large, open battleifields. That makes the PC, which it has finally made itself available on, its ideal home, right? Right? It’s… complicated.
I like Brütal Legend a lot. It makes me feel happy, and it makes me feel entirely enthused by two things I normally don’t have much time for, heavy metal and Jack Black. Essentially, I recommend it. But I also feel it’s a failure. While historically that accusation is because it confusingly turns from a hack’n’slash brawler into an RTS about three hours in, that’s not really the problem here. The issue is that Brütal Legend is an idea in search of a game design. In fact, it’s even more nebulous than that: it’s raw enthusiasm in search of a game design. If it was an RTS through and through it might well have been an excellent one which, in its unhinged unit design, soul-feeding and in-battle player perspective, evoked the wonderful Sacrifice.
As it is, the RTS element is just one small, rough-edged part of grasshopper-brained whole, a cavalcade of “wouldn’t it be cool if…” indulgences, few of which are as fleshed out as they really needed to be. It’s a game which oozes pleasant signs of both a lavish budget and unfettered freedom to try out whatever the devs and artists thought would be cool. “Racing bits!” “Turret sections!” “Panthers which fire lasers from their eyes!” “Bits where you can fly!” “An open world!” “God of War stuff!” “Real-time strategy!” Approved, approved, approved, approved, approved, someone in charge decided.
I can respect that, especially in a game whose ethos and personality is basically Andrew WK’s: now it’s time to party and we’ll party hard. This is a game that wants to bearhug you, then turn to the sunset, raise a fist proudly in the air and bellow “let’s go fucking nuts!” at the skies.
I want to go fucking nuts. I’m just not sure that ropey, weightless buggy-driving, RTS army control that doesn’t go any deeper than essentially Everyone Go Over There and a spectacular open world where you die if you touch water and the only thing to do outside of the storyline is cloned minigames offers me the scope to go fucking nuts that it thinks it does. Brütal Legend’s cooks might be wearing awesome leather jackets and playing guitar riffs loud enough to wake the devil, but there are still too damn many of ’em at the expense of fully fleshing out any particular aspect.
It’s funny, I can see so many similarities to Psychonauts, in that both games are led primarily by their story, art design and characterisation, and essentially force the ‘game’ element to fit into and around those. In any discussion of story in games, many of us tend to call for that – to get the story right first, rather than awkwardly fit it into the gaps after the game is made. In Psychonauts it worked, because it had a solid core of being a (sometimes infuriating) platformer cut from Mario 64’s three-dimensional cloth, and when its story necessitated coming up with something alternative in order to realise its wonderful madness – Lungfishopolis, the Milkman Conspiracy – it was done as wildly inventive and welcome diversion.
Brütal Legend, by contrast, is all diversion, made up only of aspects which probably should have been throwaway but end up taking perhaps undue importance because there isn’t a clear, solid game design at the heart of it all.
It’s not an RTS: there are RTS bits in there, and like the driving elements and the open world aspect those bits just don’t quite stand up on their own. The ever-flipping, ever-spinning buggy you can summon to drive at any point is frequently a headache to control, while its weapons’ unreliable auto-aim rams home that sense of not really being in control. The strategy bits are too badly hampered in the name of making them work on a gamepad, with the opportunity to add much-needed stuff like per-squad control and hotkeys (I know, I know, I’m making RPS a parody of itself) for the PC version sadly not taken. The battles look great and there’s a wide variety of reliably silly, art-staff-gone-wild units, but I quickly found myself dreading the irregular junctures they’d arrive at.
I knew it meant a tiresome grind, flying back and forth from spawnpoint to frontline as your units will only accept orders if you’re next to them at the time, grimly churning up reinforcements with little concern over what type there were, just trying to keep the numbers up during a tiring push’n’pull devoid of any granular control: a war simply of attrition, not strategy.
If you’ll forgive me hitching a ride to cliché city, Brütal Legend is more than the sum of its parts, but that’s only because most of the parts just aren’t that great, so at least combining them dilutes individual failings. The tone, the humour, the character and world design are, and that lifts the whole thing enormously. Even Hollywood’s go-to obnoxious dude, Jack Black, here turns in a surprisingly restrained performance that allows both quickfire, leftfield-meets-rock-bro wit and warm humanity to come through. Perhaps it’s because his character Eddie Riggs, although very much the hero of the piece, is also a roadie – someone who only wants to support the band, not grab the mic themselves, and that tempers Black’s usual stage-hogging excess.
I can appreciate Tim Schafer’s sentiments when he says God of War wasn’t what he wanted to make, but it is odd that that the hacky-slashy aspect of the game is the most fully-formed and with it the most enjoyable. Why kick off with three hours of that stuff, and indeed keep on returning to it, instead of striving harder to make the RTS stuff bloody brilliant, if that was Double Fine’s real intention?
I really like Brütal Legend anyway. It’s so damned enthusiastic, never taking anything seriously, never missing an opportunity for a gag, an absurd sight or a playfully reverential nod to heavy metal tropes. I’ve seen enough game-worlds full of demonic imagery to last a thousand uninspired lifetimes, but Brütal Legend’s reason for including horns and boneyards and flames and black metal isn’t because it thinks it looks all grimdark and ‘mature’ – it’s because it thinks it’s AWESOME. The game’s entire look is predicated on the belief that 80s metal was/is a crazed, anything-goes cartoon, not a tar-black statement of Satanic intent, and by God it’s infectious. I don’t usually feel anything for metal, but when I play Brütal Legend, I bloody love metal to the very pit of my gnarled and jaded soul.
As it pounds and thuds and screeches and bellows, I feel like it’s answering every question I ever had about anything, and afterwards I mourn that it didn’t play a part in my own adolescence, as it did Schafer’s. The game is a love letter to it, in appearance and ethos as much as in its soundtrack. It looks brilliant on PC too – maybe it shows its age a little, but with draw distances, resolution, frame rate and even some textures ramped up significantly from the console versions it’s a widescreen vision of pure, joyful excess. (Controls haven’t benefited quite as much, by the way – it basically works fine on keyboard and mouse, but it feels like it wants a gamepad.)
Every character, be they human, beast or monster, is either a reference to a trope, movement or particular artist, or is that artist: Lemmy and Ozzy make extended, loveable cameos, as do a bunch of other guys I don’t even know the name of but can’t help respecting the hell out of. The game’s usually open, sprawling, epic-scale world is Spinal Tap album covers made flesh, spectacular and spike and apocalyptic and ridiculous, only unlike the Tap it’s not for a second mocking anything. Exaggeration, not accusation. I don’t think even an Up To 11 gag in here, more than likely because that would raise the dread spectre of satire. This isn’t satire. It’s adoration. The car physics might be a mess, but haring around a bone-strewn desert, glam-themed palace grounds or the Dry Ice Mines in my chrome’n’skull’n’fire buggy as Motorhead blare and goth-zombies splatter under my wheels feels perfect. Until I hit a tiny rock and get instantly rotated 180 degrees and hurled to my immediate doom, anyway.
One of my fondest memories is of Kieron and I escaping some irritating peers on a press trip to Canada to meet up with a friend of his – Phonogram readers will know him as Kid-With-Knife – who owned a military jeep and a Sisters of Mercy cassette. We drove around this unfamiliar town at unwise speeds as Andrew Eldritch and co pounded and thudded and screeched and bellowed, and we drove not to go anywhere, only for the pleasure of driving and loud music. People stared, people frowned, we just turned the noise up. At one point, we even had a brief, high-speed escape from police cars because I was illegally sitting in the jeep’s open back without a seatbelt. Pathetic. Brilliant. What Brütal Legend does best is that feeling, of freedom, power, indulgence and party-time, only of course it’s Yank metal rather than Leeds goth. And, y’know, there are fire-breathing monsters and pin-headed hulks with hands the size of buses.
Brütal Legend looks wonderful, and it feels wonderful, but it isn’t quite wonderful, not really. It’s ideas without an anchor and, I am quite sure, were any developer other than Double Fine attempting to stitch these floating fancies together this game would frequently be intolerable. Fortunately it is Double Fine, and the game’s wit, charm and huge personality, both in writing and in visual style, do turn out to be capable bindings for the loose collective of brainstorming within. I like Brütal Legend in spite of Brütal Legend: as I say, it helps to know what you’re in for. Which isn’t an action game or a real-time strategy game, but instead a party. A party where nothing makes a whole lot of sense, some of the booze tastes awful and the power occasionally cuts out, but screw it. PARTY!