Six years ago a friend of mine introduced me to death metal. It was Opeth’s Bleak, a 9-minute opus that raped my ears with heavy guitars, technical drumming, and unpleasant growling. At the time the roaring vocalist was too abrasive, but the intensity and layered wall of sound spoke to me. The interest began as a curiosity, but after listening to more and more, the devil’s claws dug in and I never looked back.
As time went on I explored the many genres of metal; from the abrasive rush of thrash, to the technicality of death metal, and the operatic insanity of black metal. Metal became my comfort food – it relaxed me, made the days at work pass more quickly, and provided the perfect soundtrack for racing games.
But not everyone can tolerate all that noise, and my (now ex) girlfriend bears those same sensitive ears I once had. So as we shared music, I became more interested in artists like Phoenix, Grizzly Bear, Girltalk and Justice. I slowly drifted away from my favorite genre. The sounds of thumping double bass gave way to plucking acoustic guitars and pulsing electronica. Gravelly, soul-crushing brutality was replaced with heartfelt lyrics of love and loss.
Maybe Metal was just a phase, maybe I had grown up a bit. At least that’s what I thought until Brutal Legend came along.
Double Fine’s tribute to all things metal is not only one of the most charming games to come along since their last game, but it sports an epic, 70+ song soundtrack. These songs aren’t just for the game’s driving sections either. They’re thoughtfully crafted into moments of the story, hitting just the right notes at just the right moments. The result: several perfect gaming moments – the kinds where interaction, visuals, and audio cues culminate to send chills down your spine.
But again, all the noise isn’t for everyone and neither is the gameplay. Brutal Legend begins as a character action game but moves on to open-world driving and eventually strategy. In fact, the entire single player game slowly feeds in elements of the multiplayer stage battles, working as a robust tutorial for what Double Fine always intended to be the meat of the game.
As the game moves on it dips deeper and deeper into a mix of action combat and RTS strategy that can feel a little daunting. Taking it a step further and going online is akin to your first time learning a new board game. It’s foreign, it’s different, and you should embrace it because it’s excitingly fresh. For me, the game clicked as I ran over the hills of one of the earlier single player missions – my chosen warriors, a squad of headbangers, ran by my side as I rushed into a crowd of hair metal punks. It was a Braveheart moment wrapped up in great music and a backdrop of metal album art.
For others, the game may click elsewhere, or for some, not at all – that’s just reality. But its important to accept that this isn’t just some open-world adventure with spats of combat. Brutal Legend’s stage battles will force you to play something outside of your comfort zone – sometimes it’ll be the game’s fault, as it doesn’t always ease you into new techniques, but sometimes you’ll have to just stick with it. And if you do, you’ll eventually get that moment where everything clicks and the journey will feel worth the reward.
Why go to all this trouble? Well besides eventually taking your skills online, you’ll also get an excellent story. Each battle comes with a treat at the end: more insight into characters you’ll actually care about.
The game stars Eddie Riggs, a roadie who’s violently transported into a metal universe. Disenchanted with the modern world of music, he seems to think this is actually pretty awesome. And when he meets the adorably gothic Ophelia, a crush becomes a more legitimate reason to stick around. You quickly learn the plight of Ophelia and her faction of old-school heavy metal headbangers, forced into labor by the hair-metal-inspired LionWhyte and the creepy, leather-clad lord of industrial metal, Doviculus.
Eddie joins the crew and from there it’s your goal to free the slaves and rebel against LionWhyte. With this task you’re left to wander the land, a massive mix of doom and gloom and a rainbow of color. Brutal Legend’s environments are beautiful, epic, and filled with nooks and crannies.
It’s just too bad there isn’t more to do in them. Sidequests are quick and fun but comically repetitive, repeating the same exact objectives over a dozen times. There’s hidden collectibles too, but there’s so many and you need so few to unlock all your abilities that the only incentive is the achievement.
At least, that’s the only tangible incentive. The thing is, as much as I look down on the lack of variety critically, I still had a blast driving around for hours trying to unlock everything. The car controls, the soundtrack, and the art direction all make Brutal Legend fun to simply exist in well after the story has run its course.
That story is also so good it’ll leave you pining for more. The characterization combined with almost Pixar-caliber animation lends a lot of heart and charm to what is often a pretty dark story. It’s a fairy tale for the devil-horned crowd – one that leverages its epic, metal stylings for some truly emotional highs and lows. I can honestly say I miss these characters, and I’ll return to their land again and again just to hang out with them some more.
If there’s any one major criticism I’d level against the game it’s that its multiplayer is not the highlight as originally intended. It’s there, it’s fun, and it offers a ton of depth beyond the single-player, but it still feels ancillary. In a world where Modern Warfare and Halo pull in the majority of the online community, Double Fine really needed to go above and beyond the call of duty, so to speak. As it stands, it’s just another mode, one that not enough people are going to play.
The actual gameplay is great, a completely unique hybrid of action and strategy with three factions to choose from. Each faction offers several options and plays completely differently. Plus the way their strengths and weaknesses play off of each other forces you to constantly learn and adapt, adding layers to your tactics as you face smarter opponents.
The bottom line is this: Brutal Legend is one of those troublesome divisive games that not everyone is going to love. It has quirks and faults, but more than anything it’s about as approachable as the music it glorifies. In much the same way that I found metal to be a tough sell and eventually learned to love it, I had my initial misgivings about Brutal Legend and now I consider it one of the best games I’ve played in years.