Zack Kotzer of the arts and culture zine Steel Bananas returns to review Tim Schafer’s heavy metal action/RTS Brütal Legend.
Over the years fans have tended to let down Tim Schafer more often than not. He delivered onto us fantastic and creative worlds, overflowing with wit and dark humour. Each an underappreciated gem. Now here we are, three decades in and only now does it seems that Tim may have finally found himself a commercial success. It was a rockin’ rocky road, but after being picked up by Electronic Arts (who contractually have every employee tattoo “Cash Money in the Bank” on their arms) and then sprinkled with a plethora of marketable voice talent, Brütal Legend may just finally wipe the gloomy cloud of starvin’ artist woes that have haunted Schafer for so long. But what do you care, blog reading, indie-proud game enthusiast? You already knew you’d give Schafer your winning lotto ticket anyways, in more of a matter of politics than preference. Instead we find ourselves in a new shade of black. Does big company backing mean Schafer has sold out on us, sacrificing honour for dollars, or just given the money to properly craft his vision? The answer, dear readers, is that Brütal Legend is not the groundbreaking, heart-coiling new Schafer title like his previous efforts. And here’s the twist, it wasn’t due to selling out, oh no. It appears the creative vision is the devil behind this sour note.
One thing that hasn’t given out is Schafer’s knack for shaping amazing worlds. From Grim Fandango to Maniac Mansion, Schafer has always crafted games whose realms tended to be more addictive than their gameplay. The same is true fourfold for Legend. After dying onstage, seasoned roadie Eddie Riggs is sent to a world where the power of metal is a literal power. Harnessing heavy riffs, Eddie Riggs leads the bright eyed, dark clothed humans on a rock revolution to overthrow their demonic oppressors. The environments are a variety of metal inspired monuments. Metal vets will be flattered by the “Dry Ice Mines” and a never-ending wall made of amps, though I’m a little puzzled as to which school of metal the jungle world was based on. It all feels fleshed out, despite its cartoonish appearance, there’s a full and intricate origin story that unravels throughout the game. The impact is only deepened by the personas scattered throughout. The dialogue, as totally expected, hooks you. Every line is charming and some will stick with you and your metalhead friends for weeks. The voice acting is superb, Lemmy Kilmister’s raspy machismo is always welcome, Ozzy Osbourne is not only coherent but suave and hilarious. To top it all off, Jack Black delivers a surprisingly layered performance instead of the constant yelling of “METAL ROCK” so many were nervously expecting. The metal-bound soundtrack, while lacking some obvious omissions like Danzig, Pentagram and Witchfinder General, has a little bit of something for everyone. Even more metal is the use of particular songs; By which I mean Ozzy songs. I can see Schafer, sitting in his chair, head bobbing to Sabbath thinking of scenarios to accompany each opus. There’s one mission where Eddie escorts his traveling party through a misty swamp while Diary of a Madman plays, and the moment feels so right and so perfect you just want to make a shrine for it.
No, it is not the skin and voice that are rotting in Brütal Legend, but the flesh inside. The game starts out as a basic though coherent action adventure, with driving and fighting all simple and functional. About a fifth of the way in the game will introduce the real time strategy elements you’ve probably heard about by now. While the RTS isn’t necessarily broken, it’s simply uninteresting. The idea of a literal battle of the bands is a great concept, but in execution it just feels like an interruption. To best describe the missions, they are somewhere in between a typical RTS like Command & Conquer and something like Dynasty Warriors. You manage resources, create and command units, but you also participate in the fray yourself. But the experience does not feel nearly coherent enough, and doesn’t hold a match, never mind a candle to deeper RTS games. Battles feel decided within the first minute, grabbing the bulk of resources (or fans) early tends to make the clash too much of an uphill battle for your opponent. Most units seem to lack specific purpose, though that won’t end up mattering because commanding specific units is too fickle a process and you’ll probably just send loot bags of units towards any task. To make matters worse, most of your units often seem helpless on their own. Combat too often depends on you swooping in to either melt the enemy’s collective faces off with a guitar riff or just conduct a series of hit n’ runs with your hot rod. Only being able to command units you are nearby makes sense, but a fairly static camera makes it tough to even tell where about your units are. It’s more of a CD sampler of an RTS than a fluid double LP.
I can see where Schafer was aiming with his genre collage, but while Grim Fandango and company excelled at being adventure games and Psychonauts passed off as a creative platformer, Legend simply feels muddled compared to other games like it. Even the non-RTS elements don’t feel sharp as the axe it grips. The environments, while colourful, are crowded, and while exploration is encouraged through a plethora of hidden collectibles, straying off the beaten path can be intimidating, due to becoming lost or getting wedged in a glitch. There were a few times my car was launched into the ether by some bizarre obstacle inspired physics hiccup. The non-RTS side missions, which there are plenty of, suffer from repetition, and worse yet it seems that the most uninteresting quests are also the most frequent.
Legend isn’t some abomination. Heck, I’d even call it a good game, if a little disappointing. It just doesn’t feel as complete as other Schafer ventures. The ending of the game hits hard and fast, as if they suddenly ran out of rope. Schafer even leaves a dreaded number of “sequel questions” looming around once everything is said and done. You’ll be glad to play it, but sad it didn’t feel like something more. This won’t tarnish Schafer’s reputation, it’s just not his magum opus. As with Electric Wizard, y’know? Can’t all be Dopethrone, but it deserves a heavy spin.