Brutal Legend with its heavy metal theme and aesthetics feels like a game made just for me. The licensed soundtrack, which has over 70 songs, features tracks from a wide range of metal genres. But apart from its unique theme and cast of Jack Black, Ozzy Osbourne, Jennifer Hale and Lemmy, is it a good game, or is it style over substance?
Before I touch on the mechanics, I cannot heap enough praise upon the overall presentation of the game. With a cartoonish style, the visuals have not held up incredibly well over the past 8 years and playing at 1440p, it looks and performs far better than I remember the PS3 version being. The world of Brutal Legend is an epic fantasy setting and one of the most unique in video games, owing to its heavy metal theme. All the landmarks are striking and could have been ripped straight from the covers of power and thrash metal albums. One of the first areas of the game, Blade Henge, looks like an extended version of the real stone sword monuments in Norway. Trees in this world are actually scaffolding, there are panthers that shoot lasers out of their eyes at you, weird BDSM monsters, spiders whose web doubles as bass strings and all sorts of creative creatures and allied unit types that range from thick headed headbangers, to roadies and big bouncer looking dudes with small heads and large fists, as well as featuring swamps with amazonian warriors that look like they started in the KISS Army.
In terms of the writing, this game is from the time when Tim Schafer still had it and wasn’t so involved with political game dev cliques. The writing, in combination with with excellent vocal performances is sharp and witty and the narrative is a simple good versus evil epic with a heart of romance. It isn’t perfectly paced and there are a few plotholes, but it is engaging nevertheless. And it made me laugh and smile much like the headbanging tunes that played in battles or as I zipped around the map. The background lore is also quite cool and is pretty much The Gods Made Heavy Metal by Manowar. The writing also takes a few shots at nu metal and glam metal, although I would have liked to see some more black metal parody.
Now to how the game actually plays. There are three pillars here: hack n slash combat, open world exploration and RTS battles.
In regards to the hack n slash elements, it is quite basic and is closer to 3D Legend of Zelda games as opposed to something like Devil May Cry 3 but it is functional and violently stylish. Left mouse is to melee attack, right mouse is to do a ranged attack with the guitar. You can block and also individually target, as well as roll away but I felt these slightly clunky on the mouse and keyboard. I wanted to play this game with a controller but I had a strange technical issue where the left trigger and right analogue sticks would not function and I used two separate controllers that work on everything else. Targeting is kind of dodgy.
There are special attacks, like the face melter for instance, that never get old and work like a basic rhythm mini game. The omission of a jump button is quite strange but the world was designed in a way where it isn’t really needed so it isn’t too much of an issue. The combat system is fun enough but it still feels a bit shallow button mashy and underdeveloped.
In regards to the open world, it feels very small since you can drive around it very fast. If you’re on foot it might feel large but then you’d be missing out on listening to half the soundtrack whilst going fast in a vehicle that becomes more aesthetically ridiculous (in the best way possible) as you progress through the game. Outside of story missions, there are collectibles that all feel tangibly linked to the progression or theme of the game, so it is not useless bullshit like the flags in the first Assassin’s Creed. There are a few side missions, but there were only two that had any kind of side story content. Maybe I’ve just been spoiler by The Witcher 3. In any case, the open world, despite being visually impressive has little in the way of content besides the same three side missions over and over again. These days we complain about open worlds that are too big, but considering the vehicle in this game as the main means of transportation and the allure of the game’s licensed soundtrack, the world could stand to be a bit larger to bolster the sound track and epic scale.
The RTS battles caught many people by surprise when the game first came out. But really, they aren’t so bad. There are a good variety of distinct units with specific purposes, but considering this RTS battle system was designed around a console controller , it can feel a bit awkward and to any RTS veterans, it is definitely lacking in depth, at least in the campaign on normal difficulty. There are a few battles which are fun enough, but only one where I had to use a specific strategy and the strategy is more about build orders than anything else. One nice feature is being able to wade into battle yourself to help out your troops with a quick face melter to a group of enemies or crash the Hindenberg on your enemies.
Brutal Legend is strikingly confident in its tone, theme and aesthetics and feels like the work of people who truly love metal. On the other hand, mechanics wise, it is pulled in so many directions and all of them are underdeveloped. Thankfully, the relatively short campaign length of 4-8 hours is in this game’s favour, for if the campaign was 20 hours, the mechanics would not be able to hold up the campaign. What is important, however, is that the game, despite my gripes, made me laugh, smile and bang my head a few times. If you’ve ever enjoyed metal in your life and you can get this game for a good price, it is definitely worth a run. If you’ve never enjoyed metal or call all metal ‘screamo’, then this sure as shit is not for you.