Tim Schafer has made his mark on games by creating titles that ooze originality, pack more content-per-pound than few developers even attempt, and release at a time when the industry generally needs a little shaking up. His latest outing, Brutal Legend, tries its best to follow in these footsteps, with a hard rock-infused plot and cast, a metric ton of gameplay elements, and Jack Black voicing a main character at a time when steroid-addicted guys with guns seem to be the norm. But while Brutal Legend is original and entertaining, it delivers the goods only in a superficial sense, and it lacks the one thing that’s made Schafer’s previous outing so excellent: charm.
There’s a big difference between character, originality and charm, and it’s not until you’re halfway through Brutal Legend that you really stop to think about that difference. Brutal Legend and its cast absolutely ooze character. I mean really, a hard-rock roadie as the main character gets sucked into an alternate dimension of headbangers, teams-up with some wayward sons who are basically trying to save rock from itself, and does battle against the demon-like beings (and a general) that are all inspired by rock legends and innuendo. Yeah, it’s safe to say this story and character lineup are original. Other than these set pieces, though, Brutal Legend lacks the same level of originality, and its cast, environments and gameplay, though creative, aren’t nearly as charming as their corollaries in Psychonauts, for example. Originality is good, but unless it connects with players via a certain level of charm, originality just falls flat. And that, in my opinion, is what happens with Brutal Legend.
Eddie Riggs, the main character in Brutal Legend, has all manner of attacks and special moves available to him, from melee to distance to some that border on magic. He has a roadster-like car to traverse the massive semi-open world. There are “mini-games” spread throughout that world including races and save-the-dude type missions. But amid all the options, I couldn’t help but feel as though I’d played this game before, and in about 15 different flavors. Whereas Schafer’s previous games have had a laser-like focus on a few gameplay elements that help advance the story, Brutal Legend’s focus seems to be on its characters and cast — which epitomize and caricature hard rock — while dozens of gameplay elements were thrown in just for the sake of providing variety.
For instance, the game world in Brutal Legend is absolutely huge, but driving from primary mission to primary mission feels tedious and really takes away from the need/desire/demand to always be in the The Energy RC-Micro home theater system delivered the sound for this review.action. The various power-ups players have at their disposal — including a gameplay mechanic by which players enter a 10-second Guitar Hero-like mini-game to activate special powers — seem far too numerous and lack relevance half the time. Then there are the RTS elements, which are so poorly executed that it makes you wonder why Double Fine put so much focus on them in the game at all. Really, it’s like the development team got so caught up in having more content-per-pound in Brutal Legend that they just threw things in for the sake of a feature set. Sure, there’s plenty of stuff to do in Brutal Legend. Yes, it’s all based religiously on the world of hard rock. Of course, Jack Black brings some one-liners that’ll make you laugh out loud at times. But put it all together, and the game’s pretty vanilla. You’ve played it all before, just in a different wrapper.
Other “me too” games — and let’s face it, that’s largely what Brutal Legend is in terms of gameplay — overcome this feeling through the charm of their characters. But “charm” requires the characters to resonate with gamers on a different (more emotional?) level that goes beyond just “that’s original, and it fits within the confines of the game concept.” Brutal Legend has all the pieces, and in fact it might even have too many, but none of them seem to jive, and the ones that matter most — the characters — completely fail to connect with players on any level deeper than a one-off joke. As a result, all those pieces that fill the world and gameplay of Brutal Legend fall flat.
It’d be too harsh to say Brutal Legend falls flat, because the game’s not exactly a stinker. But the whole in this case actually isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, leaving Brutal Legend to feel like nothing more than an “average” game. By any other standard, that’s fine, but for Tim Schafer and the team at Double Fine, I expected a more. In two words, I expected “charm” and “cohesion.” The characters are there, the consistency is there and the original concept is there. But the “personal” connection and charm that endeared me and thousands of other gamers to titles like Psychonauts is not there, and the individual gameplay elements just aren’t executed well enough or seamlessly enough to really compel you to keep going. Unless you’re absolutely die-hard about hard rock and heavy metal, Brutal Legend is one game you can relegate to a rental.
- Score: 7.3
— Jonas Allen