Oct 302009

A music fan, particularly a fan of a musical style that has acquired additional cultural trappings, asserts individuality by membership in a group. The contradiction has given rise to familiar parent-teenager fight scenes in a hundred tired family dramedies. Though the story stays the same from decade to decade, the music changes, and understanding the fan means understanding not just the sense of community brought by any fandom, but also the vital energy of the musical style itself. The engine of Tim Schafer’s Brütal Legend rumbles with the energy of heavy metal. Unfortunately, it never really roars to life.

More than enough has been said about the world of Brütal Legend, a land of heavy metal album imagery brought to life. The aesthetic is somewhat divergent, because metal has a fascination with both medieval fantasy and modern road machines. What unifies these interests is the desire for power and recognition, as articulated through archaic battle ideals and contemporary engine tuning. The game’s protagonist, Eddie Riggs, plays into this idea because although he is an extremely capable roadie, he is forced to use his talents in unrecognized service to a particularly irritating faux-metal group of recent vintage. When he is transported to the world of real metal he has the opportunity not only to use his talents in service to his preferred kind of rock, but also to put down the forces that corrupted it in his life.

Although the world of Brütal Legend has dozens of opportunities for side missions, their repetitious nature means that the most interesting gameplay lies in the linear main story. Many of the encounters in that quest involve “Stage Battles”, where Riggs commands a rock army fueled by the adulation of merch-hungry fans. This came as a surprise to me, as the demo had led me to believe that the game would be more in the vein of a third-person action/adventure. And, in all honesty, my utter incompetence at the stage battles eventually caused me to be thankful that I could change the difficulty mid-game. Still, the stage battles gave me the impression that they were meant to generate the feeling of individual and group empowerment that lies at the core of the metal experience. Giving the player control of an individual leading an army of headbangers and chopper-mounted warriors creates an opportunity to charge into battle at the head of a rock’n’roll army.

In practice, however, this doesn’t work out. It’s not that the stage battles are completely broken, it’s just that the sum of a dozen little things makes them much less fun than they should be. Ordering individual units or groups of units to attack specific points is often advantageous but too much of a chore. Figuring out where you’re being attacked, or where your troops even are, is often too difficult. If you distribute your forces across several different objectives or locations you will rapidly become overwhelmed by the task of trying to command them all effectively. Even when you hook up with them, actually charging into battle with them is a tough timing trick: your allies never quite seem to keep your pace, always running a bit behind or a bit ahead.

Beyond the mechanical issues, the problem with the stage battles is that nobody is on the stage. The internal fiction of Riggs as an unappreciated roadie falls apart because everyone, including the putative leaders of the human rebellion, takes orders directly from him. Thus, the late attempt to bring the story back around to the idea of Riggs as a behind-the-scenes player rather than an acknowledged hero feels implausible and unearned, especially given that his head prominently adorns a nearby mountain. Brütal Legend has the roadie, but not the band, and you need both if you’re going to have a real rock concert.

Brütal Legend doesn’t hang around for long, which is fine, but it cuts off abruptly, as if in mid-story, and that is not fine. More than half of the game’s missions flesh out a conflict with hair-band avatar Lionwhyte, a relatively minor player, and most of those are tutorials to one degree or another. The rest of the game concerns a series of battles with the forces of the Drowned Doom, representative of the dramatic excesses of the goth scene. Then, within moments after their defeat, the player is dropped into the final boss fight against the demon lord Doviculus, leader of the Tainted Coil. Aside from the jarring shift to fighting a new, totally unfamiliar enemy, this smash cut into the final battle sells the whole conflict with the forces of the Tainted Coil short. The danger that Lionwhyte and the Drowned Doom pose to the world, and their relationship to real-life corruptions of the “metal” ethos, are pretty clearly developed, but Doviculus and the Tainted Coil get very little of this, and none of it is experienced through play. In essence it feels like a third of the game got cut out.

The story that remains is of uneven quality. The game’s early segments are tightly written, and draw humor from the plausible behavior of well-realized characters. The excesses of heavy metal imagery and modern music are played for laughs, but not in a mean-spirited way. The writers know that we know that sometimes heavy metal takes itself too seriously, and play that angle up. Then the writers go and fall into the same trap, and start to focus less on the amusing adventures of Eddie Riggs and more on the serious business of the game’s plot. This would be fine, except that Brütal Legend falls firmly into the class of stories where nobody says the few obvious and reasonable words that would solve all their problems, until the buzzer goes off and it is Time To Explain The Story before the final boss battle. The sharp comedic writing of the introductory segment slowly oozes out of the script, leaving only flaccid melodrama by the end. You can laugh at that, perhaps, but not with it.

For a fan, a musical style is an important part of an individual personality, but it is also a key way of identifying with a group. You can’t really capture the essence of the allure of heavy metal without incorporating both those aspects, and Brütal Legend‘s curious mix of play styles may well be the best way to deal with this dichotomy in a game. Unfortunately, art that addresses contradictory ideas often turns out to be contradictory in its own right, and this is the fate that befalls Brütal Legend. The third-person action never sits quite right with the tactical elements, and the advantages of the game’s open world are offset by the repetitive nature of the side-missions. The writing switches from self-aware comedy to self-absorbed melodrama, much to its detriment, and the game tries unsuccessfully to set Riggs up as both roadie and frontman. Despite these problems, there is much to praise in Brütal Legend, especially its bold gameplay choices and the striking realization of heavy metal imagery in its open world. While it fails to realize its full potential, it at least succeeds in being interesting, and that alone is worthy of recognition.

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