Sunday, October 25, 2009

Review: Brutal Legend (PS3) *8/10*

Brutal Legend is the most recent game from creator Tim Schafer, veteran designer of games such as Grim Fandango and Psychonauts.  Set in an alternate past, modern day roadie Eddie Riggs (voiced by Jack Black) finds himself fighting an ancient evil in the land of heavy metal.  The game is a mix of third person hack-n-slash, vehicular combat, and real time strategy with a dash of RPG.  Brutal Legend is a fairly short game, running roughly ten hours, and the first half of those are slow and largely uninteresting.  Thankfully, the final half of the game makes up the difference.

The game begins with a cut-scene backstage at a concert, where the player is introduced to Eddie.  As a roadie, Eddie is most comfortable behind the scenes and out of the spotlight.  However, stupidity on the part of one of the "artists" leads to an accident in which Eddie is forced to save said artist's life, and is himself pinned beneath falling debris.  Things get interesting at this point, and Eddie wakes up in the land of heavy metal.

For a while after this the story is extremely simple and cliche, not at all the fantastically creative fare that Tim Schafer is known for.  Eddie aligns himself with the first human he happens across, meets up with her cohorts, learns of an oppressive evil, and helps out as only he can.  It is only at the games halfway point, after this initial oppressor is dealt with, that things get interesting.  Thankfully, it does so with gusto.  Character development picks up, there are some nice twists, and the ending is very satisfying.

The characters themselves are sometimes complex and interesting, sometimes shallow and cliche.  Eddie himself is exactly what you would expect from Jack Black in a game, which is generally a good thing, though maybe a bit predictable.  Eddie's cohorts are generally pretty one dimensional with one exception, who isnt explored as much as you might like.  The initial baddie, General Lyonwhite,  looks and acts like David Bowie in the Labyrinth and is easily dismissed.  The REAL threat however, Emperor Dovinculus, is one of the most interesting and sincerely evil feeling villains in recent history.  His visual design is perfect, his writing is excellent, and of course Tim Curry's voice work is the icing on the cake, hearkening back to his little known role in 'Legend' (natch.)  The bonus is the presence of a number of heavy metal personalities doing guest voice work as various minor characters.  Most interesting is probably Ozzy's performance as the Guardian of Metal.  His acting is surprisingly coherent, and genuinely funny.

Graphically Brutal Legend falls into line pretty directly with Tim Schafer's other work.  It is visually interesting, colorful, vibrant, but somewhat lacking in complexity resulting in a cartoony look.  Animation is also a little jerky, contributing to the cartoon feel.  Thankfully it all works, and feels very fitting for the subject matter.  Plot characters are all fairly standard examples of various rock stereotypes, but of course thats the POINT of the game so all is well.  Ally and enemy design have the same ramp-up issue as the story, being bland and uninteresting at first but becoming more and more intriguing and downright cool as the game reaches its final stages.  Environments hit the ramp as well, starting in simple open plains and moving through jungles and haunted woods as the game progresses.  As with the character design, where the visuals shine is in the continuous nods to heavy metal culture.  From ruins and monuments that resemble specific album covers on to jungle creatures called Metal Beasts that strongly resemble a certain long-tongued face-painted lead singer.  The only negative is a tendency for the picture to jitter jarringly during cutscenes.

The audio for Brutal Legend is solid, with good sound effects and voice work that is always good and sometimes excellent.  The big gold star goes to the soundtrack, which consists (of course) of a solid selection of Heavy Metal.

Gameplay itself is divided between travel and combat on foot, travel and combat in vehicles, and 'stage missions' which are a sort of real time strategy minigame.  As the game starts each of these modes feel overly simplistic and unfinished, but improve dramatically as upgrades are acquired.

Foot combat is basic hack and slash with some simple combos.  The uniqueness here comes from Eddie's guitar Clementine, which can be used for magic-like ranged attacks, as well as team attacks with allied units.  For example, Eddie can surround himself with a group of headbangers that act as an offensive shield, or have a razor girl hop on his shoulders to become a powerful ranged attacker.  Even so, combat on foot would probably be a little simplistic if it weren't for guitar solos.  These solos are Eddie's 'super-powers' that are activated with a mini-rhythm game.  They do everything from boosting friendly units, melting enemy faces, to (and yes I'm serious) calling down an awe inspiring fiery zeppelin to do heavy damage to all enemies in the area.  All these dynamics add up to combat that can get repetitive, but is easily and intuitively controlled and doesn't cease to be fun.

The vehicle portions of the game are pretty standard fare.  The Deus, Eddie's hotrod, is initially just a means of conveyance but becomes a formidable death-dealer as upgrades are acquired.  The controls are a little loose, but not problematically so.  The navigation system while driving toward a set destination is interesting and effective.  Aside from the standard glowing beacon that can be seen on the horizon, the Deus' blinkers light to show you the direction you should turn to stay on the best route to the target. The game determines this route for you, staying on major roads and avoiding obstacles.  It's an intuitive and helpful system.  The one negative to mention here is the presence of always annoying escort missions, but in this case they aren't ridiculously difficult and can be enjoyable.

The stage battles are perhaps the most interesting part of the standard gameplay.  In these set piece battles, Eddie takes command of a battlefield.  He can capture resource points (vents in the ground that emit the souls of fans, which are tapped with merch booths), build units, and issue orders.  The basic idea is to capture all the resource points and throw your units at the opposing stronghold, joining in the battle and using special guitar solos to help when necessary.  Eddie is given wings during these battles which allows rapid movement around the terrain.  It's an interesting system, one which will feel very familiar to anyone that ever played Giants: Citizen Kabuto or other such games.  Unfortunately, the strategic depth is all but non-existent and so these battles are more or less a grind to work through to get the story moving again.  This is problematic as most of the central points in the story revolve around these confrontations, and they also provide the only mode of multiplayer action.

These gameplay modes are driven by the familiar GTA-like 'find a mission, travel there, do it, repeat' model.  This system, as always, works well.  There are obligatory side missions available that provide extra currency for upgrades in the form of 'fire tributes,' this world's term for lighters.  Unfortunately the side missions come in a fairly limited variety and get old quickly.  There are races, combat missions in a couple of forms, a couple of one-off tasks, and one set of missions where Eddie pairs up with an ogre like bouncer modeled after and voiced by Jack Black's band mate Kyle to blast enemies with a large mortar.  These side missions really aren't necessary however, and can be skipped if the player doesn't feel the need to acquire every upgrade.  The mission system effectively links the various gameplay modes, and drives the story along well while allowing for exploration.  There are some minor issues though.  The map will always center on the starting point of a mission when opened rather than Eddie's current position, which is annoying.  The story cutscenes will also occasionally refer to information that Eddie can only learn in optional exploration, which can be jarring if the player has not actually made the necessary discoveries.

All in all Brutal Legend is an interesting foray into the heavy metal culture.  Jack Black is fantastic, and Dovinculus is a truly great villain.  The often self-mocking and off-beat sense of humor is great fun.  However the game is sadly short, and it takes a good 5 of the 10 hours of play for things to really start to be interesting.  In the end though the game is fun and satisfying, and well worth a rental if not an actual purchase.

Graphics:  9/10
Sound:  10/10
Story:  7/10
Gameplay:  8/10
Overall:  8/10

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