The cover of Brütal Legend sports an interesting detail. “A TIM SCHAFER GAME,” it says, right above the jagged, razor-sharp letters of the title. This isn’t the first time a developer’s name has appeared on the front of a game box, but it’s rare enough to be noteworthy. That the name should belong to Schafer, a man with a small but devoted group of fans who revere his work for LucasArts in the 1990s, is even stranger. Schafer’s previous effort, 2005’s Psychonauts, was a critical smash but a commercial failure. The people who bought it were, in all likelihood, the only ones who knew the man’s name. So why would anyone else be swayed now?
|Brütal Legend | for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 | Rated M for Mature | Developed by Double Fine Productions | Published by Electronic Arts|
Schafer’s stamp isn’t just on the cover — it’s all over the inside, as well. He made his bones scripting and designing comical, text-heavy adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle. Those games starred obtuse protagonists who stumbled into dangerous situations they couldn’t quite comprehend. Brütal Legend tells the tale of Eddie Riggs, the best roadie in the biz. He’s slumming with a mall-punk band when a staging mishap transports him to a mythical realm where heavy-metal iconography isn’t just for show. And, wouldn’t you know, it turns out Eddie is the prophesied hero who will lead true metalheads to freedom!
It’s a fun premise, and the game is often very funny. Eddie liberates legions of enslaved metalheads whose neck muscles have swelled from excessive headbanging. He battles Bowie-like glam-rockers and goth-inspired enemies bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Cure’s Robert Smith. The characters have expressive faces and subtle, evocative animation, and they wander through fantastic landscapes inspired by heavy-metal-album covers.
The game’s humor is matched only by its fealty to the gods of metal. Several legendary rockers lend their voices and likenesses: Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, and the Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne. But the star of the show is Jack Black. His Eddie is occasionally introspective and gruff, but more often he’s a smart-ass, just as Jack Black has been in, well, everything he’s ever been in. Still, it works. Brütal Legend seems to see no contradiction between the deadly seriousness with which heavy-metal culture regards itself and the goofiness of long-haired men screeching over wailing guitar parts.
This all sounds great, and it would probably be fun to sit and watch the cutscenes. Unfortunately, there’s a game in there too, and a bad one. Make that several bad games. Repetitive hack-and-slash sequences, in which Eddie uses a giant ax and an enchanted guitar to slay foes, are monotonous and limiting. (He can’t even jump.) Set-piece battles take their cue from real-time strategy games, with Eddie commanding units and allocating resources — which would be fine if there were any way to tell where your units are and what they’re doing. Oh, and there are driving missions in a vehicle that controls poorly, and repetitive, off-the-shelf side missions. (Yep, you get to man a turret!)
In other words, despite the originality of the characters and the setting, the gameplay is a jumbled mess of parts from other, better games. Brütal Legend can’t even do the little things right — it’s hard to navigate while driving, audio samples frequently cut themselves off mid sentence, and Eddie can fall off the edge of the map (forcing you to reload). Maybe the question isn’t why marketing decided to put Tim Schafer’s name on the cover. Maybe it’s why he let them.