Gods of Metal | Brütal Legend at 10.
It really hits home when Lemmy Kilmister, a.k.a ‘The Kill Master’, asks Jack Black, here known as the roadie Eddie Riggs, to steal giant bass strings from the lair of a heavy metal spider queen: Brütal Legend is one-of-a-kind.
Backed by the speed metal chaos of Brocas Helm’s ‘Cry of the Banshee‘, Riggs defeats the beast and quickly assembles a low rider motorbike from scraps of metal. He rides up a hilltop dominated by an enormous viking-shaped tree to present the Kill Master with strings thick enough to save a life, but only through the power of a magic bass solo.
Brütal Legend, developed by Double Fine, is a roaring tribute to all things heavy metal, a flawed yet fascinating experience that still stands out from the AAA pack a decade later.
Riggs starts the game working for a teenage nu-metal band before a falling stage prop crushes the super-roadie. This awakens the spirit of the bestial heavy metal god Ormagöden trapped in his belt buckle and transports him to an alternate land governed by the laws of metal.
Writer and director Tim Schafer was a project lead on the 1997 love letter to hard rock and biker culture Full Throttle and that musical influence is magnified tenfold here. The game world is stuffed full of animals covered in metal spikes, gigantic swords thrust into the ground, serpentine statues that vomit blood and a whole heap of skulls. Every small detail, like flowers that sprout drum symbols and a tree that grows beer bottles, feeds into the desired effect of creating a world that feels like an interactive vinyl cover from a 70s metal band.
A breakneck opening sets this tone quickly, landing Eddie in an occult temple on top of a mountain of bones. For a metal worshiper like Eddie, this is heaven. A double-bladed axe and an electric guitar that shoots fire and lightning bolts are quickly looted and used to hack through a small army of demons to the soundtrack of ‘Children of the Grave’.
The cartoonish art style, with character models reminiscent of Guitar Hero and occasionally calling back to Double Fine’s previous console title Psychonauts, still holds up remarkably well, thanks to the strong direction of Double Fine’s art team, including Production Designer Scott Campbell and Art Director Lee Petty.
Combat is quite loose and forgiving, a strong contrast to the modern trend of Souls-like action titles. However, chaining combos and ‘double-team’ attacks with allies ends up being just engaging enough to keep you involved in combat without overpowering the other flavours of the RTS stew added later.
In this world, Eddie’s roadie skills become something of a MacGyver-esque superpower, as he quickly assembles a hot rod combat vehicle [logically named the ‘Druid Plough’] from scraps of metal. The Plough combines a responsive handbrake with rocket boosts for a chaotic and arcadey package. You learn how to drive it by fighting a huge, bladed worm-beast before escaping on a collapsing bridge as meteors rain down from an electric sky.
Ophelia brings Eddie to Bladehenge, where resistance leaders Lars (Zach Hanks), a bare-chested Robert Plant homage channeled into an Arthurian knight, and his sister Lita (Kath Soucie), an aggressive Viking-styled second-in-command, fight the demonic horde that keep their comrades enslaved.
The power of heavy metal music, birthed from the death cries of the god Ormagöden, has been trapped and kept secret by Emperor Doviculus (drawled with relish by Tim Curry) and his army of glam rocker ‘sell-outs’ led by the narcissistic hair-metal caricature General Lionwhyte (Judas Priest singer Rob Halford).
This leaves Eddie to show them the power of metal music and help assemble a band, “Ironheade”, to fight back with a Tour of Destruction. Jack Black was born to play Riggs, a heavy metal prophet throwing out constant one-liners. It’s School of Rock’s Dewey Finn turned up to 11 and Black throws himself into the role with contagious enthusiasm.
Early missions send you into fantastical environments reminiscent of lavish stage sets. In one subterranean lava-filled cavern, a group of enslaved miners use their massive muscle-filled necks to bang the walls with their heads. Eddie recruits these ‘Headbangers’ to the cause with the power of guitar solos to fight back against Lionwhyte’s army, serving as an introduction to the game’s RTS elements.
It takes hours before you realise the main campaign of Brütal Legend is essentially a series of entertaining tutorials introducing you to every granular element of the game’s large and diverse mechanical toolkit.
For example, after recruiting the Kill Master and his troops, their ‘double team’ attack is instantly introduced to the player in a brief mission rounding up wild razorhogs. By shepherding them into a corner with the bassist’s motorbike and stunning them with a powerful bass note, you allow Ophelia to destroy them to arm her newly liberated Razor Girls with guns fashioned from their skeletons.
Convoy missions are a particular highlight, letting you mow down enemy vehicles whilst barreling through the racecourse-like open world Brütal Legend.
Composer Peter McConnell provides an excellent score that veers between symphonic bombast and twanging acoustic guitars alongside over one hundred licensed tracks from a who’s who of metal legends. One late-game journey through a jungle swamp is hugely elevated by the hauntingly beautiful ‘Diary of a Madman‘, and one roller-coaster set-piece through a collapsing building is powered by the pure sonic adrenaline of ‘Through the Fire and Flames‘.
Also, when you least expect it, Schafer blindsides you with moments of genuine sweetness, like when Eddie gifts his mother’s heirloom to Ophelia, or the bromance between Eddie and engineer Mangus (a fantastic performance by Alex Fernandez).
Most side quests are variants on brief combat encounters, races against a mad Scottish troll called Fletus, and assisting with mortar strikes. Unique side quests are unfortunately few and far between. One of the better mini games sees Eddie act as a wingman for a Headbanger at a beach party, controlling a team of headbangers from a top-down perspective to make sure bikers don’t steal his thunder.
These are played to earn metal tributes, a lovely world building touch where anything you do that’s ‘metal’ enough earns you favour from the Metal Gods, which can be traded to buy upgrades at a forge operated by the Guardian of Metal (a show stealing Ozzy Ozbourne).
Solos are Brütal Legend’s equivalent of spells, cast by completing a minigame that borrows directly from Ocarina of Time. These lightning fast licks, courtesy of Judas Priest guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, activate powerful effects like buffs, area-of-effect damage waves (think a very literal ‘Facemelter’) and rallying cries.
However, the random scattering of solos around the map feels odd for such crucial and powerful abilities. Most are extremely easy to find, and it does arguably encourage exploration, but it’s frustrating to grind through a tough fight only to find a key Tab Slab somewhere you overlooked earlier on.
Unfortunately, the small map size and repetitive side quests means there’s very little reason to backtrack as you unlock new areas, and trips between quests are too short to properly get into the wonderful in-game radio.
One lovely touch is the lack of a mini-map. Brütal Legend illuminates your next objective with a massive spotlight shining down from the heavens to keep you present in the game’s world, reminiscent of the glittering breadcrumb trail in Fable 2.
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The RTS ‘stage battle’ element of Brütal Legend was infamously absent from the demo, which consists of the third-person combat tutorial, and was downplayed for the game’s marketing. However, when approached with patience and an open mind, the RTS stage battles combine every disparate element of Brütal Legend into a wonderful and engaging package.
Ironheade fight for control of literal Fan Geysers against a rival faction to win a literal battle of the bands. Fans, used to order new troops, are generated automatically once you construct a merch booth on the pre-determined geysers, and you win by destroying the rival faction’s stage.
During the campaign, Eddie sprouts demonic wings from his back, which allow him to control his troops more effectively and zip around the battlefield.
You’ll eventually find yourself transitioning smoothly from driving to flying without missing a beat, marshaling and ordering new troops. Flying is responsive and has a lovely sense of speed, and at any moment you can drop straight into the battlefield, where double team attacks and troop-buffing solos might turn the tide of a tight skirmish.
These mechanics interchange smoothly in Brütal Legend. The RTS elements are simple but not to the game’s detriment: their holistic interweaving with the hack-and-slash combat creates a bombastic experience greater than the sum of its parts.
Smartly, you take on Lionwhyte’s troops for your first few stage battles, whose army is composed of the same troops as Ironheade’s but reskinned as glam rockers. This both reinforces the story’s theme of the heavy metal underdogs revolting against the morally bankrupt mainstream music industry and lets the player learn effective compositions and counters for their own troops through direct experience.
Stage battles also double as the game’s multiplayer component. It’s not exactly bustling as of writing, but Player vs. AI matches still allow you to play as the gothic Drowning Doom and the demonic Tainted Coil, letting the huge amount of effort and detail poured into each playstyle, double-team effect and map live on.
The distinct silhouettes of troops make battlefields easy to read and evaluate on the fly, and matches have a strong sense of cadence as stages gets upgraded to summon increasingly huge and powerful troops.
At the highest difficulty, skirmishes are generally well tuned without feeling cheap. Enemy troops tend to come in defined waves, rewarding efficient use of double team abilities (for example, fire barons can light up beer bottles to trap enemies in a ring of fire) and well-timed solos. Encounters are varied between traditional battles and wave survival modes, with some curve balls thrown in; one riotously entertaining encounter near the end allows you to horde a huge number of fans to summon an onslaught of powerful troops.
Not that the mode is without flaws. Bizarrely, the player’s first stage battle takes place before Eddie sprouts his wings, making the encounter extremely hard to keep track of from ground level as Mangus yells the positions of enemy troops at you.
The campaign finale is multi-layered and complex, mixing a three-stage boss encounter with a relentless onslaught of demons. However, the build up feels rushed, undermining the narrative weight of the climax.
The back and forth of the early game in Brütal Legend is where your decisions and combat skills feel like they make a tangible difference. Unfortunately, matches inevitably reach a point where the snowball effect makes the outcome inevitable well before the end, particularly on hard mode.
Further Reading: “Better Red Than Dead” | Red Faction: Guerrilla at 10.
Easier difficulties allow you to have a much greater individual impact in fights and give you a greater chance to recover, but it becomes easier to blunder through encounters with random tactics. If you’re not forced to engage with every mechanic in concert, you won’t, and Brütal Legend feels far less satisfying and more chaotic as a result.
Some bugs remain in the 360 version: I often got briefly stuck on a vehicle or troop when landing on the battlefield, individual troop selection is often finnicky and troop AI can occasionally focus on ranged attackers on the fringes instead of infantry units attacking your towers.
It’s a frustratingly under-realised open world, and the RTS elements fall short of the mark, but Schafer and Double Fine shot for the moon ten years ago with Brütal Legend. What’s left is a flawed, fascinating and uniquely entertaining experience that still stands out from the AAA pack for sheer personality and originality.