One of the best movies I’ve seen all year is a game I just finished playing.
And, yes, I know how that sounds. But it’s true. Tim Schafer’s “Brütal Legend,” released on both XBox 360 and PS3, is one of the best narratives I’ve enjoyed all year. It just happens to be contained in a video game that is an absurd, outrageous homage to the excesses of heavy metal.
I don’t listen to much of it these days, but there was a time where I would have described myself as a big metal fan. Even saying that, though, it’s not terribly descriptive, since there are so many eras of heavy metal, and so many sub-genres, and the amazing thing is that Tim Schafer has paid tribute to all the different ideas of what metal “really” is, all while telling a fantasy story that is both ridiculous and emotionally engaging. I know this isn’t a video game blog, per se, but one of the reasons I push for us to do more coverage of games in general is because I think the lines are getting increasingly blurry about how stories are told and what constitutes a game, and how these things are produced.
In this case, Schafer is a game designer who is well-known for the story-based games he’s created in the past. He’s got a silly sense of humor, and games like “The Secret Of Monkey Island,” “Grim Fandango,” “Full Throttle” and “Psychonauts”. He’s been carrying around the idea of a game set in a heavy metal universe for years now, and I can see the appeal. If you’ve ever been a metal fan, you know how the album covers and much of the iconography of metal marketing has little to do with the records themselves. Schafer made the obvious jump, designing a world where all of the creepy demon nuns and the battle axes and the crazy monsters and the ruined fantasy landscapes are all real. For his lead character, he created Eddie Riggs, and then hired Jack Black to voice him. It’s a logical fit, and Black seems really engaged by the character and the world. So much of the humor of Tenacious D was based on taking the ideas of rock hyperseriously, so this just feels like a logical extension of Black’s sense of humor.
Eddie is a roadie. Or, more correctly, Eddie is the roadie that all roadies aspire to be. He’s been around forever, and as the game begins, he’s working a show for a crappy Nu-metal band. They goof around on the stage facade he built, and when one of them starts to fall, Eddie runs out onstage to catch him. In doing so, he ends up crushed by his own backdrop. His blood runs down into the belt buckle given to him by his father (also a legendary roadie), and somehow awakens Ormagöden, a giant demon who transports Eddie to another world.
Once he’s there, Eddie quickly arms himself with a battle axe and a guitar that can be used as a weapon, and meets Ophelia (voiced by Jennifer Hale), a crazy-hot brunette who enlists Eddie to help free her world from slavery. If the game were just a hack-and-slash fantasy rollercoaster ride, that would be fun enough, but Schafer lays out an elaborate mythology, introducing Lars Halford (Zach Hanks), the idealized frontman to every classic metal band, cut from the Robert Plant in the ’60s mold. Lars is the one meant to rule this land, but he’s been held down by the evil General Lionwhyte (Rob Halford), who represents hair metal and glam and the commercialization of the genre. Eddie sees the role of a roadie as helping the front man, so he sets out to recruit an army, hoping to win Ophelia’s affections in the process. The army is made up of former mine slaves, used to banging their heads into rock all day for so long that they’ve grown these insane neck muscles, as well as ex-guards, speaker-toting roadies, and crossbow-firing feather-haired groupies. And all of this sounds preposterous because it is.
But mid-game, there’s a series of incidents that occur that suddenly pull the rug out from under the player, narratively, and force you to adjust how you feel about the characters. That’s only the first time in the game that Schafer plays against expectation, and by the time you finally come face to face with Doviculus, the game’s big boss, voiced by Tim Curry in full-blown Darkness mode, you’ll realize that you weren’t playing the game you think you were playing. Your relationship with Ophelia is one of the most complicated and ultimately heart-breaking in any game I’ve played, marked by disappointment and sorrow, which makes the earlier funny levels even more important.
I was a little taken aback by the game play itself, especially after enjoying the demo that was released on both PS3 and XBOX 360. There is a good percentage of the game that involves massive battles between your army and the armies of your enemies. To manage those battles, you have to control these geysers of souls, coralling them as your “fans” using merch booths you put up in front of your battle stage, and then converting their energy into more forces for your army. It’s like playing a high-speed strategy game, but you really can’t win the battles unless you fly back down into them and engage yourself. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but by the end of the game, I found myself able to defeat the battle stages quickly and efficiently. The game play is a bit repetitive overall, but there’s so much going on with the story and characters that I never minded. It’s a very fast-paced experience overall, with guest appearances by real heavy metal icons like Rob Halford, Lita Ford, Ozzy Osbourne, and Lemmy Kilmister. The soundtrack is amazing, and you unlock more and more songs as you play, eventually ending up with a playlist that includes Budgie, Motorhead, Ministry, Megadeth, Judas Priest, Anvil, Black Sabbath, Def Leppard, Mastadon, Whitesnake, and so many more.
I wouldn’t really break out the cliche and say this made me feel like I was seventeen again, but it certainly played right to the things I thought were coolest in the world at that point, and I love that Schafer took an inherently adolescent idea and crafted something that is both emotionally and narratively mature out of it.
“Brutal Legend” isn’t the game I thought it was going to be before I played it. Instead, it’s far richer and better, and a major accomplishment for Schafer and Double Fine.
The game was reviewed on the PS3, and was played to completion of the single-player campaign.
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