Brütal Legend Brings Three Unique Genres Together. It Simply Doesn’t Work
There will never be a game quite like Brütal Legend. A soundtrack with this many prominent musicians singing hit songs as you thrash demons will probably never occur again. Jack Black has not performed as a main character in a video game since this title, and he probably won’t take up a role—cameos aside—ever again.
And, there will probably never be a game that crashes head-first into itself quite like this one.
Brütal Legend was my first step on this strange road tour that is the Summer Backlog, and it was a wild ride. But I can’t say it’s some genius game, nor can I claim it was “killed” by its own marketing or a lack of setup for a sequel. The reality is, the design decisions behind Brütal Legend paint an ambitious but doomed portrait of a game pulled in way too many directions for its own good.
Brütal Legend: A Summer Backlog… Log
Brütal Legend took me 13 hours to complete, according to Steam. I achieved a mere 89% completion rate, according to the game. I would certainly not count myself among the most elite of Brütal Legend players, and I hope to one day come back to free the other 70 Bound Serpents… and, like, 22/24 Buried Metal. Whoops.
I’d say that, at some point, I ran out of joy for this game. Looking back, I think it probably came down to just… pure boredom. Every aspect of this game trips over each other to try to find some extra space. It leads to a game that could never stretch its wings to the fullest extent it deserved to.
That said, I did end up seeing it to the end. It wasn’t a complete waste of time, by any means. This was an enjoyable game. But I would say that, most of the time, it was a hard 7/10.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Brütal Legend. It’s 13 years old, though, so… I imagine the people who’d want to play it have already done so.
Dissecting the Story (and Ending)
Brütal Legend’s story surprised me, in that it wasn’t complete garbage. I walked in thinking that this game would be Jack Black doing Jack Black things. Kind of like Gulliver’s Travels.
So, when the story kicked off with Eddie Riggs, Roadie Extraordinaire, getting crushed by the stage, I was ready for some shit.
Brütal Legend tells the tale of a man sent back in time to a fantasy world where demons ruled over man. It is up to Eddie and the leaders from the time to reignite the revolution and take back the Brütal Land for those who care for the Metal that crafted it.
The story is relatively basic, with a major betrayal placed between the two acts and a twist at the finish line. The characters are relatively complex, not too out of theme for Double Fine. But, they don’t see much in the way of character development. Most of them start and end exactly the same, with the only major characters with an arc being Eddie and arguably his love interest.
By far the most frustrating aspect of the story, however, was the end.
At the game’s end, Eddie’s love interest Ophelia is murdered. Eddie defeats the evil demon Doviculus in a one-on-one battle. Afterwards, he retrieves Ophelia’s heart, and then swims into the sea…
And finds Ophelia. The real one. He mutters, “I knew that wasn’t the real you” into the water as he dons his necklace onto her, reviving her and allowing the two to swim out of the water. Then, the game returns to the theme of the “Roadie” by saying that Eddie was not really remembered as the leader of the revolution.
This baffled me.
At no point did any character seem to undersell who Eddie was. At the beginning of the game, the first leader of the revolution even wanted Eddie to rule in his stead, and had Eddie completing a ton of missions for him… including leading his men into battle. Then, when the story reaches the second arc, Eddie takes the lead of the entire operation, sidelining the new leader of the revolution, Lita, while doing so. There is no part of the story where Eddie feels “in the background,” like he seems to say at the end.
The combination of no stakes with Ophelia and the game trying to say that Eddie wasn’t nearly as remembered as the other leaders of the war was a clear rush job by the writers. They couldn’t add in as many Lita portions as they needed to show her as the head of the revolution. They couldn’t come up with enough tells or stakes to let Ophelia die at the end. And there was no way in hell that they could relegate someone like Jack Black to the background.
The story was fine overall, with a lot of fun moments that made it memorable. The voice cast was great, and the jokes and quips were solid, if limited and repetitive. But, the overarching main story was a lot weaker than I would have expected from Double Fine.
Game Genre #1: Brawling
Probably the most polished part of the experience is the axe-to-head fighting you do as Eddie Riggs. Early on, you’re introduced to your axe and guitar buttons. The axe is for melee, guitar for ranged. Over time, you get new combos—either given to you through the game, or purchased via the in-game currency known as Tributes.
And yet, Brütal Legend’s combat falls short of its potential. Fighting has a basic lock-on, dodge roll, block system where your combos do damage and have special effects, but the mechanics are never fully realized. Fights against groups of enemies tend to be a bit chaotic; there aren’t Batman line-ups of goons ready to get countered. Instead, you have to dodge out of the way and “kite” like a beast! When using lock-on, that can be a headache.
Thankfully, Eddie has some great tools to help in group fights. The “Guitar Solo” mechanic allows him to channel a select range of abilities that are activated through a quick Guitar Hero-esque minigame. Facemelter is the go-to Area of Effect attack, since the quick-time event is very short. You also get access to axes and other weapons that help you clear out enemy encounters.
Overall, this area of the game is serviceable. I never was in a position where the combat was 100% terrible, but I was never wowed either.
Only One Big Problem…
There wasn’t much pure brawling. In the game, there are three “dungeons” where Eddie fights alone: the intro, the Spider Cave, and the Bat Cave. And those were actually interesting. You had to use your solos and pure axe-swinging skill to clear out foes and assess the situation. The controls were stiff, but the fights weren’t overwhelming. Double Fine crafted these dungeons well.
So, it’s a shame there were so few. There aren’t many situations where Eddie is alone in a fight. Most of the time you’re doing group combat with your allies—which is a shame. The few times Eddie is just throwing hands is fun, even if it is simple; all you do is “walk forward, fight a group, walk forward, repeat.”
Game Genre #2: Racing
The Druid Plow, or the Deuce, is your hot rod and a critical part of the game. Not only is this how Jack Black ventures about the map, but it is how he completes various racing and… tower defense mini-games.
I am an absolute trash can behind the wheel, so the Deuce’s turning radius and handbrake mechanic never really clicked with me. Whether this is a product of my abysmal understanding of the wheel or the driving controls actually being bad is up to interpretation.
The weapons on the Druid Plow are, as expected, quite varied. You start with machine guns that shoot directly in front of Jack, with seemingly infinite vertical aiming. Over time, you get seeking missiles, not-seeking missiles (for lack of a better term), plasma casters, and more. The varied weapons are unlocked with the same currency used for axe upgrades, so for someone not good at finding the hidden objects around the map (like yours truly), it can be difficult to unlock every weapon.
Even so, I was able to get a bunch of them. The Guided Missile Launcher was… absolutely hilarious for the hunting missions, where the animals ran next to my cart and practiced their heat-seeking missile dodging. The electric gun was my jam by the end of the game, as its poor range was made up for by its ability to tear through fools.
There are three types of vehicle sequences: one strapped-in rail shooter segment, another collection of missions where you guide a mortar in your car, and then some actual races. The rail shooter segment was fine, seemingly impossible to fail. It was hard to see the battlefield, so I had to rely on my army of dudes to keep my turret safe. The army would keep the mission from coming close to failing. Much appreciated, frankly.
The same happened in the mortar missions. These would have you directing a mortar on where to fire; pressing the attack button would launch a big bomb at your position. Except… the bomb doesn’t hurt you, or your friendly army of dudes, and it’s massive. You can also just hit the enemies with your car. I never failed this, even during times when I was definitely off-aim with most of my shots.
The actual racing was the hardest by far, and that’s because your racing opponent, Fletus and his car Squealer, would sometimes catapult me into the abyss by nudging me slightly. Jack Black likes his cars fast, and I like to never learn my lesson about driving. Even so, the Druid Plow is by default faster than his car, and the Nitro Boost absolutely destroys him.
These could have probably been adjusted to be a little more potent. I wouldn’t have minded having to try again on either of the turret mini-games, since they’re relatively quick and punchy. I think the racing games were a fine difficulty, but I kind of wish there were… more of them. I miss the banter between Fletus and Eddie, as those were some of the funnier pieces of writing in the game.
Game Genre #3: Real-Time Strategy
And then, by far the most important yet jankiest aspect of the game… the RTS section.
Eddie can control units of an army. You generate “fans,” who can be converted into units through a side menu. These units are directed with four basic commands on your D-pad: attack a spot, wait, follow, and go to a specific location. Your units can only hear you from a certain distance. Thankfully, you will eventually gain an upgrade that lets you quickly fly across the map… only during these RTS sections, granted, but still welcome.
During these sections, Eddie is still allowed to brawl and play solos. In fact, several solos are exclusive to the RTS segments, as they control troop movements or prevent the opponent from building their army. Eddie’s involvement is especially crucial in the early game and on the higher difficulty settings, as your units are made of butter and you’ll need to buff them if you want them to win fights.
Sadly, a lot of the game’s weaknesses stem from this section of the gameplays experience. As it turns out, it is very difficult to make a complicated or interesting RTS when your control scheme is limited to a small radius around Eddie. You can’t have units protecting objectives because the process of selecting specific units to send to locations is tedious at best. Without an overarching map of the battlefield, defending objectives requires the player to fly to them and try to get the attention of the army… which only sometimes works. Other times, the units slowly strut on over like it’s a hot summer day and they need to stay socially distant.
For a single-player campaign, this leads to the enemy army not being all that interesting to fight. Usually, the AI’s best strategy is to send a group of enemies every minute or so to harass one of your fan-generating towers. Then, once you complete a major objective on the map, the AI sends a more threatening army to counter yours.
General Strategy: the Pile
Sadly, as the AI can’t really do anything interesting because you can’t, there aren’t any really intriguing RTS-style missions. No defending a point, no rushing to do an objective while pressure comes from elsewhere… You just sort of mash your army against the enemy’s until one keels over. You have to prepare your army for the big pushes that come post-objective, preventing you from really doing anything until you reach your full army size. And, on the higher difficulty, enemy waves will usually take out some of your weaker units… meaning you have to regroup, which tends to take long enough for another enemy wave to spawn.
Making a group of your most potent units does get stale, but it does come with a bright side… there really aren’t many full-blown RTS sections. There are only a handful in total, about five. So, even though it gets stale, it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Maybe if more time had been dedicated to this, Double Fine could have developed more interesting levels and strategies. The final boss fight requires some interesting split objectives while defending the army, but it really just boils down to a standard “build your max army size then complete the goals” mess like the other RTS missions in the game.
I understand now why Brütal Legend never got a sequel. It had many, many flaws. It didn’t work on any of the levels it wanted to. It was a 7/10 for almost all categories due to its pitiful controls and generic, if passable, level design. Going through a game like this and also having to license all of that music? I can’t imagine Double Fine ever going through that headache again. And that’s incredibly sad.
Without sitting down and playing the game, you’d never be able to see how much love, care, and effort went into it. The world is legitimately gorgeous, and the racing sections provide a perfect way to let you explore it. The Brütal Land offers creative worldbuilding with its rock-and-roll theme. Ozzy Ozbourne is your shopkeeper.
I wish the stars would align, just one more time. Everything surrounding the mechanics are so cool. It is so rare for a video game to have this much licensed music. And… well, maybe next time they could tone down the gendered stuff. Just a touch.
Want more Jack Black content? Check out how we graded the Mario movie cast.