‘‘Brütal Legend,” the latest video game from Sonoma native and storytelling mastermind Tim Schafer, isn’t perfect. Since the game’s release last month, it’s received demerits for everything from its length to its repetitive side quests and a perception that publisher Electronic Arts was less than forthcoming with details on the game’s strategy gameplay.
But in much the same way that Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” can be considered a classic of literature despite never having been completed, “Brütal Legend’s” one-of-a-kind setting, punchy writing, first-rate acting and epic, lore-filled world make it one of the year’s best games, warts and all.
The game (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3) stars Jack Black as Eddie Riggs, a roadie who’s injured in a stage accident and magically transported to a world inspired by classic heavy metal album covers. Upon arrival, Eddie’s enlisted to free humanity from demonic enslavement by using the power of heavy metal.
The world of “Brütal Legend” looks much as you’d expect it to. It’s got huge piles of skulls, rolling hills dotted by Stonehenge-inspired rock circles, a massive volcano, a forest, a foggy marsh and a sprawling cemetery, among other regions. Each is inhabited by mythical, metal-inspired beasts, from spiders that spin silk suitable for guitar strings to panthers that shoot lasers from their eyes.
As a heavy metal roadie, Eddie’s no fish out of water. He quickly picks up a mythical ax, discovers his guitar now shoots lightning and begins slaying demonic baddies with ease. Upon meeting the game’s oppressed humans, he sets about building an army, or, in his mind, organizing a “tour of destruction.”
The earliest missions have you liberating and recruiting the varying factions that will make up the units of the army you’ll lead in a series of strategic battles in the game’s second half. But despite what some reviews might lead you to think, “Brütal Legend” isn’t a real-time strategy game, so much as a smorgasbord of five or six different activities. You’ll need to win a half-dozen or so RTS-style battles in which you harvest resources, upgrade your base, battle for choke points on the map and produce the right mix of unit types.
But you’ll also wade into the fray yourself, race your hot rod against a benign demon with a mouth full of metal, keep motorcycle-riding hellions from destroying your tour bus and scour the countryside looking for collectibles. It’s fair to say none of these disparate gameplay elements is anywhere near the top of its class, but all of them are competently executed. And the ability to get your hands dirty in the RTS battles and form Voltron-like attack combos with your units gives the RTS portion of the game a fresh wrinkle.
What’s more, the game’s collectibles, while decidedly shopworn in nature, grate less than they normally would because they get you engaging with all the world’s well thought-out nooks and crannies. I wouldn’t have spent anywhere near as much time exploring the open-world game’s beaches and forests if it weren’t for the collectibles.
To pick nits over “Brütal Legend’s” shortcomings, or skip it because you just don’t like real-time strategy games is to cut yourself off from one of gaming’s most fully realized, one-of-a-kind artistic visions. The entirety of “Brütal Legend” is steeped in heavy metal, from the landscape, heroes and villains to the tunes that pour out of your flame-spewing hot rod’s radio. (I’m no metalhead, but I couldn’t keep myself from heading over to Amazon.com to download an MP3 of “Angel Witch,” a 1980 British cult classic I’d never have heard if not for Schafer’s game.)
The game also serves as a showcase for Schafer’s singular writing talents. In most titles, in-game movies serve as a means to an end, explaining how you got from Level A to Level B. In “Brütal Legend,” they’re a reason to keep playing. (It’s a shame, then, that there’s no way to rewatch the movies once you’ve unlocked them, short of playing through the game a second time.)
The voice acting from Jack Black, Tim Curry, Jennifer Hale and a slew of heavy metal luminaries such as Ozzy Osbourne and Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister is expertly executed, and the dialogue is first-rate and frequently hilarious. There’s not a cornball line to be found, and some of the biggest laughs come from subtle moments such as a brief shot of two characters with giant, permanently clenched fists for hands playing what must be an endless game of “rock-paper-scissors.” With such fantastic writing, the handful of instances in which the game recycles the same four or five lines for use in side quests stands out as one of the few low points.
Once you’re finished with the main game, you can go online and take part in real-time strategy stage battles. (Yes, it’s totally fair to characterize the online play as an action RTS game.) Thankfully, the game lets you practice against the computer so you can gain some familiarity with the multiplayer maps. The single-player campaign serves as an excellent tutorial on how to play as Ironheade, the army led by Eddie Riggs. For the other two factions, the Drowning Doom and Tainted Coil, you’ll have to learn the ropes by watching other people and practicing against the AI, my only complaint based on my somewhat limited exposure to stage battles thus far.