Review of Brütal Legend

Here we go with another entry in the occasional series of reviews of games that everyone has already played (because I refuse to pay more than US$20 for a game, and new releases cost $60 these days). This time, it’s Brütal Legend, Tim Schafer’s epic about love, justice, and the power of rock and roll, set in the land of all album covers, starring Jack Black and a whole bunch of heavy metal musicians as themselves.

This game is worth playing just for the chance to drive the protagonist’s hot rod around and see all the epic scenery. The art department had fun with this game. So did the character modelers. They licensed about a hundred classic metal tracks for the background music, which means it’s thematically appropriate, and never gets repetitive enough to earworm you. (The magical guitar solos, on the other hand, I got a bit tired of.) The gameplay itself is a little spotty, but I think that’s been well covered elsewhere. My main beef was with poor integration of the side quests into the story line—you don’t benefit much from doing them, even though they could have added quite a bit of interest and strategic ramification. The up side of that, though, is that I never felt like I was being forced to level-grind. There was one infuriating point where me and Pam spent three hours losing one stage battle over and over again, but that was because we were doing it wrong.

So that’s all good, but now I want to complain, at length, about the storyline.

I am about to spoil the ENTIRE PLOT. You have been warned.

Problem numero uno is, of course, that the entire Drowning Doom arc could have been avoided if Eddie hadn’t picked up the idiot ball upon overhearing Doviculus in the ruins of Lionwhyte’s castle. Eddie is genre-savvy enough that he should have assumed Doviculus knew they were there and was deliberately trying to deceive them. (I think Doviculus doesn’t ever lie in the technical sense, but I think we all know just how little that means.) Eddie is level-headed enough to be head roadie for a boyband whose members are all too dumb to live. Eddie is perfectly aware that Lita is wound way too tight, has issues with Ophelia, and has just had to watch her brother get killed. Eddie isn’t the kind of asshole who claims to trust someone when nobody else does, in order to get them into bed. Ditching Ophelia was way the hell out of character. Yeah, she’s clearly not telling him something important, but I see his in-character reaction as something like Now is not the time for this, but when we get somewhere safe, you and me and Lita are going to sit down and have a long talk. I still trust you, but I need you to trust me with the whole story. This does take away Doviculus’ big reveal at the end, but screw him, why should the antagonist always get the big reveal?

It’s not like there was no other way to arrange for the Metal versus Goth battles, either. The most obvious fix would be for the protagonists to decide they have to have the power of the Sea of Black Tears to stand a chance against the Tainted Coil. It’s Ophelia who has the best odds of being able to control it, but at first she can’t, and they have to fight her a bit. Or else it’s Lita who loses it and throws herself into the Sea. Either way, this probably couldn’t have been dragged out as far as the as-written storyline did, but the Tainted Coil deserved a bit more screen time as the immediate enemy, anyway. And would it not have been even more awesome if Ironheade and the Drowning Doom could have teamed up?

I was also disappointed in the, um, complete lack of closure at the end of the game. Okay, Drowned Ophelia was a doppelganger created by the Sea of Black Tears, and now we have the real one back, but it was the real Ophelia who got ditched in the snow outside the ruined, demon-infested castle. I’d expect her to be more than a little angry and hurt, still. The antagonist leaders are all dead but all four armies still have squads running around the map attacking each other, with no explanation given. In the closing sequence Eddie drives off into the sunset, without Ophelia (wtf?), we see her shed one black tear (I have to assume this is a sequel hook because otherwise it makes no sense), and after that all the protagonists are off in their own corners of the map and you can have a little wordless scene with each one, but that’s it. Yeah, they’re giving you a chance to drive around and finish up side-quests, ok. Still not satisfying, and I cannot be bothered to get to 100% completion just to see if there’s another cutscene. (Might be different if someone assured me there was another cutscene, although maybe I should just go find it on Youtube.)

Even if these small-scale plot problems were resolved, it doesn’t seem to me that the story that the game tells is the story it should have told. Is the ultimate metal epic really just about how generic bondage demons manipulate power metal musicians into fighting first their hair metal counterparts and then some goths? I don’t think so. It’s not about subgenres of rock fighting each other, it’s not about rock and roll versus the blues, it’s not both of those versus country and western, it’s not even about electric versus acoustic. (Although it certainly could appear to be about each of these in turn, as we peel back layer upon layer of manipulative level bosses.) The ultimate metal epic ought to be about nothing less than good music versus bad music; to be precise, Music With Rocks In versus Extruded Music Product. Eddie, Ophelia, Lars, and Lita travel the land assembling a motley crew (pun intended) of every kind of musician who ever played, because no lesser force can stand against the ultimate evil. And what could that be but … the record industry? (It occurs to me that this is the plot of We Will Rock You, and that’s just about right.)

I’m not sure there’s a place for the Tainted Coil in a game that’s telling that story, but you know, I’m okay with that. They weren’t that interesting. I’d rather have had more shout-outs to the great heroes of music, anyway. Where were Freddie Mercury and Janis Joplin and John Lennon and Bob Marley? Buddy Holly? B.B. King? Heck, where was Leo Fender? (Okay, Leo Fender was probably one of the Titans. BUT STILL.)