'Brütal Legend' Can Ride With Me Any Day
I’m writing a love letter to Double Fine’s love letter to metal.
I'm not exactly what you might call a metalhead. Or even, like, a fair weather heavy metal fan. I don't dislike the genre, it's just never been my thing.
But I love Brütal Legend, Double Fine's 2009 game about a heavy metal roadie and a massive, colorful fantasy world that, sometimes literally, bleeds metal.
It's an open-world, action-RTS starring mega-name music and movie talent. Jack Black voices the protagonist, Eddie. Ozzie is your car dealer. A Lita Ford-inspired lady named… Lita (Ford has her voice in the game) leads the Razor Girls, a group of rad women who slice and dice enemies. Tim-freaking-Curry is the leather-fantastic, demonic bad guy. And somehow, despite the budget and the soundtrack and the talent list—usually the harbingers of incredible polish and incredibly boring ideas (not always!)—Brütal Legend is such a lovably weird and warm game.
The Brutal Land is such an evocative, singular place. It lives and breaths metal references, sure, but it's also a colorful and warm, with a specificity to each region and each faction that lives there. There's a haunted swamp, favored by the goth-rocker clan Drowning Doom. A glitter-rock paradise with fountains and golden pyramids. Bladehenge!
It's decked out in statues and impossible architecture, with animals and monsters and demons that speak to the not-subtle, emotional, wild aesthetic of 70s-to-80s metal album covers. It has a whole bunch of Heavy Metal DNA, and while it winks and nods at all flavors of rock, it remains completely internally consistent. It's earnest and genuinely affectionate towards a movement that wore its heart on its sleeve (or loincloth, or studded leather jacket).
I haven't played through the full game in years, but I'll never forget Eddie and his unashamed love of music, or Ophelia and her descent into the Sea of Tears, or main baddie Doviculus and the way he just delights in the pain you unleash on him in the final boss battle. Maybe these are people from a place that sounds so silly on paper, but the game believed in them throughout, and so did I.
Folks often praise the game's story and overall aesthetic, but decry the combat. Oh, sure, it's a little jank, with difficulty spikes. But I adored the game's action-game-meets-Pikmin-meets-proper-RTS blend, with its creative musical metaphors (you gather energy by setting up "merch booths" on the battlefield, instruments are the key weapons, units are always musicians) and bizarro unit design. I'll put up with "okay" gameplay in order to enjoy a great story or a beautiful world, but here, I actually got excited for the fights.
They are fast-paced affairs, and pleasantly tactical. You always know what your various units can do—what you have for ranged combat, for bruising or muscling your way through hordes or attacking a stronghold, what you have available for buffing and debuffing—despite the cartoonish chaos. It's fun to pick apart your opponent, especially when your suite of tools has this much life to it.
Thanks to the unit design, combat is actually kind of hilarious, especially once you get further in and you face off against fetishistic Tainted Coil and Adams Family-reject Drowning Doom. Every character—be it a unit type, random NPC, or a named character, is larger than life and bursting with personality.
Take the Roadies in your faction. These are mustachioed dudes who carry massive speaker towers, allowing to to debuff enemy units and keep them from building their own merch booths. It's just a support unit in a strategy game, but these guys have personality and, for want of a better word, soul. They come from a specific place, and they REALLY CARE about sound quality and making their respective acts look good. They have awesome, positive little barks—command them to go take a position and they'll run by, with a hearty "can do!"
Above: meeting the roadies.
Even though Double Fine made Costume Quest and its sequel—games centered on trick or treating and making rad costumes and bopping monsters on Halloween—I actually think their Brütal Legend is the ultimate Halloween game. It's bloody and gory. It's ALL ABOUT playing dress-up and make believe. It takes a little horror and a whole lot of face paint and pageantry, garnishes it with pure candy—the visuals and amazing voice talent—and lets you pretend, just a little bit, that you are just so fucking awesome.
There's no BS. There's no self-consciousness. There's only metal.