Before I get too involved in specifics, let’s look at some history. Brutal Legend is the most recent major title from Tim Schafer, the man responsible for arguably (or maybe not arguably) some of the best adventure games ever made. His work includes but is not limited to: Grim Fandango, The Secret of Monkey Island and its sequel as well as Psychonauts. I guess I wouldn’t be surprised if some people haven’t heard of any of these games…I certainly hadn’t until a short while ago. While his earlier classics are defined by hilarious writing and near perfect adventure game functionality, his more recent ventures are slightly less perfected. Psychonauts, for instance, is a beautiful game filled to the brim with collectibles, an awesome main character and superb writing…that falters a bit in the gameplay and format arenas. The summer camp concept is creative but many people who aren’t aware of how Schafer games work may not catch on to the “talk to everyone after each new mission to get new dialogue” probably missed out on a good portion of the game. Some of the platforming in the levels is suspect and more difficult than it should be because of the controls…and not all of the special powers are exactly intuitive. Regardless of these minor criticisms everyone who beat Psychonauts knows what a gem it really is. I guess it would be safe to say that Tim Schafer has had some difficulties taking his wealth of ideas into the realm of modern console gaming. It really has been a while since anything he’s touched has been considered a viable hit.
It should be no surprise then, that Brutal Legend is the natural continuation of all of that. It’s a monetarily unsuccessful game with an obtuse concept that’s the opposite of user-friendly. The big difference this time around is that Brutal Legend wasn’t even critically acclaimed…which is the exception to the rule. Psychonauts is rolling around with an average rating of about 90%. Grim Fandango a 93%, Monkey Island…87% Brutal Legend isn’t sittin’ nearly as pretty with its 80% (gamerankings.com). What I really hope to flesh out here is: Why, if it retains almost all of what makes a Schafer game a Schafer game, is it the ugly duckling?
And why is it…really? I love Brutal Legend and a lot of people don’t. Many of the popular review sites were lukewarm on the game and even my friends were pretty critical of it. It’s possible that I’m retarded but from where I’m sitting Brutal Legend is more or less another Psychonauts. Great voice acting, stylish graphics, an engrossing and creative world, cool characters and a fun storyline that’s hilariously written…tons of collectibles. Need I say more? It has mostly the same negatives as Schafer’s other works…the artistic style is there but the graphics don’t push any boundaries, some gameplay is suspect and a few of the controls are wonky/unintuitive. But now all of a sudden the somewhat sub par graphics are a REALLY HUGE DEAL, and SOME PEOPLE DON’T LIKE JACK BLACK so they’re immediately turned off (even though his performance is stellar) and the gameplay concepts ARE WAY TOO FAR OUTSIDE THE NORM. Are we really now criticizing things heavily that before were quirks of “Our favorite developer”? Shouldn’t we know by now what we’re getting into with a Tim Schafer game? Some of the same eccentricities that made Psychonauts one of the most unique and underrated games are bullet points on why Brutal Legend sucks? What were the expectations here? A graphical powerhouse with a huge budget? A standard fantasy open world/action game? Would you all be happy if that’s what it ended up being? I’ll tell ya what…that’s probably the very last thing I want from Tim Schafer.
Besides, the biggest problem with the game was its marketing and the ensuing public perception of the game because of the marketing. We were all mostly led to believe that this was going to be the smash hit that Tim Schafer “deserved”. I mean it has Jack Black, an awesome metal soundtrack and a large open world with tons of shit in it. Recipe for success, right? Not if you hide the major gameplay element from the public until they get the actual game into their hands! I have never seen opinions change on a game so drastically in so little time. The downloadable demo before the game came out was roughly the first hour of the game. People were really impressed because the opening is a very linear action segment that ends with a cool boss fight. Fast forward to the retail release of the game and you find out two hours in that Brutal Legend is in fact A cOnSoLe RtS. That’s real time strategy for the uninitiated. Whaaaaaaaaaaa? The people responsible for the marketing push of this game made very sure that absolutely zero of the RTS elements that comprise 80% of this game were COMPLETELY HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC. Schafer doesn’t get a pass here either. Fuck them. It’s like they knew that if they told people it was an RTS that interest would drop to almost zero. This might be the biggest case of manipulating the public that I’ve ever seen. They should have known better. Do they think that reviewers aren’t going to realize what’s going on and savage them? Because that’s exactly what happened. Did they think that they could just hide their dirty little secret long enough to maybe sell 2 million copies or so and then find sanctuary when shit hit the fan? Well good job assholes, your game didn’t sell well AND you lost almost all of your integrity in the process.
The sad thing about it all is that Brutal Legend is actually a great game. People were just so shocked about how the game morphed into an RTS that they didn’t know how to react. I remember my first time playing and when they started setting up for their first stage battle…I was like…wait…huh? WTF? You can actually almost feel every reviewer doing the same fucking thing in their write-ups too. Whether you liked it or not you have to admit that it was intense…like hey, holy shit I have to actually think and react here or I’m fucked. I wasn’t ready for that level of commitment yet. Not from this whacky, open-world action game.
I can understand how this monumental shift of perception to reality was jarring. It was jarring for me. I came away from my first play through thinking that I was completely let down by one of my favorite developers…I didn’t know how to feel about it. I don’t think anyone knew how to feel about it, but the quickest and most consistent sentiments were definitely negative across the board. What eventually happened to me was that I realized that I needed to stop viewing the game as what it was supposed to be and start viewing it as what it was. It was hard and I can imagine that many people will never accept the fact that they were lied to and just get over it. There is an overwhelming feeling amongst people I’ve talked to that Brutal Legend sucks but it could have been so good. If they only would’ve just kept the RTS shit out of it and continued on like the demo. Why did it have to switch gears when the first 2 hours were so fun? I can understand those feelings, but again…is that what we really want from a Schafer game? Would we go back and time and wish that Psychonauts was more accessible like Zelda or Mario 64? I want Tim Schafer to continue making obscure-ish games that cater to my creative and artistic preferences. Brutal Legend without the RTS would’ve been a decent game…but it certainly wouldn’t have been Brutal Legend, and that’s not how he rolls.
When you finally get over that wall and accept Brutal Legend for what it is…that’s when you start to see how well the execution of the concept actually is. You’re able to see much more clearly why they went certain ways with certain ideas and how it’s all part of one big whole. Instead of mentally trying to shoehorn what you thought was an action game into an RTS format that you don’t even want…you start to think of it as an RTS first with some action elements to add personal interaction. This isn’t War/StarCraft/Red Alert…you don’t just build as many of the grunt units as you can and rush with everything ya got. Tim Schafer came out of hiding after the release to explain that everyone was playing the damn game wrong. I think that was the moment that my opinion on the game finally changed for the better. All I really needed was to view it the way he intended me to view it, and that was damn near impossible given the marketing for the game and the way the first couple hours played out. I’ll do my best to give my interpretation of what Brutal Legend really is and why people misunderstand it so much.
You see… Brutal Legend is actually a much more subtly crafted game that it appears. It’s not like they just built this action game and at some point half way through the development told themselves, ‘hey let’s make this an RTS, that would fuck with people’. Beneath the bravado and over the top sensibilities there is a rather classy little strategy game hidden in there. It is an RTS FIRST with a strong emphasis on managing territory. Because your main character Eddie Riggs is more or less a hero unit the idea is to personally influence the battlefield with your abilities while supervising your other troops. These two basic points are completely lost on almost everyone I’ve met who’s played this game. They usually don’t want to give it the proper respect it deserves as an RTS (and consider it some sort of simplified version of every other RTS ever made) and rush into every battle with Eddie trying to do it all by themselves. When that doesn’t work the most natural reaction seems to be to take a little time getting to know the mechanics and then build a bunch of grunts and rush the towers and opposing stage. When that doesn’t work people get frustrated and call Brutal Legend a ‘retarded console RTS’. Guys, really? THIS GAME IS MADE TO REACT TO EXACTLY WHAT YOU JUST TRIED TO DO. It doesn’t work that way. It’s smarter than that, and that’s where people end up hitting the wall. It seems like when you realize this shit even the obtuse controls start working better. There is a learning curve with every game but I don’t think we need to be criticizing the controls of something this unique. There is a much higher curve here so take the necessary time to familiarize with yourself with how everything functions. I don’t think anything in this game makes sense (controls included) until you stop trying to pick it apart and that’s probably not going to happen until at least a second play through. But I feel like once you do, things gel much more easily.
I can’t being to explain how much more sense the game made to me once I realized that Eddie’s combat abilities were actually in place to supplement other troops activities…not to fly off the handle on his own. You learn pretty early that Riggs can’t really hand himself in the stage battles at all. The opening action portion of the game isn’t there to blue balls you into thinking you’re about to play some crazy action game…it’s there to introduce you to very important mechanics that will help you swing the momentum of skirmishes later on. In fact, every mission in this game is an introduction to a new unit type or battle mechanic that will help you during the stage battles. I think people don’t really get that the action-type missions are there as tutorials to supplement the actual meat of the game, not to be the main part of the game themselves. Like I said, when you view the game as an RTS first you start to see that the format of: new unit mission -> stage battle with new unit -> new unit mission ->stage battle with new unit, is actually a genius way to grow the stage battles slowly until they blossom into their final form. The last battle is actually the only one within the story that you have access to every single unit type! Now…that’s another point that most people thought was dumb. It’s not. Does Cloud Strife have every single ability and magic during the first mission to blow up the reactor? Fuck no. That’s how video games work. Once people saw that Brutal Legend was an RTS they just wanted it to work the same way as every other RTS, completely disregarding that this was a unique experience. Each new stage battle strategically introduces you to the abilities of the new unit type you just recruited (which gives you a greater sense of having a personal army at your command) without throwing too much on your plate all at once. Now that I think of it, the game itself is excellently paced. You always have a new exciting thing to try out and it’s always presented to you in a very comfortable scenario. By the time you’ve got your new unit all figured out the game presents you with a mission that gets you a completely new type. It’s in this way that the game encourages you to STOP BUILDING THE SAME FUCKING GRUNTS OVER AND OVER (all you really need is a unit or two of headbangers guys) and take advantage of the useful variety of soldiers. In fact if you don’t, you’ll probably fail at some point.
None of it comes together more completely than in the multiplayer. Besides FFXI and possibly Rock Band, Brutal Legend is the game I’ve spent the most time playing online. Given the choice to use what you’re familiar with (Ironheade) or to branch off into the Drowning Doom or the Tainted Coil is similar to choosing three separate factions in any RTS. The variety of play styles between the three is immediately evident, but not impossible to figure out. This is where the complexity and frankly what I believe to be genius of the strategy really shines through. One ‘perfect method’ that will guarantee wins doesn’t exist here. In fact, I lost about the first ten I played. The distribution of factions online is surprisingly varied, which creates a much more colorful (and difficult) gameplay experience. It wasn’t until I realized that I had to approach each battle organically that I started to win. Brutal Legend’s design allows you to react to what the person is doing…in fact I would say that it encourages you to play that way. There were countless times that I thought I had a format down, only to have someone totally fuck my shit up. There is a certain amount of depth here that goes unrecognized by a lot of people. Additionally, Drowning Doom and Tainted Coil have their own particular play style…meaning the thing that’s working for you with Ironheade won’t be working for you at all with Drowning Doom…and so on and so forth.
I don’t need to speak on the metal inspired open world or the soundtrack because I feel like people understand how cool those are. I just want some open-mindedness when it comes to the concept. I know RTS games are historically hard to swallow, and I get that people are disappointed in Tim Schafer for not giving us the game we all ‘thought’ he was making. I’m here to tell you that it’s OK. Really… it is. Brutal Legend is awesome just the way it is. It’s complex, subtle at times and culturally important just like all of it’s brethren. Take the time to understand what the concept is and learn to appreciate the smart execution of it, no matter how bizarre or off putting it seems. Look, if you don’t like the fucking game that’s cool, just don’t write it off because it’s not the game you wanted. Tim Schafer does know what he’s doing and he didn’t drop the ball. There should as least be a certain amount of respect given to the fact that there just is not a single game on the market that’s anything like it. Brutal Legend is damn functional for how new of an experience it is. It’s a testament to the design that the completely whacko concept even works at all. I personally think that if more designers were willing to go this far outside the box we would have a more diverse and entertaining gaming environment. It’d be cool if more games likes Brutal Legend existed, but in what has become a creatively stiffiling industry it’s hard to imagine this high of a risk ever being taken again. Kudos to Tim Schafer and his crew for continuing to swim against the tide. Unfortunately it’ll take a lot more than this to change the current culture and halt the corporate crusade to put a Madden/Call of Duty/Halo/Guitar Hero in every home.
You could argue that a game shouldn’t force you to change your perception, it should just honestly present itself to you immediately…and I agree. I definitely agree. Then again, think back on all the things in your life that you didn’t like right away, things that gave bad first impressions. I mean, shit, some really cool things were hard for me to get into initially. Brutal Legend is one of those things and the extremely deceptive marketing has more to do with that than anything else. It’s because the letters RTS are more or less suicide in the console space that we were led to think a certain way about this game. Nobody likes to be deceived but if you have an open mind and can workshop through a more conceptual, more obscure RTS experience then there’s a king’s ransom in awesome/fun/funny/memorable shit all over this game.
But then again…14 year old’s don’t play RTS’s do they? Well, I think I just solved the problem!