revisiting Brutal Legend

I was home sick today, and so I decided to spend some of my convalescence by downloading the Steam version of Brutal Legend, a game that I still own (and never finished) on the 360.

Brutal Legend - The Wall

This is what I wrote about Brutal Legend back when I was first playing it in October 2009:

I don’t quite know how to express how bummed out I am about Brutal Legend. The art direction is stupendous, and the world itself is just fantastic. I love driving around and exploring the world and seeing all the incredible stuff there is to see, and my compulsive need to seek out hidden collectibles is very well satisfied. The dialogue and cut-scenes are fantastic, and even though the side missions are incredibly repetitive, they almost never last more than a few minutes, and the rewards generally result in neat stuff in Ozzy’s Garage.

But goddamn, the stage battles completely suck all my enthusiasm out of the game. It eventually got to the point where I had completed every side mission and found every hidden thing I could possibly find, just because I wanted to play the game as much as possible without having to go through the stage battles. And, of course, the story can’t progress unless you do those stage battles, and therein lay the tragedy.

I don’t necessarily hate real time strategy games, I’m just not very good at them, and Brutal Legend’s brief tutorials don’t really help me in terms of figuring out what the hell is going on, and the game does such a terrible job of providing adequate feedback, especially when I’m on the ground trying to kill people because my army refuses to move. Once you start getting wounded, and the screen starts turning red and the heartbeat starts pounding louder, you’re almost always dead, and I’ve yet to figure out why. Even when I try to fly away, I die. And even though I’ve eventually won every stage battle I’ve participated in, I really don’t understand why, and the whole thing just feels shoddy and poorly implemented.

I have all the respect in the world for Tim Schafer; I’ll play anything the man works on. But I’m starting to feel that there’s more to a game than art direction and funny dialogue; ultimately, a game either succeeds or fails based on how much fun it is to play, and Brutal Legend is not very much fun at all.

This is Tim Schafer speaking about the game with Rock Paper Shotgun today:

“When Brutal Legend was done, a lot of people wanted the wrapper to it – the heavy metal world – to be [the only unique thing about it],” he said. “They basically wanted the heavy metal funny version of God of War. A very simple hack and slash game. That’s a real tough call for me. It’s hard to say, ‘There’s this other thing that’s not the thing you’re trying to do. The thing you care about and that you love. There’s this other version of it that’s totally different and it would be more successful. Why don’t you make that version?’”

“Maybe it would have been more successful. It would have been more accessible and simpler and easier for people to grasp. But it wasn’t the thing that got me up in the morning and made me want to make the game.”

I am sad to report that my opinions of the game have not changed one bit.  The world is still wondrous, the art direction is still mesmerizing, the characters are still memorable and marvelously performed and animated, the dialogue is still witty and smart, and the story is still engaging… but the gameplay is still shitty.   I understand where Tim is coming from in that RPS quote – making a simplistic hack-n-slash game is probably not as inspiring as coming up with this RTS-esque system – but if you’re going to commit to a complicated system over the more obvious route, then you’ve got to make sure that your audience can follow along with you.  I’m sure some people understood how the game worked, but I never could.  And after my time with it tonight, I’m not sure I’ll ever get there.

It’s also worth bringing up that this PC port is not without some noticeable problems.  Lots of weird graphical glitches and bugs pop up all the time – the mouse cursor will appear in the middle of the screen at random even though I’m playing with a controller, some of the upgrade options in Ozzy’s Garage are totally glitched out, and the audio has a tendency to come and go during the pre-rendered cut-scenes.  (As I type this, I see that Steam just downloaded a 50MB patch; maybe that will help smooth out these rough edges.)

Despite my pessimism, I really would like to see a sequel – this world is too amazing to be lost to time.  I just hope that if they get the chance to make one, that they’ll be able to take as much time as is necessary to make sure the game part works.  Double Fine’s games have never come up short in the story department, or the art department, or any of the other technical/creative departments – they’ve only ever shown their weaknesses during the parts where you actually have to play them.  As I said above, I have nothing but the utmost respect for Tim and his company, and I’ve played pretty much everything they’ve put out, and will continue to do so – I’m certainly waiting with bated breath for the Kickstarter Adventure (whose progress I’ve been trying to not follow, actually).  I wish nothing but success for Double Fine.  I just can’t help but feel that success will only truly arrive once their games are as much fun to play as they are to experience.

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