Brutal Legend: The Campaign

Unsurprisingly, Brutal Legend shares a lot of qualities with Psychonauts, in spite of aiming to be a completely different kind of game. For better... and for worse.

On the plus side, there are signs of learning happening. One of Psychonauts' issues was that the beginning of the game was trying extremely hard to be an episode in a Saturday morning cartoon... and then what positive qualities were involved there increasingly fell away as you got deeper into the game. (eg Psychonauts' opening was good at having everyone have distinctive body language reflective of their personalities and current thoughts, and this didn't really carry forward) Brutal Legend is, in the first place, not trying nearly so hard to be Something Other Than A Video Game, and additionally there's a greater level of consistency with animation being used to enhance the story scenes. I actually intermittently enjoyed Brutal Legend's story scenes throughout the game, because these touches were done well, unlike in Psychonauts.

On the minus side, there's not a lot of learning happening.

One of Psychonauts' key problems was that it was a 3D platformer engine that only really remembered to try to be a 3D platformer at the beginning and end of the game. Brutal Legend, by a similar token, is a 3D beat 'em up engine that spends a lot of its time trying to be an RTS. Most of its remaining time is spent on being a really, really bad driving game, and then a notable fraction of the remaining time is spent on what amounts to weird minigames. Maybe 10% of your playtime is spent doing something like a 3D beat 'em up. Much of Brutal Legend's gameplay problems come back to this issue -and the frustrating thing is that in Brutal Legend's case the developers have explicitly said they

A: Wanted to make an RTS

and B: elected to make some open-world RPG-looking thing because 'RTSes don't sell well'.

So basically the game is broken to the ground because the devs wanted to pull a bait-and-switch of getting people to buy an RTS by thinking it wasn't an RTS.

I have trouble being sympathetic to Brutal Legend's gameplay problems, given that's the primary cause of them. That's self-evidently A Bad Plan, and it's sleazy -which is particularly infuriating since the game's storyline involves wagging its metaphorical finger at sleazy corporate types who pursue money at the cost of the fan's experience. So the game is poorly-made and hypocritical.

The fact that this is suspiciously similar to Psychonauts' design problems makes me even less sympathetic. Making an engine that is godawful at serving your explicit game design goals once is understandable for a variety of reasons. Twice is a lot harder to find understandable, and in this case there's no good defense to hide behind like 'they weren't entirely sure what the thing they were trying to make would look like'.

There's all kinds of prioritization issues with the game on top of these deep problems. The game loves to have you driving places; many of your missions are designed to be pure driving, and the game world is designed so you're expected to drive all over the place if you want to get anywhere in a reasonable timeframe. That would be fine...

... except vehicles handle like hot garbage in Brutal Legend.

They turn too slow. They accelerate too slow. They brake too slow. Their hitboxes are larger than their visuals would suggest. They get caught on minor terrain objects too easily. They get launched into the air, entirely out of your control, too easily.

This then gets compounded by the decisions the game makes around them. The game world is littered with minor indestructible objects for your vehicles to get caught on. The game has multiple missions where you're expected to deal with enemies coming up behind you, and by default the camera is pulled up too close to your car to see these threats until they're already ramming into you and sending your vehicle spinning out of control. (If there's a setting to fix this, I never discovered it) The game world is full of rolling hills, steep cliffs, and instant-death pits that you won't know are there until your vehicle is already hurtling into them. You're repeatedly expected, from very early in the game, to drive to destinations on a timer, never mind that your car drives like crap and there's no way you've mastered how to accommodate its awfulness when these first show up. You're repeatedly expected to drive through regions that require sharp turns, involve lots of indestructible junk to ram into and come to a screeching halt, and otherwise be an enormous pain -and in one case this is while deadly monsters are spawning in, able to kill you in about three hits and with a fast enough attack rate that if you get caught on anything they'll probably catch up to you and kill you while you're wrestling with the metaphorical steering wheel.

Speaking of that particular mission's problems, another problem Brutal Legend inherits from Psychonauts is What Does The Game Expect Me To Do Next syndrome. It's a little better than Psychonauts, in that when you're operating between missions it clearly labels your next destination and a dotted line marks a straightforward route from wherever you currently are to it... but once you're within a mission, good luck! You'll need it.

Or better yet, go find a FAQ or a video guide or something, because the game certainly isn't going to explain anything to you.

In some of the early missions, this isn't really a problem. You're in a one-way corridor, and walking down it and killing things until a cinema kicks in works fine. Other times, though... well, for one thing the majority of missions take place in a proper part of the game world, and the only signal of whether a given part of your environment is part of the mission space or not is that if you're close to exiting the mission space -and thus failing the mission- you'll get an on-screen textual warning. No visual boundaries, though, and by the way if you're driving your car? Yeah, it's entirely possible the text will pop up and a split second later you'll fail the mission because oops your brakes are garbage and you weren't warned to stop and turn around anywhere near early enough.

Thanks, game. I really needed to have bad game design fail the mission for me.

But wait, there's more!

Sometimes the game expects you to turn around and leave after you've Done A Thing. No explanation. No nothing. You've hit a dead end, a cinema triggered, and now going back to the beginning will be mission success instead of a waste of time. Just read the developers' minds, okay?

By a similar token, sometimes some of your friendlies are both mortal and their death will fail you the mission. Again: no warning. No explanation. Not even clear feedback on why you suddenly failed the mission! I'd say it usually makes sense in context, but that would be a lie: among other points, your plot-buddies bounce back and forth between mission-critical mortals and invincible killing machines with no rhyme or reason to it.

Then there's the times you're doing a survive-for-X-time mission, only nobody bothered to inform you that it's a timed defense mission. Then there's the other times, completely indistinguishable from the former, where you actually need to take the fight to the enemy and you might be shown that there's an enemy base to assault. Maybe.

A sub-point of all this is that the game seems to be shooting for immersion as a priority in a manner that boils down to high opacity. Instead of getting a health meter, your screen gets redder and whatnot as you take damage. Instead of getting to see your troops' health meters, uhhhhhh, pay attention for bloodstains? You know, for the troops that applies on. With vehicles you're just kinda screwed. (They do eventually set on fire, but it doesn't get worse in stages or anything useful like that)

This gets particularly infuriating when you're driving a vehicle -such as the game expects you to spend most of your time on- and there's no feedback on whether you're fine or a hit away from exploding. Same for when you're defending a vehicle in a driving sequence -which, by the way, is a regular occurrence!

The RTS gameplay itself is... frustrating and unsatisfying. Around 80% of this can be laid at the feet of the game operating in a 3D beat 'em up engine, but unfortunately most of the remaining 20% is that the game commits many ancient RTS sins that had largely been stamped out of the genre by the time Brutal Legend was in development. You've got

-The player can tell they've won for sure, but it's going to take another 5-20 minutes to get the game to acknowledge it.

-Production being so far from the front, and troop travel so slow, that everything drags on. (Incidentally exacerbating the first point: if an attack wave on the enemy's base is destroyed, it's going to take a solid two minutes for your replacement troops to hoof it)

-A painful lack of clarity on what a given unit type is for. What situation am I supposed to build this in? Am I supposed to use it alongside a specific unit type? Does it counter a specific unit type? Seriously, what do my units even do?

-Related: a reluctance to provide concrete details on what things do get explained. One of your units heals nearby allies. Does this include the player? Is it a percentile effect, such that it's more powerful when combined with high-HP units, or a fixed amount such that it's not? Does the game have armor, where some units will have the same amount of HP go farther? Do units other than the player character naturally regenerate, such that this is just a way of extending combat durability, or do they not such that healing them at all is a big deal? No idea! The game doesn't tell you!

-A limited upgrade system where all you know is that you're making specific units better. Somehow. Do they hit harder? Soak more damage before dying? Pick up HP regeneration? Gain non-obvious specialty abilities, such as bonus damage against buildings? No idea!

-Resource intake often proving more important than force composition, taking away a lot of the strategy from your Real Time Strategy game. (I can't speak with confidence to how true this is in multiplayer, admittedly, but it's a fairly big problem in the campaign)

It's disappointing enough that the flaws exist at all, but it's particularly puzzling that this is more or less a solved set of problems in the genre and Brutal Legend apparently didn't learn anything from the things it's drawing inspiration from.

The beat 'em up gameplay is also not very great. While the engine is more fundamentally suited to beat 'em up gameplay, the actual implementation of beat 'em up mechanics is clearly tuned to fit to the needs of the RTS missions. 1v1 fights have no depth or nuance to them; you can't perform any kind of counterattack action, attacking involves too much commitment to hit-and-run enemies, your animations are too slow to really read enemies and react to them in general... and mob fights aren't really any better, and in fact in some ways are worse; among other points, you have an infinite-use block that doesn't put enemies into hitstun if they impact it or anything of the sort, which can lead to situations where you're blocking and if you stop blocking you'll die because you're being constantly attacked by a dozen enemies but you can't accomplish anything by continuing to block. This dynamic isn't an issue in RTS battles because hey, you've got allies to come to your rescue, and also death doesn't have much of an impact anyway. In beat 'em up sequences where dying restarts the mission, it's infuriating.

The game's gameplay, in short, is generally more frustrating than fun, no matter what part of it you look at.


Next time, I cover the multiplayer a bit. As much as I can, given I couldn't play it with actual players.


Popular Posts