Heavy metal and video games go together well. From the synth-guitar riffs of Thunder Force IV, through Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing’s licensed SNES replicas of some classic bangers, to the mighty DOOM’s “D_E1M1” (oh, okay, At Doom’s Gate, if you insist) itself, the genre has been the sonic accompaniment to more than a fair few high-energy video games.
But for some, that’s not enough. What if an entire game was heavy metal? This seems to be the kind of thinking that brought us things like Brutal Legend and, well, now Metal Tales: Overkill – of which the developers evidently had the idea of combining Double Fine’s cult classic with Binding of Isaac to bring us a heavy metal twin-stick roguelike.
The plot sees the ‘Gods of Metal’ and their fans become corrupted and drained of their souls. As one of four protagonists, it’s up to you to set things straight and restore the metal once and for all. If that sounds very Tenacious D to you, then you wouldn’t be far wrong in this assumption – there’s even a ‘Pick of Destiny’ reference on one of the presentation screens. And like the D themselves, the tone is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as horns are thrown whenever a room is cleared and most of the pickups are guitar-related in some way; strings, amps, the guitars themselves. Even the player health display is an array of heart-themed plectrums.
It’s pretty standard fare if you’re familiar with Binding of Isaac or even something like Enter the Gungeon – left stick moves around, right stick aims/shoots, shoulder bumper buttons for bombs and one-off power-ups, and also there are ‘summons’ bound to the d-pad; each having a beneficial effect that can be used repeatedly, but only after a cooldown. What’s totally welcome is that, unlike Isaac, aiming isn’t restricted to the cardinal directions but 360 degrees, bringing it more in line with Gungeon. There’s a ‘slide’ button that will give the player access to a Gungeon-esque ‘dodge’ move too…once it unlocks.
As per the genre, upon death an ‘upgrade’ menu allows the player to buy said slide move, access more items in-game, flesh out the shops, and improve character stats.
Thematically it really solidly sticks to the metal side of things, the six stages being set in the various familiar metal gig locations that are bars, festival fields, and hell. Because of course. Enemies take the form of a fair few metal cliché archetypes: dashing moshers. guitar kids, metal vocalists, and even some big bruisers who I can’t decide are more likely to be venue bouncers or drummers. Either, really.
These are broken up with flying beer cans and spider/amp hybrids, which are my favourite enemies because without them the cast would be way too similar. As it is, most of the humanoid enemy types can’t be discerned too easily at-a-glance, but at the very least the visual design codifies all the bad stuff as ‘purple’ in lieu. So, they all must die, and it doesn’t really matter what they are.
It’s fun though, at least for a while. Maybe not to begin with, as most of the character’s firing rates are a little slow and cumbersome. They strum projectiles out of their guitar at a low tempo, which changes when a few power-ups are acquired from songbooks, which is the name of the game. These vary from absolutely useless (Crazy Shot? May as well be renamed ‘reset the game now, you’re fucked’) to a ridiculously overpowered shot that took out everything bar the final two bosses in a single hit. As such the random element of this particular roguelike can be your friend or foe. But that’s entirely how the genre works, and an incentive to play again, and again.
Or at least, that’s the theory. Despite the ability to upgrade characters and unlock more collectibles, a single playthrough will show you most of the game. Those six stages (two of each setting, essentially) are basically it, and an hour’s play could show you everything if the RNG is playing ball and you get all the bosses. Which seriously impacts things, as it’s a genre that lives or dies based on how much it can keep the player engaged with new content.
It does offer some flair of its own – there’s some nice music from lesser-known real-life bands to listen to in the ‘extras’ menu, the initial comic-book presentation is appealing, and the occasional ‘trap room’ appearing in the procedurally generated levels does change up the pace somewhat from the combat, itself being a mixed bag. Certain smaller screens can be populated with such a small handful of enemies that the room is over as soon as it’s done, even in the later stages.
But really, apart from the novelty of everything being heavy metal AF (which in itself gets tiring way sooner than you’d expect), once the game is completed and the two additional characters are unlocked, there’s little else to see.
No encore, no afterparty. Go home.
It’s a shame to see that this, evidently a labour of love from some people who adore heavy metal, has to be such a bum note. Hopefully, there could be some content updates to give it the shot in the arm it so dearly needs. Better start chanting the band’s name just in case.