Diablo meets Castle Crashers in the punk rock apocalypse with Charlie Murder
I was hanging off the front of an old-timey pirate ship when the sharks attacked. Not just any sharks, mind. Some of the sharks had dynamite strapped to them. I had to dispatch them with an old-timey pirate… machine gun.
That was just before the sea monster attacked, and a little while after I'd flown through the sky on a broomstick shooting witches with a pistol. All of this occured in what was referred to as the punk rock apocalypse while being intermittently attacked by ninjas and zombies and giant bosses.
If you can't already tell, Charlie Murder is completely unhinged.
Charlie Murder is the latest title from Ska Studios, the developer of the excellent Dishwasher series. While Charlie Murder retains the unmistakable Ska Studios style, the action has been slowed down from their previous games to a multiplayer brawler pace that's more reminiscent of Castle Crashers.
The creator of the game, James Silva, refers to it as a brawl-PG and that's pretty much spot-on. Players travel through the game world in a River City Ransom style like an arcade beat-em-up, thrashing enemies and fighting bosses at the end of most stages while collecting loot and upgrading stats. It's a 2.5D brawler in the style of Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game, but with a sharper edge.
Charlie Murder is as much about brawler combat as it is about taking a trip through a twisted world. More than once I found myself a little bit worn out on the brawler-style, combo-heavy combat, and yet still couldn't put the game down because I wanted to see what was around the next corner. Charlie Murder never rests on one theme too long.
By the time you're sick of fighting zombies you'll be driving down the highway throwing junk from your car at ninjas throwing shurikens at you from a school bus. By the time you're sick of that, you'll be playing a simple Guitar Hero-esque mini game as your band brainstorms songs in their living room. Not long after that you'll be whisked away to the high-seas to punch pirates. When you're tired of punching pirates you'll be surfing down a thousand foot-long water slide. Charlie Murder is nothing if not varied.
This game does for punk rock what Brütal Legend did for heavy metal. Every moment of Charlie Murder is a love letter to punk rock, but it never gets bogged down with reverence. It's very existence displays the creator's love of that style, but most of the game is playfully sarcastic.
For instance, throughout the game you'll constantly be encouraged to check up on your “Sq.uiddl.us” status (a Twitter parody) to see how many followers you have. The joke seems to be that nothing ever actually matters on “Sq.uiddl.us.” Your follower count keeps getting higher and higher, but nothing of worth seems to come of it. Your feed is full of an endless stream of people casually name-dropping you and #FF's. The message, as I read it, is that one of its own features is a waste of time.
As much as this is a punk rock game it also feels like a James Silva game. As with the Dishwasher titles, the story is quite simple: you play as Charlie Murder, a famous musician who must take down his former bandmate who went evil after Charlie abandoned him to form a more successful band. But in the same Dishwasher-esque style, the story is disjointed and told out of order. This contrivance may make the narrative a bit more complex than it needs to be, but it's fun trying to keep up with everything that's going on.
Occasionally you'll come accross a feature that seems like it's only in the game because it's creator wanted it there, not necessarily because it fits the tone. There's a beer-crafting mini-game, for instance. As you go through the world you'll collect different barley, hops, and other brewing ingredients that can be used to brew stat-increasing beers.
This makes zero sense in a punk rock apocalyptic setting, and yet somehow it feels perfectly natural in this world that seems plucked from the subconscious of James Silva and artist Michelle Juett.
What could have been a ho-hum brawler becomes a game of considerable heft once the loot system kicks into high gear. Not only will you tweak your character's stats as you level up and acquire new skills, but you'll also choose which clothing you'll wear, which also enhances your stats and gives you new abilities. My pumpkin helm, for example, gave me a boost to my regular strength, speed, and defense stats while my Mummy Chains added extra fire and acid damage to my punches.
Charlie Murder leaves itself open enough that the player can customize their character however they wish. Between the five character classes and the many combinations of abilities, super attacks, and equipment there are hundreds of different ways to play.
Not without problems
The game does run into issues occasionally though, particularly with its save system. I found myself routinely frustrated with having to trek back through several empty stages each time I died on a boss encounter, and worse, my progress was occasionally lost when I turned off the system. I never quite figured out how the auto-save system worked, and I'd sometimes find myself having to re-kill difficult bosses or entire levels that I'd long since left in the dust.
I also found the game's treatment of its lone female character a little bit unnerving. All the playable characters play a role in the band, and The Mesmer played the tambourine. During the parts of the game where the band plays songs in the Guitar Hero-style mini-game, her parts seem sarcastically few and simplistic. She literally hits the tamberine a few times then waits around while the rest of the band plays, then hits it a few more times before the end of the song. In those sections it felt like the game was being sarcastic about her token-woman appearance in the band, but it was still jarring.
Later in the game, while the rest of the band is ripping up a hotel room, destroying furniture, she kicks ineffectually at a mattress, trying to take part, before another character comes to destroy it for her. These moments are few, but gave a slightly icky feel to an otherwise masterful experience. This never makes its way into gameplay, however, as The Mesmer is a good character class that I enjoyed playing.
The occasionally odd attitude towards its lone lady seemed out of place and the save system could be frustrating, but it's a testiment to Charlie Murder's successes that these seem like nits being picked. I didn't mind replaying sections of the game simply because they were a lot of fun, even the second time.
More than just an imitator of genre classics like Castle Crashers and River City Ransom, Charlie Murder is one of the best brawlers in a long time. The combo system is fun to explore, loot is fun to collect, the bosses are tough, and the world is utterly unique. It's best with at least one friend along for the ride, but this is a great game even as a solo experience.
Charlie Murder releases August 14th on Xbox Live Arcade for 800 Microsoft Points.