Release Date: August 14, 2013
Developer(s): Ska Studios
Platform(s): X360 (Xbox Live Arcade)
Charlie Murder is the latest project from Ska Studios, a small indie developer that started off on PC and has called the Xbox 360 home since around 2009. They’re known for their dark and stylish 2D side-scrollers like The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai and its sequel, as well as wacky smaller titles like I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1. With Charlie Murder, the studio has taken what they’ve learned from games like The Dishwasher and have expanded its ideas into new territory with improved combat, deep RPG elements, a much longer campaign, and expanded multiplayer options. On top of their various improvements, they’ve added plenty of polish and released it for just $10. While there are some lingering issues to be found throughout the lengthy adventure, Charlie Murder is definitely a solid 2D beat ‘em up with plenty of attitude and lots of depth.
Since the game is heavily influenced by rock and roll, it’s only fitting that Charlie Murder begins with your character fighting off demonic creatures in the bowels of hell. After a few short minutes, you begin to ascend towards a bright light and hear a heavenly tune, though you quickly realize that it’s just a paramedic bringing you back to the world of the living. As your dazed body recovers, across the street you get a glimpse of the group that almost slaughtered you: the demonic band Gore Quaffer and its leader, Lord Mortimer. Through a series of flashbacks you’ll come to understand how they came to be, how Charlie and his band became famous, and how everything fell apart horribly for the young rockers. The story is short on dialogue and explanation, so you will have to piece it together to find out exactly what went down. I will say, however, that’s it pulled off well and deals with themes such as friendship, jealousy, betrayal and revenge.
Fleshing out the story and the overall world of Charlie Murder is the game’s distinctive visual and sound design. From the stylish title screen and cut scenes to the coarse design of the characters, the game is drenched in a punk rock style befitting the subculture. It offers a gritty hand-drawn look to its sprites, as well as lots of blood and gore that fit quite well with the setting. Ska Studios put in plenty of little details in the visuals too, such as the way brains and eye balls will literally plunge out of enemy skulls after finishing them with a brutal combo, or how bloodstains mark the floor after an extensive battle. Charlie Murder takes cues from games like The Dishwasher in terms of aesthetics, and if you’ve played those early games you’ll notice that aspects like the muted color palette and strong use of shadows make a return. The only thing visually I didn’t enjoy were the animations, which I felt were a bit too stiff and distracting during gameplay. That being said, I enjoyed the game’s fresh look and it was complimented well by the heavy soundtrack. It was a joy to listen to while beating enemies to a pulp.
The music in Charlie Murder is as fast and brutal as the combat you’ll frequently partake in, hitting all the right notes when necessary. It’s also pretty varied and almost every stage has a different sound and atmosphere to help it stand out in some way. You can tell the developers hired some gifted musicians to bring this moody world to life, and it becomes especially apparent during fun little Guitar Hero-esqe minigames. Throughout your journey you’ll get a chance to perform as Charlie’s band for certain segments, which is a nice little break from all the bloodshed. They’re difficult but fun little diversions for sure. In addition, sticking around safe areas with a radio nearby will let you listen to full tracks by Charlie’s fictional band interspersed with witty radio banter describing your progress through the game. It’s a nice touch, but unfortunately it does get a bit tedious just standing around so you likely won’t hear a lot of it. No matter how good the gritty visuals and rocking tunes are, it’s the deep combat system that pulls everything together.
If you’ve played beat ‘em ups like Streets of Rage, Castle Crashers, or one of my favorites, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, then you should be intimately familiar with how Charlie Murder works. You pick your character and go from stage to stage beating up weak minions, stronger mini-bosses, and the end stage bosses that will sometimes drive you insane. Where Charlie Murder excels, however, is in how much variety you have access to in terms of the way you accomplish your goal. For one, the game features five starter characters; the members of Charlie’s band. They each have various differences in stats and abilities and you can later unlock two alternate forms for each, for a roster of 15 characters in total. Their roles vary, with Charlie himself offering maneuverability and lots of combos, while his friends fill other roles such as mages, healers, or tanks that soak up tons of damage. The RPG elements on display aren’t just a cheap gimmick, they have a profound impact how each character functions alone or in a group. This becomes especially important if you play the game in co-op, which I will get into more later.
These addicting RPG elements are expanded upon further thanks to a deep and rewarding loot system. Like Diablo or Borderlands, the game is constantly throwing useful (and not so useful) supplies at you of varying quality and rarity. But like everything else in Charlie’s world, the gear fits the punk rock motif as well. Expect chains, spikes, trendy t-shirts, hoodies, and cute hats to overflow from your inventory. Each item affects your character’s stats like strength, speed, or anar-chi (the game’s version of magic). Level-ups also come frequently as you earn XP in the form of followers (ala Twitter) and provide stats points which are used to unlock more special moves and perks. As an extra little nod to the rock lifestyle, you gain new attack spells by visiting tattoo parlors and getting inked, and can even collect ingredients to brew and consume magical beers that offer permanent stat boosts. It’s a lot to take in for someone expecting a simple beat ‘em up, but it definitely gives the game a lot of replayability and keeps you constantly feeling comfortable about your next challenge.
Speaking of challenge, Ska Studios did a great job at making the game’s difficulty just right. You start the game off on Normal which is a good challenge on its own, and can then unlock Hard and Very Hard difficulties through a new game plus mode. While each new stage and enemy type tends to feel a bit too hard at first, the game is always generous with loot drops and in no time you’ll be more than capable of taking down anything in your path until the next section, where you go through the cycle once more. When you’re properly equipped, the combat truly shines and feels brutal. Even though the game uses only two buttons to attack and one to grab, there a plenty of combos to pull off and each have particular uses against certain enemy types. The major area where the combat suffers, though, is through the fact that you must fight in a flat, 2D world, which can lead to frustration.
Frequently in the middle of combat, I would be trying to pull off a combo when the enemy would move up or down the screen too much, making me completely lose my line of sight. During one particular fight in which a boss enjoyed flying around excessively, it became especially noticeable and a real pain. Now, I know this has been a problem with beat ‘em ups since the dawn of the genre, but it’s annoying that this issue continues to rear its ugly head and developers have yet to find a viable solution. This also affects the traversal of stages that involve environmental hazards. Since the game is on a 2D plane, it becomes frustratingly easy to slip off thin walkways or run into spike traps because it’s too difficult to pinpoint your character’s relative position. Including these kinds of obstacles don’t really add to the challenge, they just magnify an inherent flaw in these kinds of games. Level design in Charlie Murder is also a bit of a mixed bag at times.
Like I previously stated, the game is long and there are plenty of stages to go battle through. Some stages are pretty interesting, such as a section where your character consumes some unnamed drug and starts hallucinating in a creepy forest; the colors and the music get incredibly psychedelic, you gain infinite chainsaws and shotguns, and slaughter the entire membership of the Skulls and Bones. There’s a few outlandish shoot ‘em up inspired levels too, like one where you ride around on a broom like some kind of trendy hipster witch. While these are fun and the memorable, some of the other levels in the game are a bit underwhelming in comparison. While areas like streets, shopping malls, and cemeteries are expected since the backdrop of the game is the real world, they still feel a bit bland. Finally, there are sections of stages with no enemies to fight or anything to do really; you simply keep running and running until you trigger an encounter. These parts became a bit too frequent for me and hurt the otherwise good pacing of the game. They could of have been shortened or scrapped entirely as they feel like unnecessary filler.
Even with those flaws, Charlie Murder overcomes and delivers where it counts; in the overall fun factor. Online/local co-op helps out in this regard quite well, letting you and three other friends team up and decimate the game’s various challenges like a real band of super-powered 20-somethings. Playing together also allows for special team attacks that allow you to mosh in unison and slam into enemies like you don’t give a hoot or even combine into a deadly mech with heavy firepower. All players can access their inventory and their own individual stat screens at the same time too, without having to wait until the end of a stage. This is thanks to a well designed and compact user-interface resembling a phone that let’s everyone do their thing and quickly get back into the fight with little down time. Like a typical rock concert, with four players on screen the action can at times become somewhat chaotic. If it’s too much I advise sticking to just one good friend for a more strategic playthrough. Overall, the co-op is a great addition to the game and is something that all beat ‘em up’s should be implementing at this point.
When all is said and done, Charlie Murder provides a solid beat ‘em up experience that in many ways takes inspiration from the excellent games that have come before it. However, it has an exceptional personality that shines brightly through its distinct visuals, intense music, and at times wacky ideas. The game also has plenty of in-jokes and references to earlier titles from Ska Studios, gaming classics, and hit horror films scattered throughout for those curious enough to find them. Charlie Murder is easily the most ambitious project this developer has undertaken to date, and it shows in countless ways. For those seeking a change of pace, Charlie Murder’s bloody world of demons and rock and roll is certainly worth going to hell for.
- Excellent soundtrack sets the right mood
- A unique visual style that is completely its own
- Deep RPG mechanics and an addictive loot system
- Plenty of content provides a good bang for your buck
- The game is fun alone, but more so with co-op buddies
- Environmental hazards quickly become aggravating
- Long empty sections break pacing and feel like filler
- Level design is a mixed bag