- Punk Rock Flair
- Gameplay Variety
- Equipment Balancing
As Ska Studios’ new Xbox Live Arcade beat ‘em up Charlie Murder begins, the player is thrown into “The Netherlands.” No, not the Netherlands, but “The Netherlands.” You know, the hellish region beneath the earth where band members untimely ripped from the mortal realm wind up.
On the whole, Charlie Murder doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that’s also a large part of its charm. In one beach level, you might fight pirates, zombies, bikers, and witches (complete with broomstick and pistol). The combat bears obvious similarities to other games in the genre like Castle Crashers of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game, but the sheer variety of enemies helps Charlie Murder forge an identity of its own.
The plot essentials can only be gleamed from brief, often interactive cutscenes. Basically, the five-member band Charlie Murder, led by the titular lead singer, surges in ratings, but Paul, a former member left behind, makes a deal with the devil to punish the group. With a few close allies, who go on to be the major bosses of the game, the newly christened Lord Mortimer and his henchmen attack the band with a gauntlet of challenging fights.
While the story seems like nothing more than a formality, the level-up system is where Charlie Murder shines brightest. As you level up, you can upgrade usual stats like strength, speed and defense, but you can also unlock new special moves that help speed up enemy fights and increase inventory space. I have only played with two of the five selectable characters so far, Rex and Charlie himself, but I can definitively say that each character plays quite different. Even on the character select screen, each character is given a distinct class. Charlie is a “Berzerker,” Lester is a Mage, Tommy a Shaman, Rex a Tank, and Kelly a “Mesmer.”
I beat the game in its entirety with Charlie, and, while the game is certainly not easy, I only died a handful of times and found taking my time to be the best way to get through difficult boss battles. With almost a dozen enemies onscreen in addition to a big boss like King Tepes, an axe-wielding Thor wannabe, I advise stealing a few hits here and there but focusing more on not getting hit. Once you go down and enemies begin to swarm around you, it’s quite difficult breaking free again.
Charlie Murder is dressed in modern day punk rock garb, from the distinct soundtrack to the special tattoo abilities. There is a cell phone interface, which functions also functions as a camera, and snapping pictures of QR codes in the background grants the player items to use on the quest to defeat Lord Mortimer. You also gain “followers” throughout the game as you achieve certain tasks through a service called “Squidlius,” the game’s own version of Twitter.
While there are a variety of options in combat, and multiple punching moves, just jumping and punching with the B button seemed to work throughout most of the game. Honestly, I didn’t even know there were multiple ways to punch and kick until I was well into the game, and I never had problems. With that said, the combat really lost its sense of variety the farther I got into the game, and battles became more like endurance tests than uniquely fun experiences. Mashing B, using special abilities, then waiting for them to recharge gets old after a while, and, as some bosses have more than four bars of HP, some battles can take more than a few minutes.
Almost everything in Charlie Murder can be used as a weapon, including arms, decapitated heads, and even giant hoagies. Bizarrely, you can purchase animals like frogs and bats then consume them as you would ale. I should also mention that the game has a crafting system that involves fermenting different types of alcohol to consume during combat, with varying effects.
It’s pretty obvious that Charlie Murder is meant to be played with friends, or at least online, as the game supports up to four players. Occasionally, you run into doors that can only be entered in multiplayer, so the single player experience is not all Charlie Murder has to offer. There are also some achievements dedicated to multiplayer, so completion junkies should know that going in.
Most of your power boosts come from your equipment, and the power curve is quite strange. One minute, you’ll reach a shop and buy all new duds to upgrade your stats. Then, the very next enemy you encounter will drop a hat that far exceeds your new purchase, turning it into wasted money. You can sell unwanted equipment at commonly located computer stations to keep your inventory manageable and I never had a problem with money throughout my playthrough, so the poor balancing didn’t ruin my experience with the game by any means.
There are also scenarios in Charlie Murder that dabble in other genres. There are a couple of rhythm game sections involved in flashback scenes, and a quick-time skateboarding event. There is also a bizarre minigame straight out of Tim Burton drawings, where you toss a misshapen creature over a fence to eat empty bottles. These little diversions are always quite brief and serve keep the game fresh when otherwise it feels like a general slog pressing B and hurling body parts back at enemies.
Overall, Charlie Murder is definitely fun, although perhaps not on the level of the true gems of the genre. With five characters and three difficulties, there is plenty to do in the game if you don’t mind the repetitive combat and would enjoy replaying the entire game multiple times at increasing levels of difficulty. I don’t anticipate jumping back into Charlie Murder anytime soon, but my one full playthrough was certainly enjoyable. Buy the game on Xbox Live Arcade if you’re looking for some beat ‘em up fun.