By Adam Raja
Release Date: 14th August 2013
XBLA’s Summer of Arcade is known for promoting some of the most unique, creative, and innovative games developed by small indie teams. Charlie Murder, developed by husband and wife duo Ska Games, is part of the 2013 line up, and not only is it easily the developers best game to date, it’s also one of the most stylistic and ambitious games to be released on XBLA.
At a glance, Charlie Murder appears to be no more than a 2D side scrolling beat ‘em up, much like the classics it borrows its core mechanics from. This is a fair assumption, as much of the gameplay and the control scheme are highly derivative of those that came before. However, beneath the surface, Charlie Murder is very much an RPG, with skill, looting, experience, and crafting systems in place, resulting in a remarkably intriguing and engaging experience that oozes charm from beginning to end.
Much of this charm comes courtesy of Charlie Murder’s simplistic, yet darkly fantastical 2D aesthetics. Every character and location looks as though it were drawn by a very talented but seriously troubled child. Characters are grotesque, yet somehow cute at the same time. This twisted artistic approach is complimented by a superbly rock infused soundtrack that varies with the pace of gameplay, and has enough variety to never become repetitive. I found myself tapping my feet along to the heavy drum beats whilst admiring the gorgeous but chaotic visuals on more than one occasion.
One of the more interesting aspects of the game’s soundtrack is the radio broadcast that can be heard whilst visiting certain in-game stores. The show delivers insight into the state of Charlie Murder’s chaotic world, but sadly, it becomes a chore to listen to because you don’t need to spend very much time in these locations. It would have made more sense to give the player the ability to listen to this show whilst playing through a stage. It’s a regrettable design choice, but it’s a nice addition nonetheless.
The sights and sounds in Charlie Murder give the game much more character than a fleshed out story ever could, which is ideal, because Charlie Murder takes a minimalistic approach to its narrative. There is very little dialogue, and much of the story is told through small, playable flashback sections that reveal the events that led up to the all-out mayhem that players now face. The simplicity of the story telling works fantastically well in Charlie Murder: it intrigues and draws in the player without ever taking you away from the action for too long, and it’s a surprisingly engaging tale for a beat ‘em up to portray.
Combat in Charlie Murder is literally bloody fun. Players will take on hordes of enemies, beating them until they are nothing more than a random scattering of body parts littering the 2D plain. These body parts can then become weapons in the player’s hands; it’s brutal, yes, but there’s something sadistically satisfying about bludgeoning a zombie-ninja to death with its comrades severed limbs.
Charlie Murders main strength is founded in its variety, something which does much to alleviate the repetitiveness associated with beat-‘em-ups. There are literally too many weapon choices and enemy variations to name, making combat, which could easily become monotonous, intense and exciting. Players will shoot, stab, chop, burn, electrocute, blow up, and melt their way through a countless number of foes, and the combinations available means it never becomes tiresome. There is large number of boss and mini-boss battles unpredictably scattered throughout the stages that continually test the player’s skill, also. My only complaint is that although these bosses greatly differ in appearance, some have similar methods of attack and don’t necessarily present that much of a challenge.
Adding to the variety, stages are broken up with mini-game sequences which include rhythm games, vehicle sections, obstacle courses and more. One moment I found myself riding a BMX bike around a construction site, the next I was launching rockets at mummified ninjas from the comfort of a flying broomstick; It’s variety gone mad, but it’s brilliant and keeps the player on their toes.
With that said, there is much more to Charlie Murder than just blood and guts, though. As players defeat enemies they are rewarded with a variety of loot, which include items and gear that the player can either utilise for a stat boost or sell for some cash. The player will also earn experience points which come in the form of followers. Earning followers levels up your character allowing player- stats to be increased and new skills to be learned. These new skills are all combat centric, and adds more methods of attack, diversifying combat even further.
These RPG elements are ingeniously tracked and tinkered with via your characters smart phone, and you can access it at any time via the d-pad. The smartphone utilises a parody twitter that allows you to track followers and level progress, as well as assign stat points and learn new skills. Emails which can be read on the phone equate to the games tutorial system, and you can even use its camera to scan QR codes to reveal hidden items and gain bonuses. The implementation of the smart-phone player hub is clever, but it definitely suffers due to the small size of its screen. This doesn’t completely break the mechanic, but it certainly makes navigation more cumbersome than it should be.
Some of the elements which make up Charlie Murder are somewhat complex and would have benefited from a more in depth explanation than is provided through the in-game emails. Beer-crafting is one such element; it is essentially Charlie Murder’s take on stat boosting potions, but there is no explanation given, and I found myself buying beer from shops instead of randomly combining ingredients on my own.
Perhaps the coolest character building element in Charlie Murder is the tattoo mechanic. Each of the games five characters has access to several different tattoos which work much like the spell systems one would find in other games. Tattoos grant characters with new class-unique powers and abilities whilst also having an aesthetic appeal. Some of the class-based powers have very similar effects and don’t differentiate as much as one would have liked, but it’s a nice addition to the combat and definitely mixes thing sup.
Charlie Murder’s campaign is of a fair length, but five different character classes, drop-in drop-out co-op for up to four players, multiple endings, secret bosses, hidden items, PVP arenas, and a ton of character customisation is enough to keep players coming back for some time. Charlie Murder is impressively choc-a-block full of content, but this is even more impressive when you consider the game’s sub £10 price tag.
Charlie Murder attempts to do so much that it’s inevitable that some aspects don’t work as well as they should, but thankfully the games accomplishments far exceed its flaws. Ska Studios have created a game that pushes the boundaries of what we can expect from a beat ‘em up, and does so whilst creating a truly unique world that intrigues throughout. The sheer amount of content is merely the icing on the cake. Charlie Murder is a must buy, and Ska games should be applauded for their brilliance.