Charlie Murder [Review]
I was sick to death of beat ’em ups when Charlie Murder landed in my lap. I was really, really hard on it when it first started, feeling like I was going to lose my temper any second and shut it off. Somehow, despite my rotten disposition going in, the game managed to not only keep me interested, but also hook me so hard that I kept playing and playing and playing. Variety, neat combat options, and a clever experience system would have just made this a solid game, but it’s through the sheer brute force of this game’s personality and themes that it managed to destroy my expectations.
In this game, the violence is part of the game’s theme — embracing horror and gore and making them part of the game’s personality. Expect to use body parts as melee weapons, stomp on heads so hard the eyeballs pop out, and separate limbs from torsos with every swing of a weapon. Ryu Hayabusa has never even come close to doing this kind of damage to people. Rick from Splatterhouse wishes he fought as messily as Charlie Murder. There really aren’t any moves that don’t have an explosive, catastrophic effect on living flesh in this game. If you don’t think that’s something you can take, the door is right where you left it.
Well, before you leave, you should note that this isn’t hyper realistic or anything like that. The art is unique, reminding of The Behemoth’s art style in Castle Crashers, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. The art bears similarities to it, but has this rough line work to it that makes it look a lot darker and meaner. While the characters have a cartoonish appearance, strong details get added to certain areas like teeth or black holes for eyes. It gives the game the appearance of a disturbed child’s drawing with some of the monsters, creating something that can be funny and terrifying all at once. Couching the violence in this art style makes it look almost silly due to the more cartoon-like work in the main characters, but the more frightening creatures somehow make the violence even more brutal at the same time. It’s an odd balance that I doubt anyone but Ska Studios could pull off, mixing revulsion and laughter together to make something like this.
This game has really created some sickening monsters for you to put your violent tendencies to work on. Masked creatures, monsters with no skin, ghosts with maws filled with razor teeth, and dozens of other bloody, ghastly creatures lurk in the halls of this game. Many of them could easily be the principle monster of their own slasher film, but instead you fight many of them as regular enemies. The enemy variety never seemed to stop in this game, with every hour getting filled with more monsters and attack routines. A few of the monsters attacked relatively the same as other previous ones, but most of them had brand new attacks for me to deal with on top of them looking vastly different.
Combat stayed pretty fresh due to the sheer intensity of it. The enemies rarely let up in this game, pounding on your character the entire time. You can take quite a few hits and enemies drop health with relative frequency, so the game encourages this reckless play style that had me throwing myself into the enemies, grabbing weapons and trading hits while hoping to come out on top. Even though I really only had medium and strong attacks plus a few abilities, just driving myself into those crowds of frightening demons and creatures felt so, so good. Things would always get pretty hairy, my health would get dangerously low while I grabbed anything I could to beat my enemies back with, but I’d eventually come out victorious.
In any other game, I’d stop after I’d finished a fight to let myself heal. I had equipped a few items that let me gain back my health slowly, but waiting to regenerate just didn’t feel right in Charlie Murder. The pacing of the game’s fights just pumps you up so much that it’s hard to come back down again, often getting me to jump into fights that I wasn’t entirely prepared for. There’s just something about all the damage and gore flying back and forth that kept me pushing harder, making it so I never wanted to leave combat for any reason. The pace of this game is incredible, and it’s been years since I’ve been encouraged and rewarded for playing a game so aggressively. It feels pretty good.
Part of that pace is the fact that everyone is carrying some sort of weapon, and even if they’re not, odds are good that using a weapon on them will allow you to weaponize their arms or head. Bones, swords, guns, limbs; it’s all fair game, and I recommend taking the dual weapons perk any time you can. Most environmental objects can be destroyed for some kind of weapon as well, so at any given point there are ten weapons lying around. They all have different properties when you pick them up, letting you slice off limbs with blades or just do obscene damage with the heavier weapons, and they help keep the chaos going during the fights. You pick them up extremely quickly, so it’s nothing to be punching a group of enemies, have one of their limbs fall off, catch it the second it hits the ground, and then start beating the rest of the enemies without even breaking your combo.
There are some neat abilities you can unlock for each character to make them unique. They have classes that are fairly typical of the genre (although the terminology is more MMO than anything these days) with your tank, caster, buff…er, and generally a little good at everything guy. Despite having roles they’re best suited for in combat, they all have useful powers that would be enough to get you through the game on your own. For Charlie, I had several AOE attacks and one healing spell, and it was more than enough to get me through. I also had another spell I picked up that let me summon a bag of guns, possibly the greatest spell ever conceived. There were a few more healing and defensive ones I could have picked up had I felt like, but I tend to lean toward pure aggression and stuck with various ways to hurt people. The options were there to spec my character in a different way, though, allowing player to do what they like with the characters.
If there was any chance that I would fall out of the pace, the music eliminated that possibility. Combining metal and punk in wild ways, the game’s music is constant, pounding psych-up stuff, the sort of thing you play during a tough workout to keep you going. There’s some really hard stuff that plays almost every minute of the game, and it kept me from ever calming down during combat. It really helps maintain the pace and tone of a game about stomping demons flat, and is one of the best beat ’em up soundtracks I’ve ever heard. I don’t think I’ve ever heard something that managed to sound so manly and tough for such a sustained amount of time over so many different tracks.
The sound is amazing, too. I used to think that Isaac’s stomp from Dead Space couldn’t be topped for sheer ferocity, but the earth-shattering thud you hear when Charlie slams his foot through an enemy’s head is incredible. It sounds like the bottom of your television is going to fall out every time you stamp down, and you can feel the bass just thump against your ears. The other sound effects are just as good, filling the game with some disgusting, sloppy sounds whenever you cut off a limb or tear off the head. The enemy’s groans and growls sound deep and disturbing, adding a lot more menace to some already terrifying character designs. The sound just does so much to make an excellent game even better.
Assuming you get sick of all that good stuff, there are some really varied vehicle and on-rails segments to keep you going. I had to fly on a broomstick a few times while blasting witches out of the air, hop on a shopping cart and ride it down a hill while dodging an insane roadie in a truck, and stand on the end of a ship while firing at a sea monster. It adds a nice break every once in a while, taking you to some strange places to do something even more bizarre than usual, like surfing down a stream while throwing fish at your enemies. They’re pretty fun each time they show up, and are a welcome break from the regular proceedings.
The shame of these vehicle sections is that not all of them are planned out all that well. Most of them work, but the handful of downhill racing ones are brutally hard. The angle the game is at doesn’t let you see much of what’s coming ahead in these sequences, and you’re expected to hit ramps and avoid obstacles in them. Now, if you stick to the very bottom of the screen you’ll be able to see more of what’s coming, but you’ll be so close to obstacles at the bottom that you’ll get cleaned out a lot. They’re extremely hard to survive on the most basic difficulty, so I don’t even want to imagine how things get on higher ones. It’s not a common problem and the sequences are typically short enough that you can just limp through, but they are annoying.
Another issue I found was in the game’s checkpoint system. It’s a little odd to get a feel for what the game is saving. It mentions that it’s saving whenever you see a spinning star in the lower right corner, pretty much just like any other game. When I was exhausted one night I shut it off soon after the star appeared, expecting to be in relatively the same spot when I reloaded. Instead, I was at a shop from much earlier on in the level. I was pretty annoyed, but the game had saved the gear I’d picked up so I wasn’t too upset. The game also saved the fact that I’d beaten many of the enemies and bosses along the way, leaving a handful of living ones to fight after I’d progressed a certain distance. It seemed a little strange and is a bit frustrating when you don’t know what the game is going to do when it’s telling you it’s saving. For clarification, only assume the game is saving where you are when you hit a shop or map.
It might seem that it’d be easy to tell when you complete a level, as the game gives these big CLEARED signs once you beat certain bosses. Seems clear enough, doesn’t it? Well, if it’s not a shop, it’s probably not actually saving where you are. It’ll save that the boss is dead, thankfully, but maybe not where you’re actually supposed to be at that moment. The game has multiple maps all over the place that let you warp to different locations, though, so it’s never a huge deal. It just seems strange that this was handled so poorly when the rest of the game works so well.
The sheer personality this game oozes — the raw aggression and violence that shows in every creature, location, and sound, makes up for these tiny flaws. This is a high quality beat ’em up, and the fact that you can play it with a bunch of friends online or local is just amazing. Not enough games let me enjoy them with a friend in the same room anymore, so this is beyond a welcome addition. It’s especially good because this is a game that I really want to show my friends. It sounds great, looks great, and plays great. Stop lollygagging around reading this crap and go get it.