We’ve come to expect dark, violent games from the indie developer Ska Studios and their latest XBLA title is no different. However with Charlie Murder the team has stepped up their game even further, enhancing the pure beat ‘em up gameplay of past Dishwasher games to include many great action RPG elements. The end result is a stand out game that is filled with style, humor and plenty of RPG goodness.
The premise of the game is as dark and twisted as you might expect from a game titled Charlie Murder. You play as Charlie, the lead singer of a popular band. However you start the game having just been beaten to the brink of death by Lord Mortimer and his fellow bandmates. Lord Mortimer has his own rival band but there is a much deeper, more sinister reason that he hates you. The game reveals the reason for his hate slowly, and it’s something that honestly made me a little sad and uneasy. It’s a really cool take on the type of story we’re used to seeing from your standard “Battle of the Bands” setup.
In fact the entire style of Charlie Murder is one that dabbles often with unsettling visuals and situations. Blood and gore is common but horrific creatures and imagery permeates throughout the experience. It’s a setting that can definitely be decisive as many people will surely love it, while others will likely tire of the gritty, dark setting. The music will likely draw similar feelings, with great somber melodies that fit the style perfectly but then hardcore grunge rock sections that are mostly forgettable. The game does attempt to lighten the mood with special levels such as a side-scrolling shooter section featuring your character brandishing a pistol and flying on a broom. These levels are quite fun and the game does a good job of spreading them throughout your playthrough.
The core of Charlie Murder takes many elements from other games in this same genre, most notably Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game. You begin your game by selecting one of five different band members, each with their own unique class. Charlie is the Berserker and other classes include Mage, Tank, Shaman and Mesmer. Each character is unique with different moves and powers. You might have to try each of them out for figure out which is your favorite but they all feel like viable and fun options.
Gameplay is basically what you would expect, with heavy and light attacks mixed up to produce different combos. You can grab enemies to dish out more damage, pick up melee and ranged weapons to increase your damage and block and counter enemies. You also can have up to four special powers equipped at a time which range from simple AOE attacks to things like healing or mind-controlling an enemy. Powers are quite powerful so the game balances them by giving each its own cooldown timer before it can be used again.
Beneath this fairly straight forward beat ‘em up setup is a nice RPG frame. Following the real world rock world setting, you level up as you gain followers – aka experience – on the games take on Twitter. You actually use your phone to pull up your follower feed, read e-mails, take pictures and level up your stats. In addition to leveling up is a nice loot mechanic. Again this is all based on a real world so instead of helmets and chainmail you’ll be equipping t-shirts and fingerless gloves, which are luckily reflected immediately on your character model.
With all of these RPG and beat ‘em up aspects the game does have a tendency to not explain some of the mechanics in the game. There is a fairly straight forward combo system in the game revolving around light and heavy attacks but the game never teaches it. I had to luck into discovering a juggle combo and only discovered in the very late game that I can transition that juggle combo into a sort of spinning piledriver move. Other aspects of the game are poorly represented as well, such as what the various items in shop do or how to brew beer using the various ingredients you pick up as loot.
For the most part the game expects you to figure this stuff out for yourself, which can lead to some frustrating moments in the early game. You might get stuck at a boss fight but have no idea how to purchase food in shops to restore your health so you can be better prepared next time. Once you do figure out all of the mechanics the game becomes a decent amount easier but it still never lets you rest. Difficulty will spike throughout and several bosses are quite hard to put down. Luckily the game never descends into frustrating territory; every boss feels beatable.
If going alone proves too hard you can take advantage of Charlie Murder’s four player co-op to help you through. Like most beat ‘em ups the game is best when played with others and Charlie Murder adds cooperative elements such as teaming up for super attacks a la classic Simpsons Arcade and the ability to revive comrades. You can play over Xbox Live or with friends sitting next to you for couch co-op.
Like most games in this genre, Charlie Murder provides plenty of value. A single playthrough will take from eight to ten hours; a little shorter if you play co-op. Beating the game once unlocks a more difficult New Game Plus, after that is an even harder yet mode to unlock. Plus there are five different characters to try out to offer upwards of 100 hours of playtime potential.
The beat ‘em up/RPG genre is one of the best represented games on XBLA and Charlie Murder stands up as an excellent entry. The action is great with varied bosses and fun change of pace levels. RPG elements also add a lot of fun – who doesn’t love collecting rare loot? The style of the game is certainly well done but the violent, disturbing imagery may turn off some people. If the style is something you can get on board with, you’ll certainly enjoy your time spent with Charlie Murder.
SCORE: 8.0 out of 10
A code for Charlie Murder was provided to Pixel Related for review.