Punk rock is a genre of music that can’t help but be defined by the attitude that surrounds it. The rebelliousness, anger, and apathy come through the songs just as strongly as the messages, making it a movement that defined a generation forever. Even though these messages and attitudes are still relevant today, it’s never too early to send up the genre, and Ska Studios does it in style with Charlie Murder.
The game follows the appropriately named punk band, Charlie Murder, as they make their way through the apocalypse to defeat their enemies in the metal band Gore Quaffer. If that doesn’t immediately make you want to play, then how about the fact that Charlie Murder is a throwback to old fashioned arcade brawlers with an RPG twist? It sounds a bit outlandish at first, and there is a bit of a learning curve since not much is explained in the way of gameplay, but once you figure out the basics, you’ll be having a blast.
Just like the brawlers Charlie Murder emulates, there are a handful of characters to play as, each serving as a different member of the band and providing unique sets of attacks. The RPG elements invade early on, however, as each character is representative of a certain class, meaning you can play as a tank, mage, berserker and so on. From there, enemies are defeated using basic melee attacks, throws, and special attacks. Teammates can also come together and attack together, just one of the many ways groups can come together to conquer.
The RPG side of Charlie Murder is pretty light, meaning you won’t be spending hours customizing facial features, skill trees and relationships with NPCs. Rather, these elements rear their head mainly as upgrades. Each character can level up after a time, giving them the chance to learn one new attack or ability and assign a few points to basic skills (attack, defense, speed, etc.). On top of that, clothes can be picked up from defeated enemies or bought at stores within the game to improve skills. Tattoos are used to gain new special attacks, and random foods (and live animals) are sold for consumption, which leads to temporary boosts.
Much of this is handled from the band’s cellphones, and because the screens are pretty small, you’ll suffer if you can’t play the game on an HDTV. You’ll also miss out on the rich visual style, which fans of Ska Studios’ previous games (such as The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai) will immediately recognize. Every blood spurt, lightning bolt, gunshot and concert is animated beautifully and brutally, making Charlie Murder one of the most visually striking XBLA titles in recent memory.
At its heart, this is a brawler, and fans of the genre will be more than satisfied by what’s being offered. The story is surprisingly lengthy and is filled with laughs and unforgettable moments, especially if a group of friends can join the fray. Charlie Murder is still functional and fun alone, but getting a group of four together to bang through it is a fantastic experience. I said quite a few phrases that no other game will give me the chance to repeat (“Grab that guy’s head and shove it on a pole, I’m gonna keep throwing brains and legs at the guy on the motorboat!”), and more than a few memorable set pieces had our group in stitches. When else can you hop on a witch’s broom and take down Bigfoot as he throws houses at you?
Charlie Murder has style and attitude in spades, but it never comes across as gimmicky or a crutch to lean on. The game is solid enough to stand on its own without the ridiculous happenings that keep pushing players forward, but the fact that it’s hilarious at the same time makes it that much more enjoyable. Much of the story is explained through flashbacks to before the apocalypse and through playable concerts, which although a bit out of place, are too far between to ruin any momentum. In true punk fashion, a hotel is trashed, and even if it’s unnecessary, it just adds to the game’s charm.
Unlike most brawlers, Ska Studios’ latest release features easily identified shops and a world map that can be used to travel back and forth to unlocked areas, meaning a store is usually within reach when needed. Environments are extremely detailed and worth exploring, even if only for pocket change and spare clothes. Many of the enemies seem out of place and hardly make sense, but in a game this ridiculous, they actually fit. In one level, you’ll switch between fighting witches, chainsaw-wielding pumpkin-heads, and spirits that string you up in a noose if you touch them.
One of the few complaints that holds the game back from perfection, however, is the simple repetitiveness: brutalize enemies, collect coins, upgrade, repeat. As much fun as it is, it doesn’t present much variety, and after a few hours it can start to be tiring. There are also a few sections that rely on steady platforming, which is made difficult by the view, but death is hard to come by, meaning failure isn’t punished too severely. That being said, the checkpoint system put in place is severely punishing, so get ready to start winging your controller across the room when you see where you end up after death.
Old-school brawlers offered great challenge, and the most gratifying parts of those games was besting a particularly difficult section. The same can be said about Charlie Murder, and it’s easy enough to sidestep certain challenges if you’re running through them again after an unfortunate death. It’s still a pain to end up losing much of the progress made, but much of this only happened in single player. The challenge remained in multiplayer, but it seemed much more forgiving simply because somebody else was there to suffer with me.
There is a wealth of fantastic content to be found throughout Charlie Murder, and any one part of the huge mix is sure to tickle everybody’s fancy. The RPG elements are incorporated perfectly into a winning brawler formula, and enough unique set pieces are sprinkled throughout to break up the action without becoming stale. A general punk rock raucousness resounds throughout the experience, helped in part by the soundtrack and by the settings, but mostly through the attitude the game has. It’s a messy, bloody, brutal, offensive, strange and always fun experience, and a downloadable title that shouldn’t be missed.
This review is based on the XBLA title, which was provided to us.