Charlie Murder, the newest beat-em-up from Ska Studios, has a tough task at hand. As part of this year’s Xbox Live Summer of Arcade, it’s among the year’s big showcase for XBLA titles. Not only that, but it’s among established franchises like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Flashback, so Ska Studios has a lot to live up to right now.
So I guess the big question is, does Ska drop the ball with Charlie Murder?
No. It chainsaws that son of a bitch in half and then screams at it. Loudly. Because it can. And it’s awesome.
Charlie Murder starts out with your choosing one of five different characters to play as, each representing a member of the presently deceased band Charlie Murder. Your selectable cast members are Charlie, the lead vocalist and berzerker, Lester, the guitarist and mage, Tommy, bassist and shaman, Rex, drumming tank, and Kelly, band manager/mesmer.
Each character has it’s own set of skills to level up RPG style and unique abilities earned through tattoos. Charlie and Kelly scream, Rex drums, and so on. More powerful tattoos are acquired throughout the game as you progress, and as is the norm with RPG style games, you get to upgrade your equipment through the game as well. Unlike most RPGs, instead of equipping swords and chainmail, you’re equipping hoodies and trucker hats instead.
Stats are split into four categories. You have the usual Strength, Defense, and Speed, but you also have Anar-Chi, which serves as your special attack power and also influences how quickly your powers regenerate. Leveling up allows you to allot points into those skills, but fret not, if you feel like you are getting your ass handed to you, different foods and even beers can allow you to permanently increase your stats to a max level that itself increases every time you level up.
Now that you have the basics, let’s get back to that whole being dead part. The game opens up with you literally being in Hell, fighting off demons. After a few moments of fighting off devils with their own bones and collecting a few nickels, you start to float up as the screen begins to pulse. Looks like an EMT is bringing you back to life as you are being watched over by Gore Quaffer, the rival band who murdered you and your bandmates. Those dicks. Looks like it’s up to you to wreak some havoc and avenge your own former death.
Gameplay is at the very high end of what you would expect from a side scrolling beat em up in the vein of games like Castle Crashers, Scott Pilgrim, or Streets of Rage, except a lot more violent. Holy crap this game gets brutal. Arms and heads regularly go flying around and puddles of red color up the landscape. This game definitely goes out of it’s way to earn that M rating and it’s proud of it, though the majority of it is all tongue in cheek. Things DO get fairly dark later in the game, which comes as a surprisesurprise, to great effect. You don’t expect an engaging story throughout, but by the time the credits roll, you do end up satisfied.
While the overall gameplay might sound like it could get stale after a while, this game has a few tricks and twists up it’s sleeve to keep things fresh and engaging the whole way through. Right after the first boss, right when you think you’re ready to beat down some more baddies, get ready for a rhythm game! Later on, be prepared for a side scrolling shooter! And…is that a quicktime event-based skateboarding section? The game is always finding new ways to keep you on your toes and enjoying things.
Things are not all perfect though, and the biggest downfall of this game is the checkpoint system. When you go into a beat-em-up, you can expect to get to a point where bad guys can start to get cheap and you can get overwhelmed. It’s hard to fault the game for problems of the genre that have been accepted over the years. Of course, it’d be nice if games did away with it, but most games overcome that issue with a decent checkpoint system which Charlie Murder is most definitely lacking.
The prime example comes by way of the final boss fight. No spoilers, but to get there, it involved entering a stage from the world map, walking through a few passageways, beating a miniboss, entering a portal, walking through another area, beating a half dozen decent sized batches of enemies all before getting to the fairly long boss fight that I died 4/5ths of the way through. The ONLY part of that process I didn’t have to repeat was the miniboss fight. The rest of the backtracking and fights were back.
In multiplayer games, the problem is reduced quite a bit thanks to the ability to revive fallen teammates, but if the whole party was to fall, you’re whisked back to a world map where you are forced to enter the stage again from wherever the map point is and sadly, for the majority of my time, I was stuck playing solo. The time I DID play multiplayer was enjoyable and problem free, but alas online partners seem to be scarce.
At the end of the day, the brutal lack of actual checkpoints is not nearly enough to dissuade anybody from trying this game. Charlie Murder is incredibly fun, engaging, and the never-ending quest to collect more equipment, loot, and levels keeps you moving on. Beating the game opens up a harder difficulty and beating it again opens up yet another harder difficulty to keep you coming back for more punishment. The five unique classes give you more reasons to keep trying new ways to play and the different diversions through the game will keep the playthroughs fresh and enjoyable.
Best of all? In a gaming culture presently dominated by digital games usually priced at $15 or higher, the $10 price tag on Charlie Murder makes it an even easier chainsaw to the face to take. Highly recommended for sure.
Charlie Murder was developed by Ska Studios and published by Microsoft Studios. It is available now on Xbox Live Arcade for 800 Microsoft Points ($9.99).
A digital download code of this game was provided to Save/Continue by the publisher for review purposes.