To call Charlie Murder “eclectic” would be akin to saying Skyrim’s world was “rather large” or that Double Dragon II: Wander of the Dragons “wasn’t particularly great”. The team behind The Dishwasher series have rehashed the formula for their latest outing, resulting in a game which isn’t that far removed from its predecessor, but a fun blast nonetheless.
Mixing side-scrolling beat ‘em up and RPG elements, you and your friends take on the roles of the members of death metal band Charlie Murder, and must wade through hundreds of zombies, ninjas and grotesque bosses in order to rid the world of their evil leader, ex-bandmate Paul. Cruelly brushed aside by Charlie after being promised a formative role, Paul takes the only option left open to him - he makes a deal with a demon and summons forth hordes of the living dead. As musical tiffs go, it makes the Gallagher brothers’ feud look positively civilised.
The game runs very smoothly, using full horizontal and vertical movement - more Castle Crashers, less Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara. Each band member has an RPG-style class type and they all look the part, thanks in part to the lovely hand-drawn graphics. Charlie is a berserker, whilst other classes include mage, tank, shaman and mesmer. The tank is a huge guy (think a death metal Hagar in Final Fight) whilst Charlie himself is a bizarre blend of anime school-kid and Iggy Pop. The main differences in the characters can be found in the various skill trees and bonus moves that you will acquire as you progress. In a postmodern twist, Twitter followers take the place of experience points and levelling up offers you an increase in Strength, Speed, Defense and Anar-Chi (magic damage/lower cooldown period), as well as a skill point to add to one of a number of enhancements. These include increased damage with two-handed weapons, a bigger inventory and unique combo moves such as Heart Rip, which grants you extra health by letting you munch on your opponent’s organ after some impromptu surgery.
Chi attacks can be purchased in the form of tattoos from a friendly ink parlour, and the resulting choices mapped to the D-pad. For instance, the shaman can impale the heads of defeated enemies on spikes in order to grant health to any friendly player nearby, whilst the tank can spew out a host of guns for players to collect and unleash havoc. For a beat ‘em up, the variety and inventiveness of the environmental items on offer is impressive. If you ever wanted to stomp on a zombie’s head, pick the brain out of its carcass and hurl it at an oncoming foe, Charlie Murder will cater for you. Shopping trolleys, baguettes, nail guns, severed arms and gas canisters are all fair game on the weapon front. Each has a limited use before being destroyed, but it is very satisfying to emulate an 80s action hero by unloading a clip from an SMG into a shambling corpse, hearing the click as the ammo is spent and chucking the empty gun at the enemy’s head to finish it off.
Your wardrobe is equally important, since clothing bestows differing levels of protection and power to its wearer. Crackling energy attacks and rainbow punches can be granted if you wear the right gloves or attach the correct accessory. More importantly, your avatar will reflect the apparel you choose for them so if you want to don a Leatherhead mask, a grandma sweater and a pair of bear paws, this is exactly what you’ll see on screen. There’s a surprising amount of depth on show, for what is ostensibly a button-masher. Cash is collected by smashing stuff up and killing certain enemies, but if you’re too cheap to buy goodies from the various shops dotted around, you can collect it from enemies who drop loot of varying rarity. You can also accumulate cash, items and followers by scanning environmental QR codes with your phone, as well as reading emails which are sent periodically. The messages don’t add much to the game in truth, other than providing a little more information about the special moves you purchase.
Charlie Murder is a difficult game to become involved in, however, at least at the beginning. It stubbornly refuses to handhold you or even relinquish the slightest bit of information about what you’re doing or why. You’ll navigate your way around the menu systems by exploration, equip items via trial and error, and assign and use special moves for which you have little notion as to their effects. Whilst it is admirable for a game to buck the trend of two hour tutorials, when you jump into a game of this genre and are presented with an inventory system to rival that of Borderlands and a move set that wouldn’t be out of place in an early God of War title, it’d be nice to have some idea of what fits where.
It’s indicative of the kitchen-sink approach that Ska Studios have taken throughout Charlie Murder. You’ll find yourself playing a variety of mini-games at random times, as if the designers were concerned that a beat ‘em up of this length (almost ten hours) would be too repetitive. These range from reflex-driven sections such as skateboarding and Guitar Hero segments, to side-scrolling shooters and obstacle-dodging downhill vehicle sections. Then there’s a crafting element, which allows you to create different types of stat-increasing beer using brewing ingredients dropped by your victims. Frankly, it’s a mess and it shouldn’t work. Yet somehow it does. Yes, it feels like gaming for the ADD generation and you’ll roll your eyes as you’re transported into yet another barely fleshed out genre, but the whole thing is such an utterly enjoyable shambles that you’ll forgive it purely because it tries so hard. The soundtrack helps tremendously, blasting out rock riffs which perfectly accompany the carnage. The tattoo parlours also have amusing radio phone-ins with idiot callers which, if you’ve ever listened to talk radio, feel uncomfortably close to reality.
There are caveats of course. Charlie Murder is a social game, no question. Playing through it on your own simply won’t be as enjoyable. If you haven’t got anyone to crack open some beers with in your living room whilst ploughing through the zombies, the drop-in online multiplayer is a fair alternative. More concerning is the checkpoint spacing. It won’t be unusual for you to wade through an area, finish off a boss, get killed shortly after and find that your progress hasn’t been saved. It seems that the game will only save when you reach an area with a world map shortcut, causing much teeth-gnashing as you have to trawl over the exact same ground again. Thankfully the bosses stay dead, but it doesn’t ease the pain of spending twenty minutes going back over the same territory again.
Furthermore, the collision detection can be ropey at times - especially when using weapons and when there are a lot of enemies on screen. This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t combined with areas that involve you navigating narrow bridges which you’ll find yourself sliding off with alarming regularity due to the overly-sensitive controls. To top off the annoyances, there are different buttons assigned to picking up items for your inventory and picking up environmental items to use against enemies. This leads to all manner of confusion in the heat of battle when you’re trying to collect a life-giving sandwich and end up picking up a severed head instead.
The game also has a good and a bad ending - the latter of which is what the majority of players will experience on their first play through because, as mentioned earlier, the game provides no clue as to what you need to do and you'll only find out what is required to achieve the good ending just before the final boss. It’s a sucker punch which will frustrate unnecessarily.
All told though, once you get past the initial baptism of fire Charlie Murder still has lots to recommend it. With the addition of two further playthroughs of increasing difficulty available once you complete it, there’s plenty of longevity in the game. Whether you’ll want to do it solo is another matter though. Grab some friends and turn the dial up to eleven - it will make for a far better experience. Schwing!
Whilst not a huge departure from The Dishwasher, Ska Studios' newest offering has enough interesting elements to make this a fun couch co-op title. Ill-thought out checkpoints and general UI problems mean that Charlie Murder, whilst consistently engaging, falls short of classic beat 'em up status.