Back in the happier times when Microsoft actively supported Xbox games on Windows Phone, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ska Studios, the two person team behind Zombies on the Phone. While Ska worked on Zombies (which came out at the beginning of 2012), they also plugged away at an Xbox Live Arcade game called Charlie Murder. It would be their most expansive game to date.
In fact, Charlie Murder just recently arrived on Xbox 360 as part of the annual Summer of Arcade promotion. On the surface, Charlie Murder is a cooperative beat-em-up in which one rock band is forced to save the world from a demonic invasion. But it’s also an evolution of the brawler genre that manages to outdo even the beloved Castle Crashers in sheer personality and scope. Head past the break for our full review!
Et tu, Charlie?
The game starts with the members of the band Charlie Murder being forced to fight their way out of hell and into the real world. There they discover zombies, demons, and other monstrosities running rampant in their city.
The reason Charlie Murder has found themselves in this predicament slowly becomes clear through cinematic sequences that play out between every few levels. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that the protagonists aren’t actually the nicest people and their actions have grave consequences for the world at large.
The beat-em-up genre is not traditionally known for its gripping narratives (with perhaps the exception of SEGA’s Guardian Heroes). And yet Charlie Murder tells a sparse but emotional story with two possible endings, one of which might actually make players feel genuinely sad.
You got your smartphone in my console
To best understand Charlie Murder’s gameplay, think of it as a cross between Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Like both of those games, you can play as multiple characters with unique abilities and level them up over time. Only here your experience is measured in fans, represented as followers on a very Twitter-like social network.
As your character levels up, you can select new abilities for him or her to learn and allocate stat points, providing an increased level of ownership over the character. To distribute those stats, check your followers, or read tutorial messages, you’ll activate your phone via the d-pad. And because the duo at Ska Studios are fans, the in-game phone is a Windows Phone!
Collect them all
Charlie Murder’s many levels often branch off into little side paths for players to explore. Taking the road less traveled and defeating a gruesome boss usually nets you a unique relic to equip for stat bonuses. Not only are there five ‘Smockula’ parts to find and equip in order to get the good ending, but the game has a total of 55 unique relics to discover. There are also six tattoos to collect across your journey, each of which can be equipped to perform offensive or defensive magic attacks.
Speaking of equipping things, Charlie Murder boasts a staggering quantity of head, body, and hand clothing for players to wear. You’ll get them as drops from enemies or purchase them in shops. These wearable goods don’t just provide stat bonuses; they also change your character’s appearance. Players who want to look a certain way but get the best stat bonuses can change an item’s appearance via dye items, but the process is more cumbersome than necessary.
The Scott Pilgrim/River City Ransom feeling I allude to earlier comes in part from those shops you’ll visit. Many sell either eat-in or carry-out foodstuffs. Scarf some grub and it will replenish HP and maybe provide permanent stat boosts. Before long you’ll have more than enough money to afford limitless quantities of snacks and clothing, but for better or worse the developers have limited how much you can boost your stats at any given time.
Fight for your life
Fans of the genre should enjoy the actual combat in Charlie Murder. Players have a fast attack and a strong one with which they can combo enemies at length. Get a 20-hit combo and your team can perform a rampaging two-person co-op attack (pictured above). The grab button allows you to pummel or throw stunned enemies, often into spikes, blades, or acid that will deal extra damage. There is also a block button, though I never once used it.
Like Scott Pilgrim and River City Ransom, levels are scattered with an array of weapons for players or enemies to use. These range from melee weapons like axes and swords to guns, flame throwers, and grenades. They’re all a ton of fun to use but wear out quickly, as you’d expect.
The one major weakness of the combat is friendly fire. Charlie Murder is a 4-player cooperative game, but players can always hit each other – friendly fire can’t be turned off. You can adjust to this danger and keep clear of other players, but why should we have to?
And worse, forced friendly fire makes it easy for players to grief each other in online games. A high level player can join a game and pound away at other players, spoiling their time. The developers could easily have added an option to toggle friendly fire and the game would be so much the better for it.
Not your grandma’s beat-em-up
Beat-em-ups often lack variety of gameplay, but you can scarcely say that about Charlie Murder. The brawling levels often feature platforming challenges or puzzles. The construction area puzzle threatens to stop players cold though. It requires players to throw explosive barrels at switches in the background, a mechanic the game never teaches you beforehand. I had to look up the solution online, which COME ON, this is a beat-em-up.
Excursions into other game styles, on the other hand, definitely bring the game to life. The band often ends up riding brooms in shoot-em-stages, doing tricks on a skateboard, climbing ropes up a cathedral tower, and lots more. How many other brawlers involve aerial battles with a gigantic sasquatch? Not enough, I say!
Charlie Murder has no shortage of personality. The actual art style is very distinct and perfectly evokes the musical culture influences seen in other Ska games like Zombies on the Phone. I could do without the drab color palette that always drowns the studio’s visuals, but at least it’s appropriate for the game’s subject matter. The abundance of jokes and references to other games like Castlevania, Silent Hill, and Dust: an Elysian Tale largely makes up for the mopey colors anyway.
Anyone who’s played Zombies on the Phone should remember that game’s crazy lyrical rock ballad. Well, that song and new ones return in Charlie Murder. The tattoo shops you’ll visit even have a humorous Grand Theft Auto-like in-game radio station playing in the background. Ska Studios sells the soundtrack at Bandcamp and on vinyl.
Players will actually “perform” some of these songs in a minigame meant to simulate playing in a band. Music rhythm games played on a controller CAN be fun, but unfortunately this one is terrible. Each player must try to hit a series of buttons that scroll by non-stop and ridiculously fast. Performance on the music minigame doesn’t even affect progress in the game, so I eventually stopped trying.
Charlie Murder is a long game, and its Achievements add a lot of replay value as well. Each character has a specific Achievement associated with his or her abilities, though the Achievement descriptions annoyingly don’t name the character. You’ll need to get both the good and bad ending of the game as well as playing through the unlockable harder difficulties. They get really tough, so make sure to bring a co-op partner or three.
Xbox Live Arcade already has tons of great beat-em-ups like Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara, Double Dragon Neon, Scott Pilgrim, and Castle Crashers. Somehow, a tiny studio of two has produced a game that meets or beats those titles in quality.
Friendly fire and music minigame aside, Charlie Murder has everything you could ever want in a brawler: varied gameplay, lots of weapons, tons of levels, and endless personality. Fans of busting heads, rocking out to loud music, and gaming with friends should pick it up.
- Charlie Murder – XBLA – 370 MB - $9.99 – Xbox.com Link