Indie developer Ska Studios has put out a bunch of great titles over the years, with The Dishwasher and its sequel being superb beat-em-up titles and I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 being one of the most successful Xbox Live Indie titles to-date. Now, for their fourth Xbox Live release and second appearance as part of the Summer of Arcade, Ska Studios keeps the side-scrolling action going with Charlie Murder, a fully co-op RPG brawler hybrid infused with a totally killer punk rock style. Call up your buddies and get the band back together for some brutal punk rock action against the forces of the underworld.
Charlie Murder tells the tragic tale of a widely popular punk band that's lying in the street, seemingly murdered by Satan and his minions. Revenge fuels many endeavors, and the end of days is no different. A former band member of the emo persuasion believes he's been left by the wayside with Charlie Murder's rise to stardom, and how else can one enact their revenge unless they strike some deals with the devil? The whole game bleeds Ska Studios' unique, violently quirky style, from each playable character and fantastic boss, down to every single varied enemy. The set up of revenge may be a bit cliched, but the execution is spot on, with flashbacks of the band explaining most of the story that often sees our heroes in a hilariously unsavory light, with bits of Letterman spoof and the tearful revenge rants of the former band member playing into all of the intricacies of the punk scene.
As with the story, the gameplay also features punk infused style. Much like the developer's previous efforts, Charlie Murder is a sidescrolling beat-'em-up that can be played solo or with up to four people both locally and online. Players can choose from one of five band members (or classes), ranging from Mages to Tanks, with the player being able to enhance their stats as these characters level up. Combat sees a series of light and heavy attacks strung together for combos, with a decent range of special attacks performed with the trigger and a large number of environmental traps and weapons to make use of. Utilizing weapons is a bit awkward, as some of the more heavy weapons like the axe or stop sign are only useful if you can maneuver yourself to the right position in order to attack enemies. Special attacks are granted through acquiring new tattoos for the character, with each tattoo granting a new attack. It's a nice touch that plays off the punk style and helps to mold a better experience.
Players can also deck out their band members in different hats, shirts, and wrist wear, giving stat bonuses and augmenting attacks with different elements like acid or lightning. You can buy new clothing at shops with money dropped from enemies or found from destroying the scenery. Yet, as quickly as you can find or buy equipment, a new piece will be available before you get any use out of the old piece of equipment. It's very much the Castle Crashers formula, with equipable weapons being replaced with clothing and hats, and the punk style and formidable additions by Ska Studios keeping Charlie Murder from feeling like a complete clone. While combat has the tendency to become a bit dull, tattoos, clothing, weapons and environmental traps help to spice up the action, so too do the varied enemies, challenging boss fights and a slew of mini-games.
Charlie Murder sees a great number normal enemies, bosses and mini-bosses that provide a decent challenge, moreso if you're planning on soloing the game. While many enemies will impede your progress, they never feel stale or overused, with each section seeing a great range of detailed punk-styled demons and undead to take out. Mini-bosses and bosses make an appearance in each stage, helping to keep the combat from burning itself out with repetition. Bosses are tough and will take some time to take down without any help and will require heavy use of the ability granting tattoos. Each will keep you on your toes with their unique style of fighting. One thing to take note on is that the checkpoint system is rather punishing, as many times I'd get to a boss and die, only to be thrown back to the beginning of the level. This makes playing the game solo much tougher.
Many mini-games are scattered throughout Charlie Murder, each holding a different style of play but staying within the confines of the game's style. One level sees a well crafted shoot 'em up section, another sees some rhythm based play with the band. A different game exhibits some beautiful midget tossing, whilst another is similar to the zip-lining sections from the classic game Battletoads. Every mini-game is a blast to play, and they have been expertly divvied up among the game's stages, helping to liven up the action just as it starts to get tedious.
Upgrading your band member and game notifications are done through the in-game Widows 8 Phone, and just like its real life counterpart, no one wants to use it. Accessing the phone is done with the d-pad, yet in order to read email messages that explain game mechanics or to enhance your character, you'll be struggling to read what's on the screen. Rather than filling the entire screen, the phone pops up roughly the same size as a real phone, and while you can zoom in on the text, reading certain things gets rather annoying. While the phones functions are generally undesirable, it does hold a rather unique purpose. Strewn across the game are "scanable" QR codes, and by using your phone's camera you can get items from the codes that are hidden. It's a great little feature that will give you new clothes or weapons, as well as the all important ingredients to craft your own beer in order to get more stat bonuses.
Besides the normal level progression and hidden QR codes, Charlie Murder holds a great number of hidden levels, bosses, and extra characters. The extra levels and bosses are a great way to keep your brawling action going, as well as providing a rather hefty challenge, especially when you're off by your lonesome. Extra characters, however, leave more to be desired. While their aesthetics will change, such as the undead band being a cast of unholy characters, their special attacks don't and their levels are reverted back to the beginning. Again, it's right out of Castle Crashers, yet feels a bit lacking due to the extreme similarities between each character.
Charlie Murder's soundtrack, expectedly, fuels the high-octane action with a great mix of punk-infused tunes, as well as haunting atmospheric music for when you explore some of the darker levels. The music is the perfect way to get ready to tat yourself up and smash people in the junk. The gritty, gruesome hand-drawn style is fitting for a punk brawler too, shaping a great atmosphere to murder the forces of the underworld in a way that holds true to the quirkiness that Ska Studios has mastered. Besides the awkwardness with some of the heavier weapons, animations are very fluid and help to create many funny moments with enemy reactions to being pummeled with fists or different elements, and you can't help but laugh when zombies and demons get dismembered as their heads derp out.
The Summer of Arcade never fails to bring quality titles to the Xbox Live Arcade, and Ska Studios' Charlie Murder is no exception. Though some hiccups occur during gameplay (we all knew the Windows 8 Phone was a bad choice), they don't detract much from the solid gameplay, fueled by well crafted enemies and challenging bosses, visually pleasing hand drawn aesthetics, a rockin' soundtrack, fluid drop-in-drop-out co-op play, and a great deal of hidden items to find and bosses to fight that will keep you playing beyond the roughly 8 hour main story. If you're itching for some co-op, RPG-brawler hybrid action, then you can't go wrong with Charlie Murder.
This review is based on a copy of Charlie Murder for the X360, provided by the publisher.