STAFF REVIEW of Charlie Murder (Xbox 360 Arcade)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013.
by Khari Taylor

Charlie Murder Box art How should I best describe Ska Studios' Charlie Murder? Well, if you take the side-scrolling beat-em up plus RPG mechanics of River City Ransom, filter it through its more evolved, modern successors Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, then put in in a blender with Taito's Ninja Kids, Rare's Battletoads and Ska's own The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai and press puree, then you might then begin to form an image of the wacky, ultra-violent experience that awaits you.

Charlie Murder, the spiritual follow-up to its NA-developed indie hit The Dishwasher, fully embraces the "Battle of the Bands" theme that helped endear the Scott Pilgrim series to its fans, but instead of asking us to swallow a convoluted love story involving "seven evil exes", Charlie Murder's is a much simpler story of “re-vengeance”, as players control lead singer Charlie and the members of his self-named Heavy Metal band as they battle against the jealous rage of a former band mate (the aptly-named Paul Bitterman), who is obsessed with obliterating them and their seemingly unstoppable fame off of the face of the earth. Now calling himself Lord Mortimer, Paul has taken up dressing as a pale, bare-chested grim-reaper and sipping expensive wine to calm his nerves in-between spats of mass slaughter and bringing about the zombie apocalypse.

When the game begins, Paul and the members of his new band, Gore Quaffer (who naturally like Paul are cursed with demonic superpowers) have just beaten Charlie and his band mates within an inch of their lives and left them for dead in the street. Miraculously however, Charlie and his crew battle back from the brink and set out to stop Gore Quaffer, taking out one band member and his horde of undead followers at a time.

As with any brawler, the main tools available to our heroes are their fists and feet, and accessing the full range of their possibilities is as simple as pressing X for Punch, Y for Kick, A for Jump and B for grapple. X and Y also double for picking up weapons and items respectively, and Y+B will prompt your fighter to throw whatever weapon they have in their hands as a projectile. Seems like pretty standard stuff, but don't be fooled however, as the members of Charlie Murder are far from ordinary fighting musicians. Each member's unique mystical music talents have been unleashed by their near-death experience, providing the player with five distinct player classes to begin their adventure with; the Berserker (Charlie), the Mesmer (Kelly, Charlie's girlfriend), the Mage (Lester), the Shaman (Tommy) and the Tank (Rex).

These classes grant each character distinct sets of powers which make using each one of them a different experience. For example, as lead singer, Charlie's main ability is his power scream, which he can use to blow enemies over while simultaneously scoring multiple hits, and when modified by special tattoos it can be enhanced with acid spit that can literally melt the faces of enemies off or become a tornado that picks up enemies, weapons and debris alike, causing damage to foes both within it and anywhere nearby. Meanwhile, Lester can immediately kill weakened enemies while they are down by using his skilled guitar fingers to instantly vacuum the flesh, sinew and organs right off their skeletons (much like how a magician pulls the tablecloth out from under a fully-set table), or summon a demon familiar to assist him in battle. More class-specific powers, including team-based specials that can include the entire band, can be unlocked by getting more tattoos, or by earning and using skill points to unlock new latent abilities as the character gains XP and crosses new threshold levels. While the description of the above abilities may seem rather grotesque (and let's admit it, they are), the game's quirky paper cut-out animation style, over-the-top voices and squishy sound effects immediately sell the game's intended humor, and much like watching an episode of Itchy and Scratchy from the Simpsons, players will find themselves addicted to discovering just how much ridiculous carnage they can create as they accidentally (and then purposely) impale enemies on environmental objects, curb-stomp downed foes and then use their severed heads, arms or brains as blunt weapons, or perform outlandish, mid-air wrestling moves on enemies after they've launched them with an equally ridiculous combo.

Charlie Murder will also have players grinning ear-to-ear with how it cleverly modernizes its RPG aspects, putting an incredibly fresh and satirical spin on gameplay mechanics first popularized by River City Ransom and more recently refined in Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim. For example, each character has a Windows 8 smartphone (an obvious wink at the game's Xbox Live Arcade-exclusivity) in which they can view and select stat and skill upgrades, check e-mails, take photos of objects in the environment and view random messages from their followers on @Squiddus, the Charlie Murder-equivalent of Twitter (because what is any band without its followers?). It is through the phone's hub that players can level up their characters, and they can also view and review instructions on how to use new-found abilities via e-mail, as each new skill or power gained is accompanied by a message in your inbox. Just keep in mind that you'll have to sift through many threatening e-mails from Paul Bitterman to get to them (he still hasn’t changed his e-mail address apparently), and the action doesn't stop when you're looking at your phone, so choose your "check-in" moments carefully!

The hub stores in Charlie Murder also take a literally refreshing approach, adding DIY microbreweries and the aforementioned tattoo shops to the clothing and convenience stores (read armor and food stores) that players have come to expect in a brawler-RPG hybrid. That's right, you can MASH and then FERMENT your own alcoholic concoctions using different barleys, malts and microorganisms collected from fallen enemies in the game in addition to other items and weapons they leave behind, which like other consumables can buff the stats of your characters for a limited period of time. Of course, if you don't have the time to brew, you can always purchase pre-prepared beers on tap from certain stores, and any store you've unlocked can always be revisited from the world map at any point in the game, so you can always go back to stock up on brewskies and other important items, like energy bars. Conversely, if you're overloaded with too many items of clothing, consumables or ingredients, you can selectively discard them where you stand (allowing you to give or swap items with your colleagues), or if you're short on cash, you can sell them at electronic "Criegslist" kiosks, which are present in all stores. Talk about handy!

Players can also unlock free items by snapping smartphone pictures of "captchas" (square barcodes) or unusual objects in the environment, revealing a mini-game that encourages players to be very observant of messaging and other scribblings on the walls or other places in the world. In fact, this particular mechanic highlights yet another way in which Charlie Murder sets itself apart from its contemporaries. While there are certainly moments where the game indulges in expositional cutscenes and occasional QTEs to explain the tragic back story of Charlie and Paul, Charlie Murder generally chooses to show, not tell. Like the graffiti in Valve's Portal and Left 4 Dead, vaguely scrawled messages, symbols, posters and other images throughout the game provide hints and advice to players on what to do and where to go next, and while obeying these instructions (provided you even understand them) is not always mandatory, following them will often lead to some surprisingly humorous results, such as when players encounter a blatantly obvious hamburger recipe early on in the game. Not only does this approach keep players engaged, but it also motivates them to experiment and learn how to play by discovery, rather than constantly referring an in-game instruction booklet or the internet. Just like in real life, some things can (and should) be learned by experience.

The visual style of Charlie Murder is one that many players unfamiliar with The Dishwasher may find a bit immature at first glance with its predominantly garish-looking characters and environments, but the loving care and level of polish in its visuals, effects and rich sound design cannot be denied. The music is top-notch as well, alternating between the Hard Metal music of Charlie's band, catchy Techno beats and atmospheric tracks, and occasionally players are even coerced into interacting with some of the songs during interactive, rhythm-based QTE flashbacks, with each player performing a different string of timed button-presses based on their chosen band member’s instrument. While fun, these sequences are also quite forgiving and are over fairly quickly after they arise.

Now for the oddities. While Charlie Murder is an absolute riot overall, there are some design choices made by Ska Studios that are a bit puzzling. For one, the visibility of equipped clothing can be toggled on or off for each character’s headgear, torso and gloves (pants aren't customizable). But aside from telling your character apart from another player's in the rare instance that they've equipped the same gear, there seems to be little reason to do this, especially given that seeing the clothing serves as an important reminder to players that they have something equipped at all. Things get even trickier once players visit the tattoo parlor, where the process of getting a tattoo automatically toggles off the visibility of torso clothing as the character disrobes and does not revert back on its own when the job is done - characters must manually re-toggle the clothing to see it again. A more annoying limitation is how inventory items cannot be fully accessed during boss fights or horizontal or vertical scrolling shooter sequences. In boss fights, players can only access one item at a time (by pressing RB), and the item available is usually the most potent item for restoring HP.

Once all items of that type have been consumed, the computer will automatically select the next potent item until all of that type have been used up, and so on. The problem occurs when the player has not stocked up on enough of an item and is down to buff items only, which can certainly help in a boss fight but are very unlikely to save a player if he or she is near death, and because of the same limitation, other players cannot access their inventories in order to drop a med kit or energy bar that might save their colleague. Furthermore, in shooter sequences, items and powers (such as team healing) cannot be used at all, so players should make sure that everyone is at full health before starting one, in order to reduce their chances of dying and having to go through it again. In other words, proper preparation is key in either case.

Finally, while the game has a plethora of consumables that can buff character stats, most of them will likely be under-utilized by most players, who will simply want to get by on their core abilities and powers alone and rely strictly on healing items when their HP is low, as it is much simpler to understand how those items work. Only the most committed of players will likely take the time to experiment with different consumables and memorize particular brews to enhance their characters' abilities to the utmost effect.

It should also be emphasized that Charlie Murder is a game that is meant to be experienced with friends. The majority of the time I spent playing the game was by myself, and while the deep gameplay and humor still shine through when playing solo, a great deal of the fun and discovery in this game requires at least one other person to fully appreciate, as I personally found after re-treading much of the game with one of my brothers in tow. Charlie Murder supports both offline and online play for up to 4 players, but unfortunately it appears that players can only join in at the very start of the game...there does not appear to be any drop-in, drop-out co-op option, making it impossible to enjoy a game with random players unless you have very good luck or very good timing. My own attempts to start or join a random game was met with a number of anti-social folks who didn't want me in their room or would join my lobby and then leave just before the game started up without saying anything. Such is the state of Xbox Live and Party Chat these days. That said, if you can manage to round up a local or online group of friends that you actually know who are willing to commit to an hour or two of play, then you will definitely be in for a good time.

The moral of the story is, don't judge a book by its cover. Like The Dishwasher before it, Ska Studios' Charlie Murder may have an art-style that may be hit-or-miss with some people, and like its name, the game leans a bit towards the macabre and gore-tastic in its approach, but this game is as solid a brawler as they come, with a refreshingly deep RPG-side that any action gamer worth his or her salt will come to love after spending some time with it. It's easily worth the 800 MS points ($10), especially if you've got friends.

Overall: 8.7 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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