Charlie Murder dares to ask “Why just shoot or stab a zombie when you can rip its arms off and use them to slap other zombies in the face?” Well played, Charlie Murder. Well played. Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim proved there is still an audience for the quarter-munching brawlers of the 90s, but those games exist in a world of innocent, prancing unicorns that piss rainbows with kaleidoscopic landscapes straight from a Saturday morning cartoon. Charlie Murder rips the head off that unicorn, scrapes out its brains, and eats cereal from the hollowed skull.
It’s not exactly subtle, but damn, does it ever have style. Loud, angry, style.
Charlie Murder takes the punk rock, monster-movie style of The Dishwasher series and brings it to the brawler stage. Imagine if Streets of Rage took place inside Night of the Living Dead, and then crashed a White Zombie video. It’s full of outlandish, gory violence that is just cartoony enough to maintain a solid sense of humor. Film grain muddies up the visuals, the soundtrack sounds like punk rock from hell, and eyeballs have the nasty habit of being propelled from their sockets at a high velocity in slow motion. Oh, and you can definitely rip out hearts and eat them. Because hearts are yummy.
You take your pick of 5 band members, and the game opens with a battle against demons in hell culminating with your escape from the underworld. The rest of the game is spent tracking down Lord Mortimer and his metal band that sent you to the land below so that you can gouge out their internal organs and introduce them to the underside of your boot. Cut scenes fill in the back story of Charlie and Mortimer; it’s fun learning about their history, but it’s a pretty straightforward story that could have been fleshed out more thoroughly.
The general punching and kicking feels pretty standard at first, but the general chaos of the mayhem on screen – especially with multiple players – and the geysers of blood make the combat feel more savage. As a gore hound, I love the brutally violent ways the game lets you dispatch the enemies. Right away the game teaches you to pick up opponents and impale them on spikes protruding from telephone poles. There is a big focus on weapons and items to help supplement your bruised fists. There are tons of appendages, shotguns and circular saws that can be used to carve up the hordes of monsters.
The ground is also generally littered with various items that can be picked up and equipped. Ska Studios crammed a lot of ideas into Charlie Murder to add extra depth including a loot system, leveling system, and an item-crafting system. As Diablo taught us all those years ago, it’s fun to see bigger numbers fly out of enemies, and it’s still a thrill today. There are three types of armor that can be acquired: shirts, hats and gloves, along with other relics that add new powers, increase loot drops, and act as buffs. The dilapidated world of Charlie Murder is chock full of shops that are happy to pay out cold, hard cash for your crusty old T-shirts and sell you some delicious coffee to bump up your stats.
The item management is a little confusing at first, but there are some smart ideas. If an item is better than what is equipped, it will be green, and new items are automatically equipped when purchased. The rest of the management is handled through the phone, which is controlled with the D-pad and used to assign new skill points, learn new skills, and take photos of hidden QR codes that unlock items. The different playable characters have unique stats for strength, defense, etc., but the game oddly decides to keep those hidden from the player. Upgrades increase those original stats by a certain percentage, but it’s impossible to see the raw number. Special moves can be acquired by purchasing tattoos, and these moves really define the characters and place them in various roles such as support class, magic user, and overall face-smasher.
As you may have gathered, there is a lot of shit going on in Charlie Murder that doesn’t involve punching faces. In fact, it’s safe to say that there is way too much stuff that doesn’t involve punching faces. The game falls off the rails a bit when it deviates from what it does best. In particular, a beer-brewing item-crafting system seemed like a waste of time since I could always afford to buy similar power-ups. I’m certain that some combination of ingredients yields a super serum, but who has time to experiment and play with menus when playing a multiplayer beat-em up?
Other mini games break up the carnage, and although they’re occasionally humorous and silly – such as a shmup level involving a robot sasquatch – most just feel like a waste of time. I don’t need a quick-time skateboarding, down-hill shopping-cart-racing, or rhythm-based Guitar Hero game in my brawer (even if the latter is at least thematically appropriate). Thankfully, these distractions don’t waste THAT much time as they rarely last more than a minute.
There is so much going on in Charlie Murder that it’s unsurprising a lot of loose ends and balancing feel neglected. Some bosses are easier than normal characters, while others soak in an insufferable amount of abuse. Team-ups can be performed by hitting both triggers: our buzzsaw move was difficult to control while our gigantic pink robot routinely ravaged bosses for more than fifty percent of their life. Some weapons also underperformed and had no effect on enemies other than depleting a small chunk of life. It’s no fun whacking a zombie with a bat only to have it shrug off the blow and latch onto you while you’re stuck in the animation.
Easily the worst offender of this lack of polish is the save system, which is absolutely atrocious. Unless you finish this game in one sitting – which I doubt considering its generous length – there’s a good chance you will fall victim to this monstar. It reared its ugly head for me when I beat a particularly challenging boss while playing solo and was greeted with the “Area Cleared” screen. I foolishly assumed that meant it was safe to cash in for the night, but the next day I came to the awesome realization that I had to replay the whole level. Fun stuff.
Despite all these nagging flaws, Charlie Murder is a hell of a lot of fun to play. While Ska Studios may have spread its two-person team a bit too thin and lost a little bit of focus, Charlie Murder is a highly stylized game whose unique art style, and impressive leveling system help it stand out. There are loads of brawlers to choose from these days, but I can assure you that you won’t find one quite as deliciously violent as Charlie Murder.
Charlie Murder was provided for review by Ska Studios. It is available on Xbox 360 for $10.