(Microsoft Game Studios)
US: 14 Aug 2013
Charlie Murder is a weird game. Mechanically, it’s a smart mix of genres: a classic four player side-scrolling beat-‘em-up with a tremendous amount of loot that is fun and simple to understand. But narratively, it’s way more interested in its story than you’ll ever be.
In short: Charlie and Paul were going to start a band, but Charlie betrays his pal and starts his own band, the titular Charlie Murder. Paul gets pissed, makes a deal with the devil, and receives his own demonic band . . . which somehow unleashes a hell of horrors upon the world.
None of this is explained up front. Instead it’s doled out in bits and pieces over the course of the game, which goes a long way in justifying your ambivalence towards it. An end credits montage that tracks Charlie and Paul through their adolescence has more emotional resonance than anything else in the game, but that’s mainly because the rest of the game doesn’t try. The story is really a justification to revel in the bizarre and the horrific. Charlie Murder feels like an homage to every horror thing ever created. It’s stuffed with zombies, ninjas, pirates, a succubus, giant spiders, mer-monsters, ghosts, skeletons, and a whole slew of disturbingly imaginative demons and monsters.
As a result, it’s a great game to watch, but it’s also damn weird. None of it makes sense in the moment. You fight a demon boss that’s part of Paul’s band then another demon boss that’s not part of Paul’s band. Now, how do they fit together? Why is there a Hamburger Homunculus in this burger joint? What the fuck is a Hamburger Homunculus? In retrospect, it all makes more sense, but that’s only thanks to the benefit of hindsight. When you’re in the midst of it, you have to learn to let go and just accept the madness. Fighting witches and pirates in a cemetery while zombies snipe at you from afar? Sure, why not?
Once you stop trying to understand the story and just go with it, Charlie Murder becomes enthralling. The aesthetics sweep you up, constantly seducing you with new things to see and kill and kill with. New locations, enemies, weapons, items, loot are all dropped into your lap at such a breathless pace that you’ll never turn your bleary eyes away from the screen.
The loot is by far the biggest hook here. There’s so much that drops so fast you’ll be switching equipment and selling stuff every 10 minutes, if that. This flood of loot creates an insatiable desire for more, turning us into gluttons, risking our lives to grab a shirt or hat in the middle in a fight. However, there aren’t enough statistics on the loot to make it a factor in strategy, so every new piece is always better than every old piece. You just fight, collect, and replace. The constant influx of new stuff makes for an addictive gameplay loop, but the downside is that we never have any piece of equipment long enough to appreciate it. Personally, I would have loved to play the whole game in a hockey mask with a machete, but the new and better stuff comes so fast that every cool costume is fleeting.
What the loot lacks in aesthetic appreciation, the music more than makes up for it. The anarchist dark rock of Charlie Murder feels right at home with the devils, demons, and decapitations. It’s wonderfully low-fi. All the music sounds oddly distant, like it’s coming out of bad speakers. There’s also the occasional flashback where we get to see Charlie Murder perform, and these scenes play out like a quick-time event version of Rock Band, with each player given different inputs depending on what instrument their character is playing. When Charlie sings it’s impossible to tell if there are actual lyrics or if he’s just screaming and mumbling into the mic. It’s great, all of it, and it’s one of the reasons that you’ll keep playing, or at the very least keep the game on pause in the background while you do something else.
The combat is simple as there’s only one actual combo, but your “Anar-Chi” powers and upgrade abilities provide enough variety to keep it interesting. You acquire the former from tattoo parlors, and each character has a different set of anar-chis that really aren’t all that different from each other. They’re fun to experiment with, but they won’t change how you play. As you fight, you earn more followers to your imitation Twitter account, which levels you up and earns you a new passive ability. These abilities are the major differentiator between the characters. One character can dual wield swords and guns while another can dodge roll, and those abilities significantly change you approach combat.
Charlie Murder isn’t that hard in the beginning (which makes the constant loot drops and new environments even more enticing). It offers up to four player co-op, but that seems unnecessary in the early hours. Later on, however, when the game starts throwing tons of creatures at you at once, and they all attack at once, juggling you between them like a ping pong ball until you die, then it’s time to go online and seek some help.
Sadly, there’s no drop-in drop-out co-op. Instead, you have to sit in a lobby waiting for others to join your game before you can start bashing in demon skulls with a hammer and pirate cutlass. There’s nothing more boring than sitting at a lobby screen waiting for other players. This kind of system works for short mission-based games since you can be relatively certain that whoever joins will remain with you for the duration of the mission. Here, you might spend a lot of time waiting for someone to join only to have then drop-out after 10 minutes. At that point you’re forced to exit to the menu and go back to the lobby to wait for another player. It’s an annoying system that throws a wrench into the otherwise breakneck pace of the game.
The aesthetics and presentation make Charlie Murder more fun than it probably should be. At its core, it’s just a beat-em-up, but you can get better gear, dress up your character, and hack and slash through some of the most bizarre monster designs since The Binding of Isaac, all to a perfect dark punk rock soundtrack. In truth, it’s all just a hamster wheel, a gameplay loop of action and reward that’s so short it’s beyond easy to see how the game manipulates your attention. But it’s such a satisfying and weird hamster wheel you won’t mind being manipulated by it.