The beat-em-up genre has seen something of a revival in recent years with original entries such as Castle Crashers, franchise tie-ins like Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, and both revisitations/retreads of classics of the genre including The Simpsons, Double Dragon and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games. A unifying factor of all these titles is a focus on narrative delivery through on-screen action moreso than dialogue or cutscene-based exposition. The plots of these games aren’t particularly complex in most cases: pound on some dudes, take out their leader in a given area, rinse and repeat until the world is saved or someone gets rescued.
One of the newer entries into the beat-em-up realm simultaneously embodies both these elements while remaining quite a bit more mysterious than its brethren and paints a story that is fairly straightforward while leaving plenty of questions for the player to ponder. Twin tales of an undead-ridden end-of-the-world scenario and a quest for redemption in the face of revenge are told in a haunting fashion that makes it clear there is more going on than is directly addressed without being confusing or misleading. When blended with a solid side-scrolling slamdown, incentivising leveling and upgrade systems, and a host of references and borrowed mechanics contextualized to avoid a case of “familyguyitis”, you get an amazing full package that goes by the name of Charlie Murder.
The brainchild of Ska Studios, a now two-person team comprised of James Silva and playtester-turned-bride Michelle, Charlie Murder is a polished product that shows how much James has learned since his start with the smash Xbox Live Indie hit I M4DE A GAEM WITH Z0MBIES!!!. He also reflects the love of a wide variety of genres beyond those embodied by The Dishwasher, its sequel, and the lower-profile shoot-fest Zombies & Pterodactyls 200X. Michelle’s contributions also add some new twists on James’ already well-established visual style and flavor, showing a meeting of the minds that makes their marriage seem an inevitability.
Charlie Murder opens in media res, as up to four player-controlled members of the titular band find themselves battling demons in hell. A crash course in combat mechanics is suddenly interrupted by a case of the floaties, the result of defribulation rather than fizzy lifting drinks. The band, brought back from the dead for whatever reason, find themselves searching for answers as they piece together their lives, their reputation and the world around them with the powers of music, mysticism, merchandise, and good, old-fashioned meat-pounding.
The controls of Charlie Murder are fairly intuitive for both beat-em-up neophytes and veterans of the genre alike. The button commands embody the jump, twin attacks, and grapple typical of most brawlers, with special abilities just a trigger or two away. Button prompts make it clear what items can be picked up as weapons or collected as inventory, and the directional pad controls the character’s cell phone which has several supplemental functions. In addition to tracking the character’s stats and abilities, leveling progress is expressed not as experience but as how popular you and your bandmates happen to be on the short-form status posting service, Squidd.lus. The phone’s camera can be accessed to photograph aspects of the background that demand attention, particularly QR codes tucked away in each stage that unlock new items or reward the player with cash money.
In addition to the standard mechanics, Charlie Murder bears several sub-sequences that pay homage to other games without feeling tacked-on or like a grab for extra attention. Several interstitial sequences relive the band’s history through a rhythm based minigame wherein each band member in the party mashes buttons respective to their instrument. One travel instance recalls shades of California Games or Skate Or Die, and more than one side-scrolling sequence had me squealing with delight, particularly a boss battle over a night skyline that had me squealing “Ehrgeiz! It’s Ehrgeiz! Omigawd it’s Ehr- I mean, Einhander!” Curse you, Squaresoft, and your throwing around of German terms in the PlayStation days. One chase sequence in particular has you rolling around at the speed of sound, and the game’s true ending can only be found by acquiring five body parts of a Count with a somewhat familiar-sounding name. While all of these elements are clear nods to different source material, they are all integrated into the world of Charlie Murder and in no way feel disjointed or take away from the game’s flow.
New to the beat-em-up formula is Charlie Murder’s crafting system, presented in the form of beer brewing. Hops, malt and barley are among the items dropped by enemy assailants upon their defeat, and combining these at brewing stations at different points in the game produce stat-boosting brews with their own clever names and covering a wide range of beer styles. While a great little extra for beer fans and power-levelers alike, similar boosts are available from purchased food and beverages at stores throughout the game, and are often easier to obtain with money collected rather than trying to get enough stuff to brew something of merit. Each level caps how much buffing is possible as well, and not much room tends to be left after spending upgrade points each time. It’s a fun addition, but moderately superfluous at the same time.
In some ways, the game has too much to buy. This works fine though for the equipment system, as dropped and purchased outfit elements alike vary a character’s appearance and improve stats as well as imparting additional effects such as electrically charging enemies or setting them aflame. The wide range of healing items feels a bit excessive at times, and as mentioned, the buffs imparted by most of them are just as permanent as those that come from brewed beers, pushing the brewing toward obsolescence. While the idea of having a choice between nutrition bars, truck-sold Mexican delights, barbecued kebab and draught beer that miraculously does not spill while jammed in your pockets is fun and something of a nod to River City Ransom’s many eateries, many players will find the newest shop to be the best hangout or just keep visiting the cute redhead who works the counter at one of the drug stores and also moonlights at the taco truck by the construction site.
Another slight demerit is the phone’s inability to shut up sometimes. When new emails are received, new abilities are available or a character levels up, a small bubble indicates the need to press a corresponding direction to one of those events on the d-pad. Similarly, new item acquisitions from enemy drops constantly inspire suggestions to check your inventory using the Back button. This is an excellent boon early on, but it would have been nice to disable or ignore such prompts after a certain point. Having the button prompts for liftable items such as weapons and the heads and/or brains of your fallen foes is handy, but the nagging and its partial obstruction of the screen gets tiresome once you know what you are doing.
These are the only real drawbacks, however, and both are incredibly minor and forgivable. The decoratable apartments the party finds eventually are also fluff but still fun, as acquiring decor is a matter of backtracking through other levels and smashing background elements with a hammer to take them home. This turns Charlie Murder into a two-fold quest for both vengeance and for free couches, televisions and standees, among other things. Completely unnecessary, but highly entertaining as it inevitably turns play into a hyper-violent take on the show Hoarders.
The audio, which is James’ fault as in prior Ska Studios outings, merges atmosphere and situationally-appropriate levels of action to be equally memorable and unobtrusive. The songs used for the rhythm-game sequences further characterize Charlie Murder’s titular band and provide at least one homage to the game’s great-great-grandaddy. The game is visually stunning as well, with a slightly cartoonier take on the dark style familiar to Dishwasher fans bringing in some more color and avoiding the brown- or grey-washing typical of other mid- and post-apocalyptic scenarios. Small details abound that often go unnoticed until multiple playthroughs are completed, down to the growing collection of tattoos unique to each character as they learn more special abilities and the collections of flash on the wall at the parlors where those tattoos are acquired. Such replays are much welcomed thanks to the robust multiplayer and the three tiers of game difficulty which allow players to bring along their old toys while ratcheting up the pain.
While not as blatantly nostalgic or new and experimental as Flashback or Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons, both of which share this year’s Summer of Arcade spotlight on Xbox Live, Charlie Murder is definitely worth checking out and quite worth the wait for those who were already aware it was on the way. Despite being Microsoft being under fire as of late for its early nebulousness regarding its indie game policies, both on the 360 and its impending successor, Charlie Murder is substantial proof that good things can and do happen for independent developers on Microsoft systems, even for the smallest of teams.
Charlie Murder gets a 9 out of 10 and is currently available exclusively on Xbox Live Arcade.