Review: Charlie Murder

CharlieMurder

It might have been when I first picked up a disembodied head and hurled it like a baseball to take out that screaming ninja chugging beer at the bar. Or maybe it was when I face-stomped the zombie pirate, or when my hulk-sized drummer—you can call him the Rexicutioner–first took out a mosh pit of enemies by blasting missiles from his kit. Somewhere along the side-scrolling rock-and-brawl tour that is Charlie Murder, I just started nodding along with the soundtrack and gave myself over to the crazy, anything-goes combat vibe.

Admittedly, it might have been that the song felt a little familiar. After all, Ska Studios is certainly no stranger to Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade lineup—their Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, a game that shares Charlie Murder’s stick-figure and bloodsplash artistic sensibilities, was in the mix back in 2011.

This one’s a little more unruly, in part because it’s multiplayer-based, in part because the game’s drenched in punk-rock anarchy vibe and a surprisingly tight soundtrack. Charlie Murder doesn’t necessarily break much in the way of new ground. Its humor-laden multiplayer madness has been fronted before by games like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. But like they say in show biz, it’s all about the presentation, and in that respect, Charlie Murder finds a ton of clever ways to shred it.

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Start with the tech vibe. In a nod to the social media circles that surround the music scene—hell, these days, it surrounds pretty much everything—the XP system here shows up as followers on a Twitter knockoff service called Squ.iddli.us. It’s easy to appreciate the clever delivery systems for the game’s other RPG standbys: Spell buffs are gained by getting inked with a tattoo, while temporary health and power-up items can be created by collecting and fermenting the ingredients for particular types of beer. (For those about to quaff, we salute you!) It’s as cool that you can customize your characters into RPG subcategories as it is to watch them unleash their power attacks—Charlie screaming a sonic wave from his mic, guitarist Lester Deth unleashing skittering flames from his ax. Rock on, brother.

The stand-in for a game manual comes in the form of in-game emails you receive on your in-game smartphone. You can hold the trigger to enlarge them, but they’re still pretty blurry and difficult to read, kinda like the times you try to decipher clumsy text messages on your actual phone after your third or fourth drink. You’ll need to access those messages a lot if you want to have the best handle on the game’s combat and upgrade systems. Your smartphone works much better when you’re using it to scan QR codes on the level walls to get bonus weapons and inventory items.

The bosses are copious and outrageous—don’t be surprised to find one eye-popper trampling in right on the heels of another—but most of them aren’t that difficult to dispatch, especially if you’re working as a team. Given that most of the enemies here are of the run-back-and-forth-until-you-kill-them variety, Charlie Murder’s much easier to appreciate when you’re wreaking havoc with friends, a choice that lets you combine your special attacks into devastating and amusing combos. It’s here that the game finds its most affecting harmonies and realizes its rocking potential. Playing together is also the only way to avoid having to repeat the game’s early levels—shredding solo means nobody’s around to revive you if you get clocked, and death equals some major backtracking.

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You gotta love that the game’s main villain is the guy the band jettisoned right before breaking it big—how very Beatle-esque. Take a hint that every respectable punk rocker oughtta know: Don’t waste your coin trolling the racks of clothes, weapons and accessories that pop up every so often looking for a (very) expensive upgrade like some poseur trolling for a Dead Kennedys T-shirt in a mall Hot Topic. Wait a few more levels and it’s a sure lock that a mini-boss will drop a far better option, and you can save your hair-earned scratch for more important things.

Like an army of Imagine Dragons clones on Sirius Radio, there’s no shortage of multiplayer brawlers in the modern game market, but Charlie Murder’s no forgettable knockoff. It’s more like the unheralded opener at the hole-in-the-wall club that pleasantly surprises without upstaging the main act. Pick up your instrument and start hurling heads. Just don’t forget to bang your own.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Arresting art style
+ Clever/funny presentation of RPG elements
+ Best when played with three pals

Cons:
– Combat becomes repetitive quickly
– Smartphone emails are hard to see, interact with

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Ska Studios
Release Date: 8/14/2013
Genre: Side-scrolling brawler
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-4 (offline and online co-op)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.