Charlie Murder review for XBLA

Platform: XBLA
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Ska Studios
Medium: Digital
Players: 1-4
Online: Yes

In a perfect world friends would always stay friends. There would be no cause for betrayal, no feelings of jealousy or rage that would creep into a lifelong friendship. Unfortunately we all know life doesn’t work that way. But few of us would take it to the extreme that Paul Bitterman does in Charlie Murder. Making an unholy pact for supernatural powers, conscripting a band composed of demonic forces, and bringing about the end of the world is a pretty knee-jerk reaction for being ditched by your best friend in favor of his increasingly popular band.

But that premise sets the stage for the second entry in 2013’s Summer of Arcade promotion for Xbox Live Arcade. Charlie Murder is a 2D beat ‘em up in the vein of other modern brawlers like Castle Crashers, but with a slightly darker take on bashing dudes in the face. There are five characters to choose from at the start, a sprawling overworld map with interconnected stages, RPG mechanics including distributable stats and gear, and a whole lot of head stomping fun in this digital release from Ska Studios.

charlie murder 004While the basic elements of combat aren’t particularly evolved past the heyday of the genre, Charlie Murder does have a lot of unique elements in place. The gear/loot system is culled from real world items, grounding the reality of the game despite all the otherworldly shenanigans going on. Loot can be comprised of jackets, hats, hand wraps, glasses, masks, gloves and more. There’s even an effort made to distribute stat bonuses on loot that make sense, like boosting Anar-chi (magic) by wearing clothing for your head, while boosting strength with items worn on your hands.

Other aspects like stat distribution, or tracking your progress to the next level, are focused on taking the player out of the game as little as possible. A lot of menu functions are tied into your in-game smartphone which gives you access to email that conveys story elements along with minor tutorials. You can also access a Twitter like app that displays followers and messages from fans, with the number of followers equating to experience points earned.

charlie murder 005The five characters available are also built around familiar class archetypes, such as Tank, Shaman, Berserker and more. If you’ve played any sort of class focused RPG before, you’ll have little trouble figuring out the appropriate role of each character. Every character also has a number of unique skills to unlock, along with core abilities available for each class. The customization options aren’t super deep here, there are no branching skill trees to unlock, but you’ll always have more skills available than you can purchase, which at least forces you to tailor your selections around the way you’d like to play.

The only real interface issue I had with Charlie Murder came from single use items, consumables that not only heal but boost the four core stats for every character. There are a number of found items to heal your character with, along with beer that can be crafting, and other food that can be bought. When in combat you’re limited to using food that’s hot keyed to a button press, but have no real way of cycling between available consumables. Outside of combat this isn’t an issue because you can just bring up a menu and eat what you want, but while fighting this isn’t an option. It feels more like an oversight than anything else, but it’s the one thing that become increasingly annoying the further into Charlie Murder I got.

charlie murder 001Charlie Murder’s other mechanics are a bit more derivative of the beat ‘em ups that have come before it, but are at least really well executed. There are a hefty number of stages to run through, all of which connect to one another in a way that you’ll never need to view the overworld map outside of the initial start-up of the game. You can, however, back out to the overworld map at various points, allowing you to replay stages or seek out a number of secrets.

Combat is combo based with basic attack strings performed by light and strong attack commands. The five characters vary a bit here, but the move set isn’t diverse. I did like the inclusion of Ryu Hayabusa’s patented Izuna Drop from Ninja Gaiden, which is one of many smartly placed video game references contained in Charlie Murder. And while basic punch and kick attacks aren’t amazing, the comically extreme violence that comes after beating a foe to death does add a little macabre charm to what could otherwise be mindlessly repetitive. There’s a lot of focus on found weapons in combat, some of which are body parts from felled foes, which is another element that helps make Charlie Murder stand out.

charlie murder 006Finally, while I wasn’t expecting much from story side of Charlie Murder, I found myself pleasantly surprised by its execution once the end game credits rolled. There’s very little story forced upon the player, with only a handful of cutscenes throughout that are mostly voiced in gibberish and sold almost entirely through animation and music. But I had a fair amount of empathy for the villain of the game despite his extreme response to feeling betrayed. It was also intriguing to think that the lead protagonist wasn’t entirely without fault, and the final moments of Charlie Murder lead to an enhanced perspective on everything you’ve just accomplished, taking that general feeling of jubilation received when completing a game and transforming it into something a little less exuberant.

I really enjoyed my time spent with Charlie Murder, and think that Ska Studios did an excellent job with this. As much as I enjoyed the hyper-stylized action of their Dishwasher series, I think Charlie Murder stands out as their best effort to date. It has the unique visual style that has become the trademark of the developer, but at the same time feels like a major step forward from the standard action gameplay found in their earlier work. There are elements to Charlie Murder that are certainly less unique than others, but as a whole this is one of the better RPG/brawler hybrids that I’ve ever played.

Grade: A-