With the second game in this year’s Summer of Arcade line-up, Ska Studios have taken two old genres from different mediums and mashed them together to create Charlie Murder. Punk rock’s mainstream appeal has gone down the toilet, just as much as the popularity of side-scrolling beat ’em-ups has, yet the New York-based independent developer has taken both elements and created a title that is wonderful in numerous areas. However, some facets of that old mentality rear their ugly head and sully what is otherwise a fine addition to anyone’s library.
Narratively, Charlie Murder does attempt to bring a lot more to the table than Billy and Jimmy did in Double Dragon. As a five-piece outfit, Charlie and his band are taking the music world by storm, appearing on popular American chat shows and living the rock star lifestyle to its fullest, until Earth is inhabited by demons of all varieties, of course. There are instances in which the player will see Charlie, Rex, Lester and co. in an unfavourable light – akin to spoilt popstars that appear daily in red-top newspapers – and these give the stripped-back story a bit more depth than one would first expect. It’s still brawling madness with an RPG-style twist but, with the added element of disgruntled, shunned buddies and an enjoyable, yet minimalist, plot, Charlie Murder has more lasting power than other games of its ilk.
Indubitably, kicking copious amounts of posterior is what the people want and it’s certainly what they get. Players begin their merry jaunt across various environs by first choosing one of the five band members available. Thankfully, each musician isn’t merely a re-tread of the last as all of them offer different upgradable abilities in their specific class – with the caveat that the basic combat revolves around a punch and kick system. Mashing your way through a plethora of foes such as giant rats, gun-wielding pirates and zombified teens is quite fun at the beginning, but the incessant waves can become monotonous due to the rather simplified mechanics. You can grab smaller enemies and throw them around like rag dolls, too, but the thing that really breaks up the overly reductive action, is the arsenal of weaponry at your disposal. From semi-automatic pieces, to SMGs and more, the satisfying splatter from pelting rounds into enemies halts the serviceable hand-to-hand contests, right before they become monotonous. Of course, there are other items along the way that can be chucked at the slew of baddies, such as grenades and the like – all equally as fun.
In a game that draws upon the musical genre that made John Lydon famous, it seems almost cliché to say that tattoos play an integral role, but they certainly do. Each character has Anar-chi (special/magic abilities) powers that can be used for extra oomph, or to get out of a tight spot. By holding the trigger, up to four powers can be called upon by pressing any one of the corresponding face buttons. Each band member will then bash the drums, or lay out a fat bass line – depending on their instrument of choice – and drain the life bar of opposing forces within the vicinity of the attack. Tattoos are paramount in Charlie Murder not because of how cool they look, but because parlours are set up across the world and each bit of ink will open up a new power to Charlie and his bandmates.
The addition of RPG elements prolongs the playthrough of Charlie Murder and class-based spells aren’t even the icing on the proverbial cake. While mowing down the monsters in your path and levelling up in the process, loot drops are ever-present. Like any good rock star, one should know that costume changes should be a regular occurrence and essential for game completion. Hats, gloves and shirts can be found all over the game and will add strength or defence points to your character, acting as armour. In the same vein as other popular loot-foraging games, some items will also allow you to inflict elemental damage on enemies. Clothing and other items can also be purchased in shops, along with consumables that will shorten cooldown periods for Anar-chi, or add HP and the like.
Loot and cash can also be obtained via the number of QR codes scattered around the construction sites, streets and graveyards that Charlie frequents. Rather than make an idiot out of yourself and attempt to scan the on-screen barcode with your real life smartphone (which I admittedly did), know that the popular punk quintet are all packing Windows Phones that are capable of receiving email, scanning QR codes, taking pictures, checking Squi.iddl.us (Charlie Murder’s social network, in which you gain followers by being a general bad ass) and upgrading character stats. Not Earth-shattering, but a nice little touch to the overall presentation.
Even though Ska Studios expand the genre past its template with things like the aforementioned loot system and some off-the-wall end-level mini games – including skateboarding away from an articulated lorry and a turret sequence where the objective is to fire missiles at TNT-wearing sharks – it falls down at pivotal moments such as boss fights. Every enemy in the game has a life metre which must be depleted in order to move on to the next area and some are obviously more troublesome than others. The issue with boss battles is that the majority of them fall into that button mash trap. It becomes a task in perseverance where players must defeat a bigger enemy with a heftier life bar than they’re used to, but with no defining characteristic. There are one or two distinctive bosses that will live in the memory – a creepy, ghost lady that can intermittently appear on-screen, comes to mind – but they generally feel flat. Same goes for the regular mid-level bosses that have a little less health than their latter counterparts.
The real kicker, though, is the terrible – almost, non-existent – use of checkpoints. When you die at the hands of their persistent pursuers, you are bumped back to the very beginning of that stage. The game doesn’t become an arduous exercise until the final couple of levels, but once that difficulty is at its peak, death becomes more frequent and the lack of checkpoints becomes all the more clear. Killing all momentum and casting the player back to the very beginning of an area is an antiquated method which shouldn’t pop up in this day and age.
I would normally applaud a studio for making death feel important and, whilst beneficial to your character’s level to hammer through more enemies, it can get tiresome to defeat the deluge of bad guys that were already beaten, five minutes beforehand. Certain sections do afford players the chance to just run past and onto the next screen of potential victims, but this isn’t always the case and, regardless, even running past the flying bullets, spewed acid and endless attackers is a bother that one could do without.
One thing that may surprise people is how dark Charlie Murder can be at times. A few areas of the game – one particular campsite encounter – is almost unsettling and points how Murder’s group of ragtag misfits can be unlikable, despite the really inviting art style – that fans of The Dishwasher will instantly gravitate towards. The bouncy soundtrack is another plus and although repetitive, is suitable for the exploits of a punk band facing an impending apocalypse.
VERDICT: Marrying Punk rock and side-scrolling brawlers is a terrific idea. The extras, such as the loot system, class-based spells and the phone integration is what keeps an old concept from becoming truly stale. With all of the positives, then, its just a shame that infuriating checkpoints and shoddy bosses hold back what is otherwise a really enjoyable trip down memory lane. Charlie Murder never breaks new ground in terms of gameplay, but with a couple of fellow safety-pin pariahs by your side, there’s no doubting that this can be a hell of a ride.
GOOD. A game that scores 7/10 is worthy of note, but unworthy of fanfare. It does many things well, but only a few of them incredibly well and, despite a handful of good qualities, fresh ideas and solid mechanics, it fails to overwhelm.