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Review: Charlie Murder

charlie murder

Charlie Murder is a homage to mosh pits, underground music, dimly lit arcades and pockets full of coins.

Developer: Ska Studios

Publisher: Microsoft Studios

Platform: Xbox 360 (Xbox Live Arcade)

Release Date: August 14, 2013

Current MSRP: $9.99 (Download size- 369.98 MB)

Firing up Charlie Murder will bring back memories of the many classic Konami and Capcom arcade beat ’em ups of the ’80s and early ’90s and those on home consoles like River City Ransom (1990) or Streets of Rage (1991). Its influences are obvious, but Charlie Murder doesn’t stay a nostalgia act.

This second release of Xbox Live Summer of Arcade comes from the two person, husband and wife team of Ska Studios. Ska Studios has deep ties to indie games on Xbox 360, responsible for a few well-known games on the Xbox Live Arcade like I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 (2009). The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai (2009) and The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile (2011). 

With the Xbox One launch only a few months away, Charlie Murder could be one of the last big Xbox Live Arcade games published by Microsoft Studios for the Xbox 360. Ska Studios cranked the volume to 11 for its latest release.

Friends Like You

Charlie and Paul Bitterman used to be best friends. The Charlie Murder band started from an idea on a notepad and grew to worldwide status. Like all the other great band feuds, tension within the group exploded and the two former best friends went their separate ways. Paul thought he was supposed to be the star, but Charlie’s band went on to fame and late night show gigs while he had to play at crappy coffee shops.

Full of bitterness, rage and feeling betrayed, Paul sold his soul for rock n’ roll, transforming into Lord Mortimer and creating the death metal band Gore Quaffer. In revenge he attacked the Charlie Murder band, sending them to hell where they fought off demons until being revived in the street by paramedics. Back in the land of the living, zombies are killing everyone and chaos has spread all over, but Lord Mortimer still wants revenge on Charlie Murder.

Watch the band in action:

Throughout the game the story is told through flashbacks of the band’s rise to stardom. In his former life Lord Mortimer had extremely bad luck and couldn’t catch a break. Over the course of the game you actually feel sympathetic for the villain.

Charlie Murder supports local co-op offline and online play up to four players. This is a game that actually includes couch co-op while other games can’t be bothered. Two people can’t play as the same character though, so there won’t be 2-4 Charlies on the screen at once. When playing locally everyone will unlock Achievements. There are five characters to choose from that make up the band. Charlie the berzerker, Rex the tank, Kelly the mesmer, Lester the mage and Tommy the shaman. These characters offer a lot of variety in play styles and complement one another in co-op.

Broken Bones

Charlie Murder is made up of all sorts of creativity that you used to see in the old brawlers. The game’s art style is gritty and raw. Some might knock the visuals for looking too cheap, but it fits with the game’s themes.

With its punk influence, you’d expect some great music to go along with the game. If you’re into those alternative styles then you’ll probably like the game’s music (that you can listen to here). All of the music fits the game perfectly. Level tracks like “Castlemania” highlight the game’s old school influences while adding intensity to the battles on that stage. Besides the awesome instrumental tracks for levels, there’s several original songs from the fictional Charlie Murder band that are surprisingly good.

A few parts of Charlie Murder show off the band’s chops. In these brief sections buttons come across the screen Guitar Hero-style as you play one of the band’s songs. These sections play differently depending on the band member. The parts for Rex the drummer are tough with many rapid button combinations while Charlie’s are more laid back. For the record store lovers, Ska Studios even created a real LP featuring some of the game’s music. Charlie Murder is the real deal.

Unlike other games such as Brutal Legend (2009) that had similar musical influences, Charlie Murder doesn’t come off as painfully cheesy with too many clichés about the genre. Charlie Murder knows its roots without beating it over the player’s head to the point of exhaustion. The alternative culture aspects of the game won’t alienate players.

Ready to Fight

There’s rapid combat and a stream of battles on almost every screen in Charlie Murder. Combos in the game can get crazy. Getting an enemy into the air and bringing them down with a piledriver is a good way to rack up a nice combo. Zombies, demons, witches, ninjas, chainsaw-wielding masked fiends and many other creatures attack in droves. There are also enemies with multiple health bars instead of the normal one that are challenging to take down. Defeated enemies drop money, loot, health and other items as a reward.

The band has more weapons at their disposal than an armory stocked up for the apocalypse. Guns, rocket launchers, chainsaws, flame throwers, samurai swords and even loaves of bread can be wielded.  If those don’t satisfy, there’s also the severed heads and brains of the defeated to throw at the remaining enemies. If all that violent weaponry isn’t enough, causing environmental damage is another option to finish off enemies, with exploding radioactive barrels or throwing them onto wall spikes. Rex can even pick up cars and arcade machines and drop them on enemies for a quick kill.

Special team moves can be activated once a 20 hit combo is built up by hitting both shoulder buttons. Your teammate has to hit them as well otherwise the move won’t start. When playing solo, a random band member will briefly join in for that move. Some of these feature a mosh pit attack or a giant robot spitting flames. These attacks are incredibly helpful when dealing with a group of enemies and even more during boss fights because each do a good chunk of damage.

charlie murder special

Special team attacks are invaluable in tight jams. (Image by Ska Studios)

Health items and food can be bought or found but vary on their efficiency. In battle these also have a 10 second cool down timer before the next one can be used. Looking at the inventory isn’t allowed when in combat but the game puts the best item next to your health bar for quick use. You can even craft your own beer at different shops using ingredients dropped by enemies. Drinking a round gives health and stat boosts but like in the real world, come with a price. Using alcohol for health recovery can have negative consequences like sluggish movements, which can severely hurt your chance of defeating a boss. As a last resort, returning to the world map refills the health bar.

Sections similar to a shmup add more depth to Charlie Murder. In these the characters are flying on a broom or riding a vehicle. These parts are awesome and keep the game’s pace fresh after all the beat downs. A great variety of levels make up the story, ranging from graveyards, the high seas and shopping malls. A bad acid trip in a psychedelic camp ground ends with one of the craziest boss fights you could come across. Charlie Murder wouldn’t be complete without smashing up a hotel room either.

There are many bosses throughout the game, with several optional fights too. If you die, which will happen a lot, you can skip through the screens to where it left off without needing to fight all the enemies and bosses again. If another player is brought in after you started, then you’ll have to fight bosses again to advance. During the action it can be hard to spot your character among all the enemies, especially when someone is doing their magic attacks. Friendly fire is on, which can lead to unwanted damage. There needs to be communication between players so somebody doesn’t accidentally kill another person.

Charlie Murder can be extremely difficult playing solo. Bosses are tough, draining health items fast with the help of their minions. After passing the third-way point in the game it can be brutal all by yourself. Even some of the regular enemies can be overwhelming in a group. It’s not impossible, but playing solo is definitely for the more skilled players.

Couch Slouch

Leveling up is one of the rewards for smashing skulls. As you level up, there’s deep customization options for all the characters in Charlie Murder.

Like an RPG, in Charlie Murder the band can wear equipment in the form of new outfits to improve their stats. Clothes are acquired at stores or finding them from enemy drops. There are way too many options for clothes. That’s a good problem to have. Strength, speed, defense and the cleverly titled anar-chi, which is magic, are the core stats to each character. Higher stats not only make your character stronger but give more options to equip the game’s better equipment.

Some clothes offer many varieties of improved stats and added abilities, such as resistance to certain attacks or dealing elemental damage like poison, fire, electricity and acid. Using acid attacks turns enemies into skeletons before they melt, which is a nice touch. Picking what to wear has different trade-offs. A shirt might give lower defense when compared to the same item but could come with rapid attacks and fire damage instead.

The gear visually changes when equipped, which is a cool feature that gives a lot of personalization for each player. Dyeing clothes a variety of colors is another cool way to suit your style. Buying clothes can get expensive but enemies tend to drop good loot so it’s all about managing your patience. Selling them back is a great way to get new threads and build up that bank account. Figuring out the right outfit for your character is one of the best gameplay aspects of Charlie Murder.

charlie murder fight

There’s a wide variety of equipment to buy or collect from fallen enemies. (Image by Ska Studios)

By getting tattoos at different shops in the game, abilities are unlocked for each character. Four can be equipped at a time. These have a cool down time so they can’t be continually used. Equipping certain clothes or eating items can speed up the recovery time. More abilities are also obtained by spending skill points after leveling up that can be activated without waiting around. A lot of spells can be unlocked for each character. Lester can steal souls to gain health when enemies are near death while Charlie can summon a poisonous tornado that sucks up objects and enemies. Relics can be equipped for skills like better loot, health regeneration or bigger boosts from eating food. There are 55 relics in the game, giving players even more options for their characters.

A Windows Phone is the game’s mini-hub. Bringing up the phone shows the character’s stats and where skill points are used. The phone also relays emails relating to the storyline or how to use new powers. Social media followers are gained after completing sections and boss fights but these don’t do anything in the game. The phone is also used to take pictures of QR codes for items, cash or followers. Many of these are hidden well throughout the stages. The phone is a distraction when playing in local co-op though, taking up a lot of the screen when another player is trying to buy clothes or explore the surroundings. Specifically using a Windows Phone felt out of place with the rest of the game but it serves its purpose.

Wrecking Crew

Charlie Murder has a great sense of humor, with a lot of parodies, jokes, weird items and creative ways to kill enemies. During one level exploding sharks attack in droves. Yeah, that’s a real thing in Charlie Murder. Another funny aspect is listening to the radio like in the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Callers give their bizarre opinions on the band feud while the DJ plays songs from Charlie Murder in-between funny commercials for in-game buildings and stores. The only woman in the Charlie Murder band plays a tambourine, which I took as obvious satire highlighting women’s lack of important roles in these types of music.

Another tie-in to the game’s themes is the ability to unlock new bands and several characters. These new members are variations of the original core and a different musical style than Charlie Murder. Before unlocking them, you must beat a boss fight of two monsters. The new characters also have their own special unlockable abilities, tattoos and a spin on the core group’s attacks. The original Tommy will shoot buzzsaws from his bass guitar for his default special attack while a different Tommy will shoot flames.

charlie murder tattoo

Tattoos give characters essential abilities that make the difference in combat. (Image by Ska Studios)

There’s three difficulties in Charlie Murder, Normal, Chaos and Total Anarchy. The last two unlock after beating the previous difficulty. Enemies do way more damage and take longer to kill, but they also drop some great equipment. After beating the game and loading up a character, you can pick what world difficulty to play. The character’s level, skills, equipment, items and money all transfer over. When going back to a difficulty that’s already completed all the stages are still unlocked. Chaos mode is a big jump in difficulty and feels impossible to beat playing alone. Each difficulty has a new band to unlock too.

The three difficulties work so well in Charlie Murder because on each one it feels like you’re playing the game for the first time. You actually want to play the game again on a higher setting. There aren’t many games, especially beat ’em ups, that feel like a brand-new experience on another difficulty level. It also feels like there’s a lot of secrets hidden away that many players wouldn’t know about, like taking photos of specific items to unlock new relics. This is another aspect of Charlie Murder that reminds me of how it was back in the day, discovering through hearsay instead of finding out on the Internet.

Violent World

Since Charlie Murder can be tough, you might want to hop online and seek help from strangers. Unfortunately you won’t find much goodwill there because the online community is terrible. For starters, friendly damage is on. Online this could be a problem for regular play with four people on the screen, but especially when you get crappy teammates who attack anyone levels below them.

If you’re a lower level than other players they might turn on you so you’ll quit the game. One person, who was around 30 levels higher than my character, repeatedly kept grappling me when the game began. Another time I was checking my equipment when a team member started attacking me because apparently I was taking too long for their liking. Other players can be extremely selfish, taking all the loot and leaving you with zilch.

The matchmaking is also a low point for the online mode. Joining public games takes several tries just to get into the lobby. There are many joined failed errors the moment you select to find a public game. Once there, most people back out before the game even starts. There’s also a weird problem while waiting in the lobby. The screen will randomly go black and send you to the Xbox 360 Dashboard. This happened several times as I tried to play online.

charlie murder map

Save yourself a headache and play Charlie Murder with friends. (Image by Microsoft)

Even if someone picks an alternative band member, there still can’t be two of the same character types in the game. This leads to lot of people just backing out of the lobby if they see you select “their” character. You might get stuck playing with a character you barely used or haven’t played with at all. 

The game’s network problems can all be fixed with a patch and are more annoying than game-breaking. For the best experience Charlie Murder needs to be played with friends. All you need to get through the game is one more person.

Go Mental

Charlie Murder packs a ton of content for a $10 game. The game takes between 6-8 hours to beat with two players. On top of that there’s two endings, secret bosses, three difficulty settings, unlockable bands, the max level at 50 and PVP arenas to beat up your friends. There’s also an apartment that can be filled with miscellaneous items from the game, almost like Animal Crossing. With all the different characters and difficulty settings, it adds an insane amount of replay value to the game.

All the elements in Charlie Murder draw in to the theme of being in a band and the attitude behind the songs. Everything comes together and relates to the game’s larger theme and style. With all the game’s little details, it’s obvious a lot of thought went into creating Charlie Murder’s universe.

It’s hard to believe only two people primarily created the game. Ska Studios lives up to the punk credo of DIY, Do It Yourself. While the beat ’em up genre is more than 25-years-old, Charlie Murder still plays fresh and is a great time in co-op. Even though you’re fighting hundreds of enemies it never gets boring with so many ways to attack and shape the characters.

Final Thoughts

Charlie Murder is a creative and passionate beat ’em up that makes for a fantastic co-op experience. It’s an excellent way to live vicariously through a band. Charlie Murder is easily one of the best brawlers released this console cycle. You don’t need to be a punk to get down with Charlie Murder. With all the options to individualize your play style you’ll be a seasoned stage diver when you save the world.

Score: 4/5

Positives

  • Filled with creativity
  • Tons of equipment and items
  • Awesome music
  • Difficulties build upon each other
  • Many secrets to discover
  • Great co-op experience
  • Game world is in sync
  • High replay value

Negatives

  • Currently some online network problems
  • Players can’t use same character type
  • Sometimes hard to spot character on screen
  • Friendly damage can be tricky to avoid

Charlie Murder was purchased for 800 Microsoft Points ($10) on the Xbox 360. The game was finished on normal difficulty in local-co-op. Single-player and online mode were also played extensively. As of publication, 25/30  Achievements were obtained for 320 Gamerscore. The highest level character was Charlie (Berzerker) at level 32.

Logo image by Ska Studios

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