Sometimes when a game has been in development too long, it loses its identity. You can almost tell where the ideas and gameplay mechanics were changed and tweaked over the years because of indecision, technical issues, and any of the many problems that can occur in game development. Charlie Murder from Ska Studios has been in development for almost four years now, and thankfully, it exhibits the complete opposite of what can go wrong when a game is in the oven for too long. It's mostly everything that goes well.
Charlie Murder is a modern day side scrolling beat em' up in the same vein as Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Videogame. In fact it's so close to a careful blend between the two, at times you'll be instantly reminded of each game. That said, Charlie Murder distinguishes itself from those titles through dark and moody hand-drawn graphics, over the top violence, and a memorable soundtrack. All three are signatures of developer Ska Studios (The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, The Dishwasher : Vampire Smile).
Along with the resurgence of beat em ups has come enhancements to the formula. No longer designed to be an arcade game that simply sucks your quarters, these games are designed with an RPG flair to suck in your time. Charlie Murder is no exception with a leveling system that allows you build up one of the game's five characters. Each character is a specific base class - Beserker, Tank, Mesmer, Mage, and Shaman - though each character is actually a member in Charlie's Band. This punk rock / sci-fi theme is apparent throughout the entire game and the focus on making a character in the game yours is one of the highlights.
While playing the game you'll pick up items that you wear which bear stats much like an action /rpg game. Hats will grant defense and magic bonuses, shirts will add resistance to knockdown and added defense, and weapons will increase attack damage while adding effects like fire and electric. There's also accessories and tattoos to further customize your character with special abilities. A vampire tooth will let you leech life when you attack. Tattoos are your "Chi" attacks, a limited special move to turn the tide of battle.
There's a lot to talk about in Charlie Murder because there are so many little details. It's easy to see the game is a labor of love and the time and effort put into things is completely unmistakable. There's an entire beer brewing sub-game that lets you create "potions" from materials you find. Your phone acts as a menu system allowing you to get in-game help, check your "squi.iddl.us" followers (think Twitter), and even use the camera on it to take pictures (which is used to find hidden items). There's an entire radio show you can sit and listen to that plays the game's soundtrack and talks about the "story" that's going on. I sat and listened to it for a good 15 minutes and there was still new content popping up in it.
So Charlie Murder has all this stuff you can do, collect, and customize - how is the game play? It's pretty damn fun actually. Like any good beat em up, it's all about the combat and thankfully what's presented here is deep and engaging. You'll mix light and heavy attacks to build up combos, block and counter, and pick up weapons to use and throw. What I really enjoyed with the combat is almost how strategy oriented it felt, knowing when to use your special powers or throw guy into environmental dangers to extend the battle and regain your life. Perhaps most importantly the combat simply looks and feels satisfying and that's crucial to a beat ‘em up. The game also does a great job of breaking up the monotony of constant combat for eight hours by including vertical sections, mini-games, vehicle sections, and several other "mix-ups" to keep gameplay fresh. These sections are short enough to not be annoying, but long enough to make you want to get back into the action.
With five characters to choose from, Charlie Murder allows you to play four player co-op either online, locally, or a combination of the two. Even if you have a level 1 character you can join a friend's game who is level 20 and do well enough to survive. You'll basically be power leveled until you catch up, which compared to some recent offerings, is a nice change for accessibility.
The characters themselves work well together, with abilities and special maneuvers that not only complement each other - healing, buffs, and area clearing attacks come to mind - but fit within the theme of the game. Team attacks like turning into a giant robot or riding a fire breathing wolf to clear a room are satisfying, hilarious, and deadly.
The co-op will let you jump in and out of any game and you can bring your character with you. What's also nice is you can give rare or unneeded items to friends just by dropping them, which really helps push the game into Item Collection - Action/RPG mode, ala Diablo. In fact character customization and the visual changes that go along with it are half the fun. Seeing my character run around with a smirking pumpkin head, a wife beater, and studded wrist wraps is great - but having my friend tell me how awesome it looks feels just as good.
We did run into a few technical issues with Charlie Murder. Minor things like areas not resetting or allowing us to move forward, some minor online lag, and a few display bugs. The game scales its difficulty based on the number of players and a few times it felt almost too aggressive in it, but otherwise what's put on display here is a meaty eight hour game that tells the story of two punk rockers and a deal with the devil.
Charlie Murder is easily seen as a labor of love. The small details that are found in almost every aspect of the game make apparent. Fans of Ska Studios previous work will feel right at home here. I think any fan of the genres that Charlie Murder mixes so well will love what the game has to offer. I know I did.