It’s a story as old as rock and roll, which is also the story of a man selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads as the clock struck twelve over the cypress trees of the Mississippi plains. Only in this version, the man sells his soul not just for fame, cash, and dead hookers in a hotel room, but also as part of an ongoing campaign of unholiest vengeance against his childhood chum Charlie, who totally betrayed him by starting his own band and getting all the fame, cash, and dead hookers in hotel rooms first. Like you do.
Obviously, the only way to resolve this is by ganging up on the whole world, because it’s not like a band called Gore Quaffer is going to sell a lot of records anyway and bad press is still press. Rapidly press X and Y to find out what happens next.
But first, a public service announcement! The game supports up to four players – both local and online – who each play as one of the five members of the band, Charlie Murder. This is important because you do not want to play Charlie Murder on your own, ever, or ever ever. Ska Studios has acquired a bit of a reputation for making games that rate somewhere between “maddening” and “mass extinction event featuring brown pants” on the difficulty chart, and not without reason. You will hate this game if you go it solo, and you’ll probably hate yourself too because new controllers are expensive.
With that out of the way then, Charlie Murder is basically Castle Crashers (or, if you’ve just arrived from some zany alternate reality where Castle Crashers is a game you haven’t played, it’s a side-scrolling beat-’em-up with some RPG stats chucked in), remixed as an underground punk rock sampler with a more complex inventory system, lots of homebrewed booze, and red-spattered buckets of gratuitous violence. Each band member represents a class of sorts – including Berserker, Tank, Mesmer, Shaman, and Mage – but the only significant difference between them is the available spells and abilities, and all classes can use the same types of gear, weapons, and such.
Speaking of which, the item system could probably have used some more thought, although the interface is also partly at fault. There’s no indicator to show which items in your inventory are new, for example, and when you’ve expanded to 70 inventory slots, that’s a problem. Some items also impart bonuses, but the bonuses aren’t ever explained – I’d played for five or six hours before working out what exactly “Shockwave Slams” meant, and honestly, I’m still not entirely sure I got that right.
Then there’s the booze. Some locations have a brewery, and you can use collected resources to make bottles of beer that temporarily (… I think?) boost your stats. But there’s no way to use these without cycling through your inventory looking for them, and when you’re in the middle of a bar fight with a bunch of goons brandishing machine guns and rotary saws, that’s not really a viable option. Assuming, however, that the changes are permanent, that’s not really an issue but again, it might have been more useful to actually tell the player how it works.
And while I’m complaining, there are also way too many empty screens that you have to slog through to get to wherever you’re going. That might not even be such a bad thing, except that Charlie Murder has a horrible checkpoint system that can push you back to, like, a zillion screens ago if you’re all killed.
That’s about it for big gripes, though, and if you’re playing with friends (and you are playing with friends, aren’t you?) that last one is mostly precluded anyway because you can resuscitate each other. Just like being in a real band!
Charlie Murder introduces some rather clever innovations from time to time, like the interactive cutscenes that mix in Guitar Hero-style rhythm gameplay and QR codes plopped around levels that you can scan with your in-game phone for free stuff. While the mêlée combat mechanics are pretty basic and repetitive, the game makes up for it with an unprecedented diversity and an outrageous sense of style. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, suddenly you’re hurling feral kids on leashes over a chainlink fence to dig through trash for you.
Once you’ve finished the game, there are two additional difficulty modes to play if you’re feeling masochistic enough, although you can also play over from anywhere in the regular mode if you just want to grind stats or look around for some of the (many, many) secrets, including the “good ending”. Yes, there’s a not-good ending, and I got it. Just call me Yoko.