For the second year in a row, I spent far too much time playing Charlie Murder at PAX East. As part of the Indie Megabooth, Ska Studios' exhibit belonged to a larger group, one of dozens of in-development, independent games, and this year it was directly across from Supergiant's high-profile premiere, Transistor. Still, Charlie Murder stood out. Its gritty punk rock style caught my eye – again – and the co-op, beat-em-up gameplay was so gripping that it almost made me late for a following appointment.
Charlie Murder is a punk game from conception to execution, with a soundtrack composed and performed by James and Michelle Silva, the duo of Ska Studios. No, it's not a ska soundtrack.
Charlie Murder is a side-scrolling beat-em-up with heavy RPG elements, including character customization, loot and unique ability upgrades. It stars five playable characters, each with disparate strengths and powers, and all of them making up the in-game band Charlie Murder.
I played as Rex, the tank and drummer of Charlie Murder. He's a hulking dude with a skull (painted, I hope) on his face, twice as tall as the other characters and three times as wide. His special attacks include busting out a full drum kit in the middle of a battle to knock out nearby enemies; one version of this attack dropped a bunch of knives on all of the foes around me, while Rex rocked out.
Charlie Murder's graphics were as gritty as its story, starring characters and settings designed as sparse, deliberate sketches that mimicked the game's overall anarchic tone. The gameplay was chaotic, too – I played a four-player game, with James Silva as Charlie and two other PAX East randoms. James talked design as we battled hordes of the undead, witches and angry rioters, and we got insight into the game's narrative: Charlie Murder and his bandmates accidentally kicked one of their friends out of the group, and in a fit of depression he turned to a vague religious temple. The indeterminate angel at the head of the benches granted this sad man musical powers in the form of a death metal band, and they set out to get revenge on Charlie Murder and his punk group.
In short, Charlie Murder as a game predicted the impending punk rock apocalypse, and made it look like a ton of fun. Charlie Murder packed a punch of features: As we took out enemies in the streets, graveyards and abandoned warehouses of the apocalypse, they dropped all manner of loot, including clothing that upgraded certain abilities, barley and other ingredients for brewing home-made beer, guns, chainsaws, and brooms, along with items for "Anar-chi," the magical powers specific to each character.
Each character in Charlie Murder carried a Windows 8 Phone that provided messages, a skills-upgrade menu, and that was able to take photos. There was an achievement for taking pictures of all of your bandmates, James told us, and there were a few QR codes hidden within the levels. Spotting these and snapping a picture unlocked special items.
The background of Charlie Murder's levels was important, featuring a tattoo parlor where players could get inked up for a variety of buffs, and a PVP section in a boxing ring. These areas were subtly integrated into the scenery, just as the QR codes really were hidden. It would take a keen eye to notice these features without the developer providing us hints as we went along.
One thing I would be wary about concerning Charlie Murder – apart from its tendency to make me late for important meetings – was the subtlety of some of its features. There was a lot to discover and play with in Charlie Murder, on top of the frantic, multiplayer brawls, and it was perhaps too-perfectly integrated into the settings. Without more direct guidance, I wondered if players would recognize all of these opportunities – such as brewing beer, another feature.
James said he used shows such as PAX East as public betas, to gather player feedback and, he hoped, catch these potential problems. Other than that, Ska Studios took a punk approach to developing Charlie Murder, with James and Michelle throwing parties for friends to test out the game's mechanics, "researching" beer and later modifying what needed it.
James said he wanted Charlie Murder out this year on XBLA. He might just have to throw a few more parties first.