Charlie Murder review: Search and destroy

Damn it, Charlie Murder.

You're a fiend. You're a hardcore, chaotic mess of heathenry and horror. You're worse than a pre-epiphany Grinch, bloodier than Bunker Hill, messier than an unsupervised 2-year-old eating spaghetti and chocolate ice cream, and more outrageous than Lady Gaga at a PETA banquet.

And this is why I love you.%Gallery-191157%

Charlie Murder is Ska Studios' punk-themed, RPG-infused brawler for up to four players, exclusive to Xbox Live Arcade. "Punk" in this game is more than just an inspiration – the characters themselves are in a band and this infuses every mechanic, delving far beyond the character models and soundtrack. The game itself defies constraints, adding music and infinite-running mini-games at will, offering diverging paths without clear direction, allowing players to brew beer and get tattooed for upgrades, and sandwiching small bosses of multiples sizes between other bosses and streams of foes, sometimes with no checkpoints to soften the inevitable blow of defeat.

This last reason is why I despise Charlie Murder.

I abhor developer Ska Studios for creating such an anarchic save system. All of the random, surprising pieces of Charlie Murder are fun, and therefore forgivable – except for the checkpoints. As much entertainment as I derive from playing each level, it is infuriating to die and find myself eight stages back, with no way of jumping past the bosses (yes, plural) and swarms of enemies I already beat.

Here's an example of an entire section wherein there are no checkpoints, from a stage near the end named Forbidden Lot:

  • Two rooms of giant spiders, three per room

  • One room of armed security guards

  • One extra-long room with pop-up spikes on the ground, full of armed security guards and half-man demons with battle axes

  • One extra-long room with huge spinning-blade terminals and vats of acid, full of armed security guards and half-man demons with battle axes

  • One room of armed security guards and demon girls with meat cleavers

  • One disco dance floor of armed security guards and other enemies, and the sub-boss Vlad the Eternally Cold

  • A playable cut-scene

  • An infinite-flyer with playable characters on broomsticks, shooting guns at major boss enemies in a flying tour van

During a solo run-through, I got through every one of these stages, only to die at the broomsticks and have to start all over again. I did this twice. It was even more frustrating the second time.

Charlie Murder replays generally allow players to run past the enemies in each stage (if you're quick enough and don't run into floor spikes), and it counts the bosses as already defeated so they don't pop up again. This is nice, but it's still an absolute pain when all I want to do is replay the section that defeated me. For the record, it took me five minutes just to run past all of the enemies in the above section. For a twitchy beat-em-up, five minutes is a lifetime, and this misstep completely throws off the rhythm of the entire game. That's a shame, because the rest of Charlie Murder has a great tempo.

It's a rich, high-voltage brawler with diversions that play like on-screen versions of Cards Against Humanity: One section has you throw a slobbering, Cabbage Patch Kid / troll hybrid on a retractable leash over a fence, where it can collect empty bottles and cans for cash and, eventually, a key. Another has you ride a rope up to the ceiling of a grand ballroom, hitting birds with a coat hanger on the way.

There are also the shooting broomstick levels, music stages and one on a raft in a sewer reminiscent of Turtles in Time. Most of these are a blast and a welcome break from constant brawling and beating. The brawling and beating, it should be noted, is also a triumph for Ska Studios. With variations of special abilities and items for each character, including gloves that release shockwaves with blocks and punches, or a screaming whirlwind of poison, each move feels customized at every level, molding to your personal play style with ease.

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Checkpoint problems aside, the levels are difficult – in a good way. I'm satisfied after completing a stage or beating a boss because each one requires different strategy. No enemy is outrageously overpowered, but they are each unique and require individual planning. And, for my play style, they require a hefty amount of health-restoring beer.

Half of the beer-drinking is for my personal mental stability, since one section of the game involves flying sharks with TNT strapped to their torsos and I will have nightmares about that for weeks. I'm terrified of sharks, but don't laugh; there's a good chance something in Charlie Murder will terrify you or tickle your fancy in a strangely specific way. Construction workers, Mesoamerican lore, ghost girls that flash on the screen suddenly, skateboarding, zombies, ninjas, pirates, giant spiders, and, of course, punk rock - it's all fodder for uncomfortably active imaginations.

All characters use the same control scheme, which includes the D-pad's cell phone, which can take pictures of QR codes hidden in the levels to gain loot and cash. Also on the D-pad are skill points, a Twitter-style feed and email. Enemies drop cash when they're killed, and there are shops along the map with new clothes and consumables offering buffs and health.

Leveling up earns characters skill points to distribute between strength, defense, speed and anar-chi (magic), and adds new abilities to their hit – and punch and kick and body slam – list.

These RPG-inspired details make Charlie Murder deeper than the average beat-em-up. Meanwhile, the storyline is threaded right through the player's phone, with emails from Charlie Murder's archenemy and rival band leader, Lord Mortimer, and other "friends." Mostly, Lord Mortimer taunts Charlie and his bandmates and vows revenge when they kill his minions, all with the grammar issues of a bloodthirsty kindergartener. It's a nice touch.

It's hard to tell where the punk lifestyle ends in Charlie Murder, whether in the game or with Ska Studios itself, and the game's insane, patchwork gameplay is a thrill. Charlie Murder is the chance to be a punk rock superstar and superhero at the same time – and if Grandma threatened to cut you out of the will if you ever got a tattoo, here's an opportunity to live out that fantasy, too.

This review is based on the XBLA version of Charlie Murder, provided by Ska Studios.

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