Charlie Murder – PAXtravaganza 2013!

Charlie Murder Logo

What a title, huh? Ska Studios is not a game developer known for its subtlety. Their first major game, The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, was a unbelievably high-octane 2D Devil May Cry romp through dark and bloody combat. There’s elements of Ninja Gaiden (the modern reboots) thrown in for good measure, especially in the executions (NGII, at least, came out before this game) and uncompromising difficulty in spots. The art style reminds me of Mortal Kombat combined with the journal of a mentally disturbed goth kid – it works in all the right way to bring the game to life. Because, for whatever reason, this game does not look amazing in still photographs:


Still, take a look at a video and you’ll find all your concerns laid to rest almost immediately (assuming you can stomach the insane amount of gore and death happening on-screen):

So yes, awesome like a adolescent school kid who likes DooM. Which is really just me all grown up. Aw! Either way you look at it, The Dishwasher succeeds at exactly what it’s trying to do, which is the creation of an absolutely intense ninja combat experience that doesn’t leave much room for introspection or deep thoughts. It takes a host of elements from other games and then splays them out in a near pitch-perfect experience.

Then they made a sequel, Vampire Smile, which ups the ante in terms of animation. Maybe they’re taking a crack at games like those that VanillaWare made; that might be an influence here, but I’d be remiss to make statements without any backing. To explain: VanillaWare’s a developer known for their distinctive, expressive, and hilariously over-animated and detailed sprites. They began with Princess Crown on the Sega Saturn, a Japan only release that attempted to combine RPG elements with 2D action. It failed pretty spectacularly, even if it looked amazing. The same goes for Odin Sphere, which attempted the same formula with different ideas. Still, both of these take the RPG tack a little too literally and create a rather anemic experience as a result. Just go look up a video with the combat and you’ll see what I mean – too many statistics, too much item usage, too much preparation for grind-like combat.

Vampire Smile is not like this. It improve on the original in almost every way with weapon variety. combat options, and greatly improved animation; I shudder to think of the number of hours that went into every single sprite contained withhin the game. In fact,  VanillaWare’s Muramasa: The Demon Blade came out a few month earlier and does almost the same thing. Players who hated the more “RPG-lite” style of the first two VanillaWare games could once again rejoice, as the developer gave us the ability to play without those silly mess of systems they foisted upon the player. Still, I give the one up to Ska Studios, even if I find it hard to choose between one art style or another.

Enter Ska Studios’ next big release, Charlie Murder. Taking a cue from the recent rash of side-scrolling beat’em ups, I saw it at PAX and I had a strange feeling that I had seen this developer before; turned out the same people making Charlie Murder also made The Dishwasher – huzzah! That alone should vouch for its quality, but some explanation’s in order. Think of any 4-player multiplayer sidescroller, say Scott Pilgrim or Castle Crashers. Then add the ultra-violent Dishwasher aesthetic, add a ton of RPG elements and aesthetic character customization, and a literally insane plot about a punk band called Charlie Murder being attacked by a death metal band called Gore Quaffer with demonic powers, and you get Charlie Murder in a nutshell.

Like MechKnight Chronicles, there’s a taste of the present and the future found in Charlie Murder. On the one hand, we’ve got the “BrawlPG”, with its endless customization options and…a Windows Cellphone, for some reason. Like Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles (wow, am I reaching into obscurity), you can customize your character, skills, and equipment using the cellphone without “pausing” the game – an easy feat on a game like Diablo, but not so much for a console release. Obviously, to run a 4-player brawler like this would be impossible if everyone stops the game when they check out their things, so I’m happy to note we no longer need a GameBoy Advance to do the same thing (ah, technology). And did I mention there’s lots of randomly generated loot to sort through? Apparently people like collecting statistics, but Charlie Murder will definitely scratch your itch if so. The weapons look just as insane as everything else, from beer bottles to drum sets to brooms and (my favorite, Quan Chi fan that I am) severed limbs.

As well, we’ve got four unique characters (all from the imaginary band…this is starting to sound like a Gorillaz album), each with their own abilities and D&D class archetypes. From the titular character’s Berzerker style with dual-wielding hammers to Lester’s Mage-like ability to steal souls, you’ll find plenty of bizarre variety for your tastes. The magic/energy system called “Anar- chi” augments these characters by, for example, letting you cast a spell twice or clearing a crowd of enemies (I would imagine that killing enemies yields power ups for that meter). Upgrades come in the form of a tattoo parlor, and your character turns into some tattooed monstrosity over time.

Also, team attacks and combos. You get to turn into a giant robot with friends. Am I missing how this could be bad? Ska Studios makes interesting, well-designed, and darkly comic video games – hard to go wrong with the Tim Burton-esque pleasure you obtain from these sorts of games, really (better than the real Nightmare Before Christmas games, for sure).

I would not hastily slap the label “guilty pleasure” or “dumb fun” onto Ska Studios’ latest venture. It reminds me of DooM in all the right ways, taking its inspirations seriously while adding whatever the developer thought looked cool in their particular subculture. In this case, it’s all sorts of rock music; whether or not you understand what’s equally enjoyable and hilarious about the games depicted here may just come down to personal taste. I like this because they play like the game I like to play. The violence remains satisfying, but that same violence remains in the digital world. How many people have I attacked in real life? Relatively few. The records of my video game murders remain virtual, as does everyone else – especially if you think eating ghosts or stomping on turtle heads constitutes a moral objection.

Since I’m probably the only Christian website on earth that’ll recommend super violent games, it’s not because “hey, I love violence!”; it’s the mechanics and their depth that truly engage me. That a hyperviolent visual presentation enhances it significantly isn’t an issue for me.  Sometimes there’s room for a good old time with three other people to beat up everything in sight; those appears the video games that always stood out in my mind, and still continue to do so (see: Secret of Mana).

Perhaps in the same way that most people enjoy other luxuries (rather than giving all their money away to children in third world countries), I enjoy my video games. Ever read Matthew 26?

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at the tableBut the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, “Why this waste? For this perfume might have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me. 11 For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have Me. 12 For when she poured this perfume on My body, she did it to prepare Me for burial. 13 Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.”

There’s no particular reason for the woman to wash Jesus’ fee other than reverence and respect. The act lacks that utilitarian air that most judgmental persons would love to see as a justification of faith, a good deed, or something else by which to create a standard. Jesus doesn’t fall into this trap; he basically rebukes them for thinking in a purely act-oriented sense (Jesus tells us that the intentions matter, after all). The disciples display a judgmental tone under the guise of charity, but the true issue is that of balance. We cannot always find MEANING and SERIOUSNESS in everything. Sometimes, you can have fun with video games! Amazing, I know.

So when I see a game like Charlie Murder, what else can I say other than “it looks fun, go buy it when it comes out so we can massacre zombies together?”

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.