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Choo-Choo Charles review

I have an affinity for the absurd, silly, and downright stupid so when I heard about a game where you’re being stalked by the demonic equivalent of Thomas the Tank Engine, I was suitably excited. But while Choo-Choo Charles’ premise brings me no end of joy, the janky and barebones adventure itself is way more dull than I thought possible. Unfortunately, this comedy game disguised as a horror game manages to be devoid of humor and terror in equal measure, and even though the runtime is only about 90 minutes, I found myself looking for a way off this crazy train much sooner.

Choo-Choo Charles may present itself as nightmare fuel on the outside, but this whole game is actually just one prolonged joke. Your adventure begins with a bang when you board a train with a gun mounted on it and are immediately attacked by an evil railcar with spider legs, but since those opening moments are the best part of the whole thing, you’re in for a monotonous jaunt thereafter. In order to kill Charles, you’ll have to travel around an island completing quests for NPCs to upgrade your weapons and improve your train’s stats, until you face ol’ Choo-Choo himself in a final showdown. Its intentionally funny nature is apparent in everything from its ridiculous characters to the idiotic tasks they give you – which includes having you hunt down a jar of pickles for a woman who’s obsessed with the fermented delicacies – but most of those things aren’t particularly funny.

Choo-Choo Charles’ over-the-top story may seem like the perfect setup for a hilarious odyssey, but it almost always misses the comedic mark with dull writing and forgettable characters that don’t even try to take advantage of that farcical goldmine. The voice acting is appropriately silly and clearly doesn’t take itself seriously, which is great, but the dialogue being read plays things far straighter, and I couldn’t help but repeatedly shake my head at all the missed opportunities for hijinks. There’s one part where an NPC explains that you can upgrade your train without acknowledging how insane that proposition is, and another where someone asks you to get revenge for her husband’s death but doesn’t make hay out of the fact that her beloved was literally eaten by an evil train. It was all just so painfully unfunny, and that hurts me.

Most of the time you’ll be riding your train through barren and empty environments, stopping to collect scrap metal or complete a dull quest along the way that might have you fetch some item for someone or lockpick a nearby chest in a terribly boring lockpicking minigame. The uneventful main quest has you hunting down three eggs, which are apparently children of Choo-Choo Charles waiting to hatch into additional railcar abominations, and can be used to lure him into a final deathmatch. To get hold of those eggs, you’ll need to talk to three NPCs who rattle off the exact same exposition about them, then send you into a mine to steal the egg where you have to avoid dumb cultists carrying shotguns in some truly horrid stealth sections.

The on-foot stealth sections are aggressively not fun.

These brief bits are little more than a series of hallways with masked enemies walking around where your only option is to avoid them. You aren’t given any weapons aside from the ones you keep on your train, so you’ll either have to sneak around and wait for NPCs to walk by, or just run past them since they’re slow, stupid, and have poor aim. Sneaking is aggressively not fun, since the only tool you’re given to aid you is the ability to lean left or right to peer around corners from cover. You can’t distract enemies, do stealth takedowns, or even crouch to aid you in the effort. Personally, I found it more bearable to just run past everything, grab the egg, and leave. Or if you’re feeling cheeky, just lead the enemies outside the mine, hop in your train, and kill them with your guns (though that isn’t really worth the time required to pull it off).

As you progress through the story, every so often you’ll hear a sinister train whistle and know that you’re chugging towards a confrontation shortly, but any hope for excitement is run flat because it’s the same encounter each and every time. When the train appears you’ll have to keep moving and use any weapons you’ve got to do some damage before Charles retreats to lick his wounds and begin the predictable process again. In the earliest part of the adventure you’ll be far too weak to face the wicked locomotive and will almost certainly get murdered, for which there are practically no consequences. But after getting a few upgrades and a couple new weapons, like the deadly flamethrower or the rocket launcher that takes way too long to reload, you’ll be able to fend off Charles without issue.

It’s just so disappointing that every one of these encounters is identical. Choo-Choo Charles just chases after your train swiping at you until you do enough damage to make him leave you alone, rinse and repeat. Even when you get to the final showdown, which took me less than two hours both times I beat it, the only change is that he gets bigger and occasionally teleports to throw you off. The demon train doesn’t use any new attacks or surprise you in any way, meaning every time you face him after the first time is just a predictable humdrum as you coast along the railway. All of the potential fear factor is sucked out of the experience and replaced with monotony.

Choo-Choo Charles has a distinctly low-budget feel, like how all the NPCs look like they’re characters in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and don’t move their lips when they talk. In some ways that works in favor of its absurdist style, but in others, it’s less charmingly bad and more outright frustrating, like how it occasionally bugs out. In one example, the upgrade menu popped up during the final cutscene, which meant I didn’t get to watch the entire ending of the campaign until my second playthrough. That level of jank just kinda sucks, even if it’s being unpolished makes sense for a game this sarcastic in its creation.

Verdict

Choo-Choo Charles is a silly mess of an adventure, with its joke of a premise falling short of ever delivering the punchline. Combat against the evil train is always tedious and repetitive, and running quests on foot is even more unappealing with awful stealth sections through dilapidated hallways. Throw in some annoying bugs and a lifeless, empty map, and this funny nugget of an idea disappoints in so many ways it actually makes me angry. Sadly, I have to recommend you choo-choose a different way to spend your time.

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