James Stephanie Sterling
Choo Choo Charles - All A-Bored (Review)
Choo Choo Charles Released: December 9, 2022 Developer: Two Star Games Publisher: Two Star Games Systems: PC
Choo Choo Charles is a real game.
Conventional expectation might lead one to assume its announcement was a joke, but it’s most assuredly no mere goof. Choo Choo Charles is all about a killer train with spider legs and a face that could appropriately be described as “fucking gnarly.” It gained a fair bit of attention when it was first revealed, but indeed the question of whether or not it was a joke hung in the air.
Yes, Choo Choo Charles is a real game. Not a good game, mind.
The problem with Choo Choo Charles is the same one found in goofy titles like Goat Simulator. While the fundamental premise is entertainingly stupid, the premise represents almost the entire experience and there’s precious little else once the novelty wears off. The idea of an arachnid killer train is wonderful and silly, but you can more or less get the exact same enjoyment out of watching a trailer for it as you would playing it. It’s a joke that can be told with thirty seconds of footage, spread out over an entire videogame.
Choo Choo Charles is at least aware enough of its central issue to keep things brief. There’s a single objective involving the collection of three items, and while some basic sidequests are available, you won’t need an entire afternoon to reach the credits. It’s a short, straightforward, remarkably simple affair with not all that much to do.
Obviously everything revolves around the titular Charles, an antagonist capable of showing up at any time with the only warning being his nefarious train whistle. You have a train of your own that's used to travel around the island, upgradeable and combat ready. Improvements can be made to its speed, durability, and attack power with the scrap you’ll be collecting as you orchestrate Charles' downfall.
One's only offensive capabilities are found within the train, as you’re otherwise unarmed beyond a weapon mounted at its rear. If Charles catches you outside, you’re as good as dead. Fighting him requires getting your train moving and opening fire while he gives chase, and until the finale, combat can only temporarily drive him off. Charles doesn’t actually appear all that much, but the specter of his arrival will keep you looking for buildings to hide in whenever you’re away from your locomotive. This balance between seeking shelter and striking out to complete objectives has a ton of potential for tense exploration and strategy, but like all things in Choo Choo Charles, such potential goes unrealized.
The main goal is to explore three mines to retrieve a trio of eggs before placing them in a temple and rendering Charles mortal. You can pretty much do this from the outset, but without collecting enough scrap to upgrade the train, survival is unlikely. Not to worry though, as even the upgrade process won’t take long - scrap is abundant, there are only three stats to improve, and each one can be maxed out fairly swiftly.
Scrap is the only loot on offer, and it’s only used to either upgrade or repair the train. As a result, obtaining the stuff takes no time at all - it’s littering the ground, you get a bunch for doing side missions, and whole piles can be found in boxes via an insipid lockpicking minigame. Other rewards for exploration are thin on the ground - there are a handful of different weapons to replace the train’s default (and usually more effective) machine gun, as well as a few hidden paint cans that change your train’s color. That’s it, really… and the paint jobs don’t even look very good.
Side missions aren’t exactly enriching either, almost entirely taking the form of bog standard fetch quests. Distressingly freakish NPCs whose mouths don’t move are dotted around the map, most of them needing something picked up and brought back to them. Only one of the optional missions stand out, a parody of Slender where you collect eight pages in the woods while chased by a spooky entity. Sadly though, it plays exactly like Slender, itself a one-note game that outstays its welcome in short order.
Collecting eggs requires a little more engagement but this has the effect of exposing how threadbare Choo Choo’s mechanics truly are. Each mine is patrolled by gun-toting guards employed by the island’s corrupt owner, and you’ll need to avoid them while locating each egg helped only by your complete lack of either combat or stealth capabilities. There’s no way to fight an enemy and no real way of sneaking past them either. Your only method of avoidance is peeking around corners and listening out for the guards’ trademark whistling. Guards aren’t exactly smart, but if you cross their line of sight even a little, they’ll get aggressive... and unbelievably persistent.
Once alerted, a guard won’t stop chasing you - ever. He’ll chase you through the mine, he’ll chase you out of the mine, and unless you get into your train and speed off, he’ll chase you around the whole fucking island. Getting spotted isn’t a scary threat - you’ll barely get shot if you run with a slight zigzag - it’s just a bloody hassle. Even if you are killed, dying is punished only with a negligible loss of scrap and a respawn at your train, the latter often being a welcome prospect if you’re already running back to the thing while getting shot at. Stealth is not just a waste of energy, its miniscule inclusion is practically misleading - rather than assume you need to sneak around, your best bet is to just sprint into a mine, grab an egg, and dash for your train.
There’s another way to deal with guards. It’s cheap, it exploits the slapdash game design, and it sure as heck works. Guards (and Charles!) forget where you are if you restart the game from the main menu, and since progress is constantly saved, you can cheese it by fleeing around corners and reloading. A slightly more satisfying, if tediously initiated, tactic is to lure guards behind your train. Once positioned, you can use the train’s gun emplacement to murder the wanker. It might be a laborious way to take revenge, but it’s kinda worth it to bite back at the horribly annoying little shits.
I hate being so consistently negative here because the core idea is so charming I can’t help rooting for Choo Choo Charles in spite of myself. I love the concept, I applaud the ingenuity of its absurd creature design, and as a horror fan I just plain want to like it. I’m somewhat pained that I have very little else I could positively say, but I can’t contrive further critique because Choo Choo Charles is too feature poor to provide more reviewable material.
Oh! It has graphics. That’s another thing I could say. That’s about all I have to say. There is sound, too - some spooky chords, a big train whistle, and voice acting that teeters on “so bad it’s good” but never quite manages it. Once again, that’s about all I have to say about it. That’s all I’ve got for the entire game. It’s given me nothing more to talk about.
I'm sad that I can't praise a horror game about an evil spider train. It's a bloody tragedy.
Choo Choo Charles reminds me of a movie by Full Moon Studios - like Demonic Toys, Hideous, or Head of the Family, it’s an entertaining “what if?” concept that just isn’t enough to support an entire piece of media. With basic gameplay comparable to any number of low budget horror titles, it’s a fun idea and absolutely nothing besides. I wish it had more to offer, but like so many joke games before it, we already got the punchline when we saw the trailer and there’s nothing the gameplay adds on top of it. To be brutally honest, Choo Choo Charles would have been better as a fake game, or at the very least nothing would have changed if it was.
If you're looking for a horror game, choo choo choose something else DO YOU GET WHAT I JUST DID!?!?!?