Choo-Choo Charles Review
The little spider-engine that could not
Indie studios are often the source of whacky concepts because there is less risk if things go off the rails. With small teams and tiny budgets, indie games need not sell nearly as many copies as the big releases. And indie devs often have to come up with something weird just to be noticed amidst the barrage of smaller titles. Choo-Choo Charles is certainly quite a bizarre concept. It is a first-person survival-horror adventure where the main goal is to kill a sentient spider-train (aka Charles). And while many players might find the game appealing because it is unique, it is crudely put together and neither scary nor enjoyable.
You’re a monster hunter who has been given the task to take down Charles, the dangerous spider-train that roams free on the island of Aranearum. After an initial introduction with an old man that helps you get your own train, Charles attacks and the old man bites it. From there it is your job to navigate the island alone and find a way to kill Charles. Thankfully your train has a weapon on it, so once Charles takes enough damage he scurries off and heals. You need to find three supernatural eggs and use them at a specific site to coax Charles into a final battle, one from which he will not flee.
The island of Aranearum has train tracks that encircle it and a few that cut across the middle. Navigation is freeform, and the tracks have forking paths, so you will have to get off and flip levers to travel on the desired route. Your own train can go forward and reverse (no speed setting), and it will automatically stop if you jump off. The island is home to people that give you quests. The main ones relate to the eggs—they’re found in mines, but more on that later. A few provide additional guns for your train, like a rocket launcher and flamethrower. And the rest give you scrap that can be used to upgrade your train’s armor, damage, speed, and repair it if it takes damage from Charles or other threats.
All the side quests are boring and simple. Most are fetch tasks that feature silly characters with a bit of flavor text to try and add some lore to the world. It is all very crude, although at least they’re often quick to complete. Along the way to quest locations, you can find spare scrap lying about, which is handy because you lose some if you die. Charles shows up relatively infrequently but he kills quickly. He cannot enter structures, so having a navigation strategy, via the overhead map that shows buildings, helps to lower risk. Encounters with Charles while on the train were less common than those on foot.
Tension can rise when you’re roaming the woodland area alone and hear Charles’ train whistle in the distance. Maybe you’ll see him charging across the hill and the music kicks in to let you know a pursuit has begun. Initially it can be unsettling, but the horror element is surprisingly mediocre and quickly loses steam. For starters, Charles can get stuck on the world geometry and the music drowns out his natural spooky train sounds. And dying to Charles is generally not a big deal; you lose a few pieces of scrap and respawn back at your train. Then you can probably complete the quest without issue since Charles will not be around. He seems to randomly roam so luck will play a role while you explore the island.
Charles is not the only threat on the island. A crazy gang of mask wearing fanatics will give chase and unload their shotguns from close range. While you can use the train’s weapons to kill these goons, encounters are usually away from the tracks. Like in the mines, with the eggs, they’ll walk through tunnels and whistle. This seems to be where you’re meant to be stealthy, but it is horribly implemented and rarely works. The fanatics see you from insane distances, even in the dark. Then you must run, and although they’ll chase across the open forests for ages, they get lost in the maze-like mines as you’re just a bit quicker. These masked idiots are silly and annoying, as well as broken sometimes when they get stuck.
Indie titles below $20 USD come with lower presentation expectations but the visuals in Choo-Choo Charles compare poorly to games that are now over two decades old. Interiors are featureless. Character models (with no lip syncing) are hideous. Charles will clip through buildings when you’re hiding inside them. The world geometry is simple, with repeating trees and bland woodland paths. Even the setting is cliché, with fog and stormy weather, although adequate for its purposes. There is no artistic flair or unique presentation style to be found here. The only things that get a pass mark are your own train (with custom paint colors) and Charles.
But Choo-Choo Charles’ ugly visuals are not the reason why it is a poor experience. The game is just boring, even though it is quite short. Completing it, and doing all of the uninteresting fetch quests, will take just over two hours, and that includes dying a few times. The crudity of the entire adventure is draining and it gets old quickly. It is not scary and only occasionally tense as you hear Charles’s distant whistle while away from shelter. And yet, while awful, there is something intriguing under all this mess—a simple template of an upgradable mobile home and an unpredictable threat. If a sequel had wholesale changes and many, many refinements, it might be worth playing. But that, as they say, is a long way down the track.