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Choo-Choo Charles review: off the rails survival horror

Choo-Choo Charles review

Choo-Choo Charles review

A weird meme-turned survival horror game with a compelling elevator pitch, Choo-Choo Charles sees you stalked by a half-spider, half-train monster.

  • Developer: Two-Star Games
  • Publisher: Two Star Games
  • Release: December 9th 2022
  • On: Windows
  • From: Steam
  • Price: TBC

As a grown man, I love trains. Not to the extent that I will ever bother to learn about them or identify one with more specificity than “the pointy guy”, “the blunt guy”, and “the chugga Chugga Choo Choo all-aboard guy”, but to the far milder extent that I enjoy seeing them whizzing around the place like big metal worms and hearing their various little noises and honks. They are trains!a

Just as a train might be lured into a station with the promise of fresh passengers (who are like treats for trains), I’ve been inexorably drawn to Choo-Choo Charles, a dilapidated joke game about a creepy train chasing you around. Stranded on an eternally dark island, they are pursued by a monstrous locomotive with huge spider legs and an insatiable thirst for human blood.

Is it good? Well, no, it’s adorable shonky, very short and frustrating to play for a long period. I’m sorry that I’m a dull train. Choo Choo Charles is an invention of the memory of a meme extruded by the sparkling mind of a one-person development team, a person brilliant and dedicated enough to accompany their silly little idea to completion.

Imagine not just a world where a nightmarish Thomas, the tank machine, repeatedly appears from the forest to murder you — an achievement in itself — but to sit down and make the thing and sell it to people for real money. It’s commendable stuff. This humble choo-choo Charles was catapulted into the mainstream consciousness by an early viral trailer, which is a testament to how appealing the concept is, and it’s not for lack of ambition that it lags far behind the internet’s most dizzying expectations.

Anyway, that’s how it works. You have your armoured train, which is not alive, but you can travel around the small island on a series of interconnected railway tracks. This is your base of operations as you travel between a handful of optional NPCs and four main quest NPCs. In no time, you will learn that this cursed island is the home of Charles, an insane arachnid train that appears every five to ten minutes to pick you up.

First, Charles gets you every time. A weapon is mounted on the back of your train, which allows you to reduce the monster’s health indicator by millimetres while it chases you up and down the tracks. The gun overheats quickly enough that firing bullets into the grinning face of the terrible train creature is a little less fun than simply giving up and succumbing to his fierce embrace. Dying robs you of a few scraps — the game’s currency is found scattered everywhere — but otherwise, no progress is lost.

Going from NPC to NPC, you can earn enough scrap to improve the health, speed and attack damage of your platoon. However, upgrading your platoon will have a barely noticeable effect on your encounters with Charles, which at this time will quickly become less scary and more irritating, like being chased by a territorial Chihuahua.

On foot, you have a better chance of survival because the huge spider train cannot bypass obstacles such as small piles of bricks and porches. When he sees Charles whirling around in front of a hut, he suddenly looks pathetic and small, his miserable legs sliding through walls, his Rictus grin and his plate-sized eyes increasingly look as if this disgusting creature is hiding a deep, underlying sadness. It’s a pity that Charles, the Spider Train, is cursed with just enough artificial intelligence to want to murder you but not enough to be able to go up a level.

In addition to the big evil train, you will occasionally encounter human enemies armed with rifles, jealously guarding the three MacGuffins of the island: a set of glowing green eggs, which, when placed in a temple in the centre of the island, summon our young Charles to a deadly showdown. You are unarmed when you are outside your turn. While the game suggests that it is possible to sneak past these human guards by leaning around corners and timing your approach, in practice, you recognize these eagle-eyed enemies far too easily.

Instead, grabbing the eggs is more easily accomplished by sprinting past the guards as if you were an intruder on the World Cup pitch, except that instead of risking your life to stand up for LGBTQ rights, you weigh a hot, football-sized egg and book it back to the little yellow train you live in (which, when you think about it, also exudes queer vibes).

A few hours is all it takes to achieve the game’s main goals, and only a little longer to complete the optional quests. These will give you new weapons for your turn and enough scrap to complete all three upgrades that are effectively needed to duel Charles successfully. These optional quests are limited in their scope and variety and usually boil down to getting an object from a few hundred meters away or playing a bit of a tedious platform game. The voice acting and rough animation are delightfully goofy, and the environments you’re frolicking in lack detail or personality — the island is kind of a homogeneous, sparse, muddy forest with very few landmarks to distinguish one part of the map from another.

There’s only so much more to see or do in Choo-Choo Charles than what was shown in the fateful trailer that put the spotlight on this silly little one-person project. And shame on me and for demanding more from its developer than that. It’s a fun and original concept stretched so thin it snaps back and pings us in the eye. We deserve to be overwhelmed by this, and its creator should nevertheless be praised as a prodigy of the horror genre.

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