Choo-Choo Charles review: off the rails survival horror
Speaking as a grown-ass man, I love trains. Not to the extent that I will ever bother to learn anything about them, or to identify one with any more specificity than “the pointy type”, “the blunt type” and “the chugga chugga choo choo all-aboard type”, but to the far milder extent that I simply enjoy watching them whizz around the place like big metal worms, and hearing their various little noises and honks. It’s trains!
Just as a train might be lured into a station with the promise of fresh passengers (which are like treats to trains), I have been drawn inexorably toward Choo-Choo Charles, a ramshackle joke-game about a scary train that chases you around. Marooned on a perpetually dark island, you’re stalked by a monstrous locomotive with a set of great big spider legs and an unquenchable thirst for human blood.
Is it any good? Well no, it’s endearingly shonky, very short and frustrating to play for any length of time. Sorry to be a blunt train about it. Choo-Choo Charles is a figment of a memory of a meme, extruded through the sparkling mind of a one-man development team, a person brilliant and dedicated enough to see their silly little idea through to completion.
Imagine not only conceiving of a world in which a nightmarish Thomas the Tank Engine repeatedly emerges from the woods to murder you — an accomplishment in itself — but sitting down and actually making the thing and selling it to people for real money. It’s truly commendable stuff. That humble Choo-Choo Charles was catapulted into mainstream consciousness by an early viral trailer is a testament to how appealing the concept is, and it’s not for a lack of ambition that it falls way short of the internet’s giddiest expectations.
Anyway, here’s how it works. You have your own armoured train, which isn’t alive, but which lets you ride 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 very short order you learn that this accursed island is home to Charles, a maniacal arachnid train who appears every five to ten minutes to get you.
"In very short order you learn that this accursed island is home to Charles, a maniacal arachnid train who appears every five to ten minutes to get you"
At first, Charles gets you every time. Your train has a gun mounted on the back, which you can use to shave millimetres off the monster’s health bar as he chases you up and down the tracks. The gun overheats quickly enough that firing rounds into the horrible train-creature’s grinning face is slightly less fun than just giving up and succumbing to his murderous embrace. Dying robs you of a couple of pieces of scrap — the currency of the game found littered all over the place — but otherwise no progress is lost.
As you proceed from NPC to NPC you can earn enough scrap to level up your train’s health, speed and attack damage, though upgrading your train has a barely discernible effect on your encounters with Charles, which by this stage are rapidly becoming less frightening and more irritating, like being hounded by a territorial chihuahua.
On foot you stand a better chance of survival, as the enormous spider-train is unable to cope with navigating its way around such obstacles as small piles of bricks and front porches. Watching Charles flailing around outside of a shack, he suddenly seems pathetic and small, his wretched legs glitching through walls, his rictus grin and plate-sized eyes looking increasingly like this foul creature is hiding some deep, underlying sadness. Pity Charles, the spider train cursed with just enough artificial intelligence to want to murder you, but not enough to be able to walk up a step.
Besides the big bad train, you occasionally face off against human enemies armed with guns, who jealously guard the island’s three macguffins: a set of glowing green eggs that, when placed in a temple in the centre of the island, will summon our boy Charles for a mortal showdown. You’re unarmed when outside of your train, and while the game suggests that it’s somehow possible to stealth past these human guards by leaning around corners and timing your approach, in practice these eagle-eyed enemies spot you way too easily.
Instead, grabbing the eggs is more readily achieved by sprinting past the guards like you’re a World Cup pitch invader, except instead of risking your life to stand up for LGBTQ rights, you’re cradling a hot, football-sized egg and booking it back to the little yellow train where you live (which, come to think of it, also gives off queer vibes).
A few hours is all it takes to scoop up the game’s main objectives, and not much longer to polish off the optional quests. These give you new weapons for your train and enough scrap to complete all three upgrades, which is effectively required to successfully duel Charles. These optional quests are limited in their scope and variety, and tend to boil down to fetching an object from a few hundred metres away, or a bit of tedious platforming. The voice acting and crude animation is adorably goofy, and the environments you’re tootling around in lack much detail or personality — the island is a kind of homogenous, sparse, muddy forest with very few points of interest to differentiate one part of the map from another.
There’s not a whole lot more to see or do in Choo-Choo Charles than what was shown in the fateful trailer that brought this goofy little one-man project kicking and screaming into the limelight. And shame on me and you for asking any more of its developer than just that. It’s a fun and original concept, stretched so thinly that it’s snapped back and pinged us in the eye. We deserve to be underwhelmed by it, and its creator should be lauded as a prodigy of the horror genre all the same.