Gazing down from a rickety platform, about 7 or 8 stories high, our field of vision is restricted by a thick fog embankment. All that we can really make out in these obfuscating weather conditions is the surrounding treeline and a few nearby sheds that offer very little in the way of protection.
To make matters worse, the night is tempestuous and punctuated by regular lightning flashes. Hardly ideal circumstances for us then, given that we are currently engulfed by forest, traipsing around on flimsy wooden structures, and ascending a towering building.
Only a complete fool would put themselves in such an obviously dangerous position. However, we’ve been tasked with scaling this dilapidated tower in order to recover documents that can in turn be exchanged for valuable scrap metal (a resource that we desperately need right now).
Overcoming a bout of vertigo, we do some hazardous platforming and eventually make it to the top of the stairs. There, we rummage through an office cabinet to locate our missing files and, consignment in hand, begin to make the perilous descent back to ground level.
That’s when we hear the sound that we’ve been dreading this whole time: the portentous whistle of a steam train. And it is alarmingly close by, heralding the imminent arrival of our deadly nemesis.
Once again, we attempt to survey our environs, but the impenetrable layers of mist are making it difficult for us to get a good look at anything. We know that our foe is out there and, worse still, that he’s got a bead on us, yet his precise location remains a mystery.
Then, scuttling between the conifers, we notice an oversized spider leg rush by. Charles is here and he’s got us cornered in this tower with only one exit. We’re going to have to make a run for it at some point but, when we do, he will be hot on our tail and it’s a long trek to safety.
These are the kind of dynamic scenarios that you will encounter throughout Choo-Choo Charles, as the titular enemy freely roams the map and can strike at any moment. It’s an unpredictable quality that ensures the game is always exciting and suspenseful, even if your best-laid plans often get scuppered as a result.
Not Your Run of the Mill Horror Game
The unhinged brainchild of lone developer Two Star Games — responsible for the similarly quirky No-Snakes Hotel — this oddball indie is a bit rough around the edges, but therein lies a lot of its charm.
Its graphics may be rudimentary, some of the core mechanics aren’t sufficiently fleshed out, and the open world does seem rather barren. Yet for all its faults, Choo-Choo Charles is anything but bland and has more ideas packed into its brisk 4-hour time runtime than you’ll find in a lot of overstretched AAA titles released nowadays.
The zany premise is that you are a monster hunter who has been summoned to a remote island, where everybody lives in fear of a demonic railcar named Charles. Mounted on a set of spindly arachnoid limbs, he resembles a bizarre hybrid of Pennywise’s final form at the end of It Chapter Two and the considerably more appealing Thomas the Tank Engine.
The locals have all found different coping strategies for dealing with this menace, as some of them have decided to evacuate, while others have turned to installing elaborate defences or even worshiping Charles. Meanwhile, you have been hired to put a stop to the madness once and for all, by challenging the beast to a climactic duel.
Before you take him on though, you’re gonna want to scour the island for upgrade parts and better weaponry. After all, while you have been gifted your own battle chariot (in the form of a neglected old train), it won’t pose much of a threat to Charles until you’ve kitted it out with rocket launchers, armour plating and speedier wheels.
Preparing for an Epic Showdown
The interesting wrinkle here is that you don’t have to bother with any of that stuff if you don’t want to.
You see, Two Star has structured his game like a macabre version of Breath of the Wild, in the sense that you can more or less go straight to the final boss without dillydallying. Of course, there are a few prerequisite tutorial missions that you need to get out of the way, but otherwise the content is strictly optional.
You would be putting yourself at a great disadvantage by skipping those secondary quests though, because they yield worthwhile rewards and are highly enjoyable in their own right. It won’t even take you that long to clear the entire map of objective markers, as there are just shy of 20 NPCs for you to meet.
Helping each of them will entail something doing something completely different — like the aforementioned platforming challenge — so you’re not forced to repeat the same monotonous tasks over and over again. For instance, some residents will dispatch you on quick fetch quests, while others will have you solving lite puzzles or performing a lockpicking minigame. A couple of them will even make you contend with frightening one-off enemies that have their own unique behaviours (it turns out Charles isn’t the only evil lurking on Aranearum island).
In exchange for helping these characters, you’ll either be granted a new turret gun to affix to the back of your vehicle or a heap of scrap metal. The latter is a currency that is used to both repair your locomotive and to level up its various attributes — whether that means fortifying the carriage’s sturdiness or bolstering your firepower.
This satisfying process not only has a functional effect on gameplay, but it’s also reflected in incremental cosmetic changes, visualising how your little-engine-that-could is gradually morphing into a formidable war machine. On that note, if you are invested in the appearance of your train, and want to give it some further pizzazz, then there are collectable paint cans dotted around the map that allow you to modify its colour. It’s a nice, albeit unessential, extra.
(Literal) On Rails Combat
Beefing up your mode of transportation will pay dividends in the long run, as you won’t be able to just peacefully navigate the island unmolested.
Charles is one of those unscripted video game stalkers, like Mr. X from Resident Evil 2 and the Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation, and has a nasty habit of showing up at the most inopportune moments. You could be in the middle of reading a document or talking to one of those quest-giver NPCs when he appears out of the blue to ruin your day.
Should this happen, then you’ve got a fight-or-flight decision on your hands. You can either wait it out until Charles buggers off (which is a dicey proposition, seeing as you have no offensive capabilities when on foot), or you can hop aboard your vehicle and do glorious battle.
If you plump for the second option, then the game effectively becomes a chaotic shooting gallery for a period of time. The monster will obligingly come at you from the rear every time, which is fortunate because you happen to have a backwards-facing turret stationed there that can be used to keep him at bay.
The ensuing combat is pleasingly frenetic, as Charles scurries around at a breakneck pace making it difficult to land consistent hits. Not to mention, you will have to constantly swap between manning the gun and repairing damages, while also cycling through your weapon loadout.
Depending on your target’s relative proximity, the all-rounder machine gun might be the smartest choice. With a higher DPS output, the bazooka is ideal for long-range situations but once that gap has been closed its lengthy cooldown can be a severe drawback. Conversely, the tireless spew of a flamethrower is perfect for when the demon’s rictus grin is right up in your face, even if the fire only makes a small dent in his chunky health bar.
Speaking of which, if you do manage to inflict enough pain on Charles then he will simply tap out of the fight. Your only way of compelling him into a mortal duel is to do a small handful of main missions, at which point he will stick it out until one of you is dead. Incidentally, the penalty for failure is rather trivial, with you just losing a couple of scrap pieces (that are in plentiful abundance anyway) and respawning in the safety of your cab.
In fact, it’s not a particularly difficult game in general and your pursuer’s appearances are mercifully limited. We only had about four random encounters with him in total, so it never felt like we were being constantly harassed to the point of annoyance.
Instead, fighting Charles was always an invigorating thrill because the combat is innately fun and there is also a sense of catharsis to be derived from levelling up and then defeating him with increasing ease.
Stealth Stops the Game Dead in Its Tracks
Where things aren’t quite so polished, however, is in the stealth department. Admittedly, sneaking around isn’t something that you’re going to be doing often, but when the need arises it can be a real slog.
The moments in question all involve a group of demented islanders who have formed a cult to placate Charles. Toting shotguns and sporting effigy masks of their god, they are immediately hostile whenever you enter their territorial bubble. And, suffice it to say, you’re forced to enter their territorial bubble on more than a few occasions.
The problem is that the stealth mechanics required for dealing with them are so barebones as to be almost non-existent. None of the usual fixings — like distraction items, varying states of alertness, hiding places or takedowns— are present here, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you should have at least a few tools at your disposal.
No one is expecting Thief (especially not from a game that’s mainly preoccupied with shooting a big spider-train) yet a simple couch button wouldn’t have gone amiss. Unfortunately, all you can really do is stand behind obstacles and peek around corners whenever you want to monitor patrol routes.
The odds just feel utterly stacked against you, as vision cones are so ridiculously wide that enemies only registering as mere dots on the horizon can apparently perceive you clear as day. They can even pinpoint your exact whereabouts after you’ve broken sightlines!
And once you have been spotted it’s near-impossible to shake the frenzied mob. Indeed, the agrro range on these fuckers is downright obscene, as they’ll pursue you with all the dogged persistence of a T-1000. On the plus side, this does that you can lead them on a merry chase towards your vehicle and then just use the turret to blow them to smithereens.
Alas, that’s not always a viable option, given that a lot of these encounters take place in discrete dungeon areas. In which case, your best bet is to just sprint through the mazes and hope that you don’t run into a dead end.
Putting that issue aside, Choo-Choo Charles is a delightfully weird experience that doesn’t outstay its welcome. The combat is tight, the steady accumulation of power is addictive, and it keeps mixing things up so that the novelty value doesn’t wear thin.
For the work of a solo developer, it’s very impressively put together as well, containing vanishingly few bugs (none of which are game-breaking) and running pretty smoothly throughout. We played on a Steam Deck, using the default settings, and only encountered marginal stuttering every now and then. Which is more than you can say for a lot of indies.
If you’ve got a few hours to spare and can get on board with its offbeat vibe, this is one ride that’s definitely worth embarking on.
Choo-Choo Charles is available now on PC.
Review code was provided by the developer.