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Choo-Choo Charles Review: The Little Engine That Could (Eat You)

EDITORS' RATING : 7 / 10
Pros
  • Effective build-up of dread
  • Open world begging to be explored on train and foot
  • Little details elevate the experience
Cons
  • Choppy graphics
  • Budget limitations are apparent throughout
  • Despite its quirkiness, doesn't bring anything new to the genre

From "Resident Evil" and "Silent Hill" to "Outlast" and "Dead Space," gamers have had plenty of opportunities to experience fear from the comfort of their own homes. Even with its wide range of review scores, "The Callisto Protocol" is still a title that most survival horror fans are probably going to check out to form their own opinion (if they haven't already). But if you're looking for something a bit different within the survival horror genre, the meme-ready "Choo-Choo Charles" may be right up your alley. A title that seemed like a joke at first has finally been released and it takes trainyard scares to the next level.

It may not be the most refined title out there, but solo indie game developer Two Star Games continues its trend of creating "artistic, atmospheric horror games" with a quirky and fun train-based title that pushes on full steam ahead. One that, at the very least, is worth more than a mere two stars.

The island of misfit trains

In "Choo-Choo Charles," you take on the role of a monster hunter contracted with taking down an abomination named Charles, itself a cross between a steam engine locomotive and spider — complete with eight legs, hollow eyes, and twisted, gnarling teeth. The game takes place on Aranearum — a dark and dreary island that you traverse using your own run-down train engine, hunting for ways to put an end to Charles (and put him in your oddities museum back home).

You're introduced to the monster right away. He's a sight to behold and it's clear that plenty of work went into making sure Charles looks both bizarre and terrifying. After that first encounter, you don't see him again for a while. This was initially a bit disappointing, but the intent behind the design becomes obvious pretty quickly. The longer you go without seeing Charles, the more tension builds until you eventually can't help but dread seeing him again. It's hair-raisingly effective when you hear Charles' train whistle blowing in the distance. 

The ominous music also plays a huge part in heightening the level of dread as you wait for Charles to appear from the dark. You never know when he'll show up, as he can pop up at any moment a la Mr. X from "Resident Evil 2."

Train-ing for survival

You can't allow yourself to be paralyzed by the fear, of course — you have a job to do! You'll explore the game's surprisingly large open world to seek out scraps that can upgrade your train engine while also taking on missions (from the all-too-calm island residents) and learning how to take down the evil train. 

Some missions are optional — some tasks may include finding keys to unlock a gate, solving puzzles, finding hidden items in the world, or defeating the mask-wearing "goons" that occupy parts of the island — while others progress the story along or reward you with weapon upgrades that you can use against Charles. From a Gatling gun to a flamethrower to a rocket launcher, you're never hurting for defense against the monstrous locomotive.

You're also able to find paint to customize the color of your train. Pro tip: Painting your train white is a great way to be able to find your train in the dark while exploring on foot.

A thoughtful indie experience

Traveling around the map takes some strategy — whether you're switching rail lines to head in a certain direction or exploring caverns, campsites, and mines that are scattered in close proximity to the track. "Choo-Choo Charles" feels like it could have a ton of secrets waiting to be discovered as you explore through it, and there's definitely a mysterious and intriguing atmosphere as you progress. The game's dark and slightly twisted art style also helps to set the tone.

That said, if you're looking for top-tier graphics and performance, this isn't the game for you. Despite its charming style and effects, "Choo-Choo Charles" still looks and runs like an indie title that was built on a budget. Of course, this is all part of the charm; it's hard to not appreciate how much Two Star Games manages to accomplish with limited resources.

It's the little things that elevate "Choo-Choo Charles" above a typical indie horror title, though. When you pull the lever to stop the train, it doesn't just stop on a dime. Instead, it slows to a stop, making it important to consider your timing and pay attention to your surroundings. If you're interacting with an NPC and Charles manages to find you, the NPC cowers in fear and tries to duck into cover. Hitting the goons with your train is wildly satisfying and worth the damage incurred. All of these small bits of attention to detail make the game that much more enjoyable and immersive.

Get off my train!

In terms of the game's place within the survival horror genre, "Choo-Choo Charles" is certainly a unique and memorable experience. The atmosphere is suitably eerie, the mechanics are satisfyingly deep, and you can't help but feel anxious when exploring as you never know when Charles will show up again.

The stealth mechanics involved when exploring the goon-occupied areas are fine. If you get caught, the enemy will chase after you with their shotgun and take you out. If you die — or get "derailed," as the game calls it — you lose some of your precious scraps that you need to upgrade or heal your train. You can, however, typically outrun the enemy and kite them back to your train where you can take them out with your weapon. It may feel like a cheap solution, but it works, especially if you're hoping to explore the area freely.

"Choo-Choo Charles" is a survival horror game through and through. Even though the goons drop a loaded shotgun after being slain, you're unable to pick it up. This makes sense given the genre, but it would have still made sense to have been able to use their weapons while on foot, even if they only came with just one or two bullets. This is undoubtedly a nitpicky critique, of course, and it certainly doesn't take away from the overall experience.

He'll be coming 'round

"Choo-Choo Charles" doesn't necessarily take itself seriously, but when it matters, it manages to be effective and engaging. The game has its moments of pure terror when you come face-to-face with the nightmarish monster on the tracks, but the indie element of the game keeps you pretty grounded. The open world is surprisingly large and begging for you to explore it, or at least take on all of the available side missions.

"Choo-Choo Charles" may not be the smoothest ride, but the daring experience of uncovering the mystery of the island and facing off against Charles will have you chugging along with excitement.

A Steam review code was provided to SVG for this review. "Choo-Choo Charles" is available now on PC via Steam.