There seemed to be a fair old bit of hype when Choo-Choo Charles was first announced back in 2021. Even Time Magazine stood up and took notice. And now, after releasing on PC a year later, it arrives on consoles. So then, all aboard! This review will be stopping at all stops including gameplay, story, horror, positives and negatives, arriving at a final verdict shortly.
Without much notice, the game opens with you arriving on the island of Aranearum. A small island that seems to be struggling with a perpetual night-time, there is also the small matter of a monster causing the residents all manner of horrors: Choo-Choo Charles.
Charles is a train/spider hybrid that scuttles around at lightning quick pace, hunting you and others and gobbling you up. You are quickly introduced to Charles as a killing machine when your island contact, Eugene, is viciously killed shortly after you meet. Poor Eugene, we were just beginning to get along.
Before he perishes though, he does give you your own train carriage to navigate the island. This one doesn’t have spider legs sprouting out from it, and is instead confined to the tracks. What it is though, is vastly underpowered, and yet it is your only real chance of defeating Charles. You will need to travel around the island helping out the residents with their various dilemmas in order to collect scrap to upgrade your train’s speed, damage and armour.
Now though, is where the real horror of Choo-Choo Charles lies. My wife reliably informed me that Charles himself is quite the terrifying antagonist, and when he is chasing you down in your train it is unnerving. But then I showed her a conversation I had with an NPC, which we agreed was far more scary.
Their mouths simply don’t move whenever they are talking to you. Never have I experienced this. Even in games that use text rather than speech, there is some recognition of facial and mouth movement, going back nearly thirty years. Here though, there is just a blank expression. Dead eyes, closed mouths, and a killer train/spider hybrid hunting you down. The stuff of nightmares, though perhaps unintentionally.
A shame then, as some of the characters are quite well written. Understandably, it takes a bit of a sort to want to stay on an island where a monster like Charles roams the place, so many of them are quite quirky. There is the woman obsessed with pickles, another who lives next to a lake where another deadly creature lives and many more just like it.
They all have a penchant for waiting for you outside their residences rather than inside. That feels strange; not just because Charles is wandering about, but the weather isn’t exactly the greatest on Aranearum. I suspect this is due to developers Two Star Games not having the manpower to design interiors for every character. But it does still feel pretty weird.
As you travel the island collecting scrap, the residents give you bits of info about Charles and how to defeat him. Dotted around the island are three eggs, hidden away in mines by a crazy tycoon to keep Charles at bay. Or more likely, profiteer from Charles.
These mines are guarded by some Charles fanatics that all dress in black and have masks not unlike the face of Charles. As these are armed with guns and you are not – though they can be killed by the one mounted onto your train – these sections act as stealth sections. They’re really quite bad though. After a couple of attempts, I resorted to sprinting through them, to much more success.
Charles will also periodically appear at random intervals to intimidate and scare you on your quest. Having him chase you down whilst you try and pepper him with your under-levelled train invariably ends with you dying though, and as a result, becomes an annoyance rather than a hindrance over time.
The same scrap you use to level up your train is also used to repair it. However, it quickly became apparent that Charles will eat through your train HP very quickly in these moments, so I just didn’t bother to repair it and took the loss. The punishment for death is being returned to where your train last was and a few bits of scrap, so it is better economically to do this rather than wasting ten bits of scrap to fully repair your train each time.
During the final battle there are moments where you can repair your train and it is best to save surplus scrap for this encounter.
The conclusion though is very tense, as you and Charles have your standoff. If you have completed all missions on the island you can expect a well designed showdown, with a death animation that reminds of all the times I fell into traps in the old Tomb Raider games.
And of course, stick around for the post-credit scene…
Despite all the pre-release excitement for a train/spider mashup, Choo-Choo Charles is a pretty mundane game. Thankfully, it is fairly short, you can have it wrapped up in under three hours. But more needed to be done with Charles to make him a truly scary enemy; his random appearances get tiresome and annoying, rather quickly. And indeed, he isn’t even the biggest scare. That belongs to the deadpan NPCs that, whilst voice acted pretty well, don’t show any emotion at all. Their dead eyes and lack of expression are what will stick with me long after the initial scare of Choo-Choo Charles himself.