That Viral Killer Train Game Is An Admirable, Original Mess

That Viral Killer Train Game Is An Admirable, Original Mess

Last year, the new horror game Choo-Choo Charles went viral online thanks to a very good trailer that teased a cat-and-mouse game with an evil train with spider legs. The train itself was pure nightmare fuel to behold, and the gameplay looked intense and fun and unlike any other game out there. Now, after playing it, I’m sad to say the actual game isn’t nearly as exciting or scary as that initial trailer promised. But at least it’s about the length of your average B-grade horror film!

Back in October 2021, Choo-Choo Charles took the internet by storm after its single dev uploaded a wonderful trailer showcasing a giant, creepy spider train chasing you and your locomotive across a scary-looking island. On the back of the tiny train is a machine gun, letting you fend off the monster (aka Charles) until you’ve scavenged enough scrap and upgraded your train sufficiently that you’re ready to face him in a one-on-one fight to the death. Win and you free the island from this monster. Lose, and you die and Charles becomes more powerful. This is a captivating setup and it looked pretty slick, so it’s not surprising the trailer spread like wildfire during the spooky month of October. A year later and I’ve now played Choo-Choo Charles and, well…it’s a lot like that trailer and not much more.

Visually, Choo-Choo Charles looks fine. I like the mix of low-res elements with more modern-looking grass, textures, and lighting. It lends it an odd atmosphere that is enhanced all the more by the creepy, desolate island and the odd people you meet on it. They’re all kind of unsettling, with their funky-looking models and the way their mouths don’t move when they speak. It’s a good example of a lone developer using the limitations of what they can reasonably do to contribute to, rather than detract from, a game’s atmosphere. There’s something likable about the way Choo-Choo Charles feels a bit slapped together in spots. The rough edges give it an artisanal quality, making it feel like it’s been made with one individual’s passion rather than being designed by committee.

Screenshot: Two Star Games / Kotaku
Screenshot: Two Star Games / Kotaku

As the trailer indicated, the main loop here is riding your train around the island, collecting scrap that you use to upgrade your train, and hunting down three eggs that can trigger the big final fight with Charles. But before you do that, you should probably make sure you have upgraded your locomotive to go faster, take more damage, and have more weapons. Again, this setup is cool, and controlling your train is both simple and fun. In fact, it might be the best part of Choo-Choo Charles. The game was at its best when I was walking around my tiny, fast-moving yellow train, keeping an eye out for a giant spider monster or the next speck of civilisation.

But sadly, a cool train, charm, and passion can only go so far, and quickly the experience turned from horror into boredom. The big problem is that Charles just doesn’t really factor into the game that much. Not counting his scripted appearances in the ending fight and the opening intro, I only encountered the monster train three times. The rest of the time I was either wandering around alone while collecting scrap or dealing with the game’s main enemies: masked shotgunners who you have to sneak around.

The real shame is that the best part of this game — riding a train and escaping from Charles — is only a small part of what you do. Most of the time you are being asked to walk around on foot to collect eggs or complete meh puzzles or side objectives. And stealth in Choo-Choo Charles isn’t much fun. By the time I got to the second egg, which is hidden in a large underground mine, I just started running around and grabbing whatever I needed to grab. No sneaking. And it worked. Guards are terrible shots, you have infinite stamina and they are nearly oblivious to noise. Was any of this fun, though? Not really!

About an hour into the game, I realised I had nearly completely upgraded my train, even though roughly half the side quests remained untouched on the map. Around 30 minutes later I’d collected the last egg and activated the final fight. After dying during it once, I tried again and beat the game.

It really is a shame that Choo-Choo Charles isn’t bigger, better, or scarier. That initial trailer looked so good, and the developer behind the game seems like a cool person with interesting, original ideas. There’s a lot to admire here. The lockpicking mechanic is good. The way the island looks and sounds is spooky and perfect. And the lore around Charles (and that ending) have me excited for a sequel or spin-off in the future. So yeah, I hope they keep making games and sharing the process on YouTube.

But sadly, a reliance on bad stealth sections, a lack of scares, and an overabundance of upgrade materials early on derail the game and make it a rather lacklustre, not very scary experience.

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