Did you know that there’s a nasty train in Stephen King’s Dark Tower fantasy novels called Charlie the Choo-Choo? If not, then I’m sure most of you are familiar with the famous Thomas the Tank Engine, a childhood favorite. Now imagine a demented version of Thomas named Charles that has 8 legs and razor sharp teeth, and loves eating puny humans for breakfast. This is the premise for solo developer Two Star Game’s newest passion project Choo-Choo Charles. Set on a mysterious island where it is perpetually night time, this survival horror game tasks you with saving the townsfolk from this demonic entity by battling it to the death on a train of your own. Two Star Games undoubtedly brings an artistic train of thought to the table with this idea, but the overall game runs out of steam really quickly.
The gameplay loop is quite simple and straightforward, and the tutorial does a great job getting you acquainted with things. You are completely defenseless and must rely on your own train to pretty much do everything. Your train can be repaired and upgraded in three categories: attack, defense, and speed. The entire island is laid out with a pre-built railroad, and you travel across it to embark on quests, take on side missions, and unlock new weapons for your train. There are a total of four weapons to be collected, including the default machine gun mounted on the back, a flamethrower, a rocket launcher, and a heavy duty rifle named Bob.
Various villagers across the map task you with missions to complete in exchange for scraps, the currency to upgrade your train, a key to a story related mission, or a new weapon. Most quests are pretty mundane and generic, and have you going to another location to pick up an item or solve some puzzle. The most egregious ones of all force you to ride to the other side of the island to find something, and then ride back to the original location. You can get off your train and run around to complete tasks, but most of my time playing the game was simply spent riding the train and doing nothing. There are some unique tasks, like the one asking you to find eight lost pages in a haunted forest. The screen turns static as violent spirits come out to haunt you, which reminded me a lot of the original Slender Man game that also had you collecting eight pages.
Charles pops out of nowhere from time to time to attack and eat you. It’s pretty much a guaranteed death if he comes at you while you are on foot since he moves a lot faster than you. Fighting him on the train is exhilarating and fun as he retreats after you dwindle his health down by a certain amount. Dying respawns you at your train with the penalty of a few scraps. There are only two scripted events in the game and those are the tutorial (first time meeting Charles) and the final fight against him. All other instances are unscripted and provide a sense of unease and tension that most survival horror games tend to utilize. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared that Charles might come after me when I had to run on foot to complete a mission.
The final confrontation with Charles is a bit unfair, as there’s not really a fleshed out combat system. The outcome is very binary, and the game punishes you for being underpowered and not because you made a mistake. You’re pretty much just spamming the shoot button with your weapon of choice while Charles attacks your train. There’s no dodge or parry mechanic, and no way to shield your train from his attacks. You can spend extra scrap to repair your train on the fly, but if you are out of materials then it’s pretty much a lost battle. A word of advice: fully upgrade your train or get it as close to max as possible because you will certainly lose at the end if your train is under-leveled. I think the game would have been much more exhilarating and balanced if other villagers popped in to help you or if you yourself carried weapons should your train die.
Aside from friendly citizens and Charles himself, you also run into cultists wearing masks that are variations of Charles’ face. I won’t spoil much, but these antagonistic NPCs clearly have something to do with the origin and coming of Charles as a creature. Progressing through the story requires you to sneak through these gun-wielding cultists in order to retrieve certain artifacts that might hold the key to killing Charles for good. The game unfortunately does an extremely poor job at implementing these stealth segments. You weirdly have a peak ability to see around corners but no option to crouch or walk quietly, which pretty much results in you getting spotted very easily. Keep in mind you don’t have any weapons, so you can’t attack these cultists unless you lure them to your train to shoot them with the mounted gun. The entire purpose of stealth is defeated as I pretty much just ran straight past these people due to how slow they run.
Don’t let the open world feature of the game fool you, because Choo-Choo Charles is an extremely short game. An average playthrough takes around two hours with a mix of main missions and side quests, capping out at around three hours should you do everything there is to do in the game. You can run around the island looking for different paint jobs for your train which is pretty neat, I guess. There are no new game plus or difficulty levels, but you can start a fresh playthrough if you want to play the game over for some reason. The cost of $19.99 is a bit steep for what you’re getting, but keep in mind this entire project was created by a solo developer. It’s a more than fair price for a complete game, and we should always support creative indie minds. Think of it as a perfect experience to get through in one sitting on a boring weekend.
So the system requirement on Steam only provides the lowest specs which include an NVIDIA GeForce 470 GTX and 4gb of ram. I definitely meet the minimum with a 1070 graphics card and 16gb of ram, but I couldn’t run the game smoothly on max settings without frame drops and stutters. Turning the performance settings down from Epic to High seemed to fix it for the most part, with my frames staying largely at 60 with some occasional drops to the 40s. It shouldn’t be a graphically intensive game and most people with a modern gaming PC running a 3000 or 4000 series graphics card should be able to toggle the graphics to the max. The visuals look great for a one-man developed indie game, but it’s crazy how unappealing the NPCs look. Their mouths don’t even move when dialogue is being spoken and their animations look extremely stiff. Charles looks great on the other hand. With his glossy red lips, spiky teeth, beady eyes, and long legs, he is a total creepshow.
When Choo-Choo Charles was initially announced at the tail end of 2021, the internet went crazy as it introduced gamers to a unique twist on the survival horror genre. I mean, how often do we get to see an evil spider train running around eating people? Now that Two Star Games has finally released their highly anticipated game, I can’t help but say that it probably won’t meet the hype that fans have built around it. The developer has even made development blog videos asking people to tailor their expectations about his project because while it is certainly unique, it’s not anything revolutionary. Choo-Choo Charles is a short and sweet survival horror experience that has you riding around in an old diesel engine gunning down an arachnid devil train looking like a distorted Thomas the Train Engine. Adjust your expectations accordingly, and you'll probably have a pretty good time.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.