Choo-Choo Charles has such a compellingly delightful concept: use a train to kill a demonic train. It’s a simple and ridiculous idea, which is no doubt why it went viral after the developer posted the initial trailer. However, this was a game that didn’t exist, and the immense popularity encouraged the developer to knock something together despite not having much experience nor any kind of time. It would be a hard task.
And one that unfortunately didn’t pay off.
Arriving on the island of Aranearum, your unnamed archivist character has arrived to help his friend Eugene take care of a creature plaguing the island. This monster is a train-spider hybrid by the name of Charles who will devastate anything in its path.
Eugene has a plan though, and it involves utilising a machine-gun armed train to take care of him. Charles is a slippery locomotive, however, so you’ll need to find his eggs in order to ransom him into a fight to the death.
Despite taking place in a rather sizeable open world, the gameplay loop of Choo-Choo Charles is actually quite straightforward. After taking control of your own train, you’re left to navigate the island along its rather extensive train line. There are a handful of split tracks where you’ll need to get out and adjust your direction accordingly, but otherwise you just need to set your train into motion and stop when needed. Your map will helpfully pinpoint locations of interest, and the waypoint system does a good job at locking onto key areas that you want to go to.
The blue icons on the map are where you’ll want to focus most of your attention, as these represent the NPCs who’ll give you the key needed to enter a local mine that houses one of Charles’ three eggs. Thankfully you’re safe from that demonic train in these locations, but that’s not to say you’re free from harm. His eggs are protected by cultists who worship Charles and won’t hesitate to shoot you on sight. Strangely, the game never gives you any way to actually fight these cultists (other than letting them chase you all the way back to the train so you can use the on-board guns), so the intention is that you should sneak around them. However, the stealth system is terribly implemented due to the appalling enemy AI and placement and you’re often placed in situations where it’s impossible to get around them. Thankfully, given how short and linear the mines are, you can simply just rush in, grab the egg, and rush out. It sounds dangerous, but it’s actually laughably simple and almost risk-free.
After retrieving the eggs, you’ll need to head to the central temple in order to destroy the eggs and coerce Charles into a battle to the death. However, doing so will no doubt make you realise that the fight is actually impossible unless your train has maxed out stats. And how do you do that? By collecting lots of scrap and using the upgrade menu, of course!
In essence there are two ways to collect scrap. First of all, you can find individual pieces lying around on the floor. This is fine for repairing your train, which only costs a single piece for partial restoration, but the costly price of upgrades means that you’ll really want to be completing side quests if you actually want to get a decent haul. Side quests are dotted around the map, and accepting ones will usually require you to do some sort of fetch quest in order to complete. There are a couple of more unique ones, like having to put out a fire by turning on the conveniently-placed water tank just above the house, and an awful tedious one that has you finding a bunch of posters attached to trees. None of them are challenging, but unfortunately hardly any of them are entertaining either.
The main problem with the sidequests is that beating every single one doesn’t give you enough scrap to max out your train. It almost does, but you’ll still need to wander around finding random pieces if you want to max out everything – and you will want to do that. It’s a rather irritating system, and the final boss represents such a difficulty spike that it’s effectively essential.
And that would be ok if the game was entertaining, but the truth is that the whole thing is pretty tedious. The open-world is lifeless, the missions are all short and not particularly compelling, and even the titular Charles is a complete letdown. Signalled by some really obvious music, it’s pretty clear when he’s going to come, and he just sorta appears. There’s no hunting you down in the trees, no clever AI, he just sprints towards you and you can either shoot him til he goes away, find cover, or just die. The latter of which is pretty much inevitable if you find yourself away from your train or any cover. In fact, I was stuck in the middle of a swamp for one of the side missions during one appearance, leaving me to be a literal sitting duck.
Everything is just so basic that there’s absolutely no tension with anything that happens in the game. It all feels very procedural and repetitive, despite the game only lasting a couple of hours. With some added depth, such as actually having to manage your train, or perhaps even some intelligent train and cultist AI, could have really benefitted the game a lot. As it stands though, it feels like there’s no understanding here as to what makes a horror game and instead the developer has opted for simple streamer-bait.
And unfortunately that’s why it’s impossible to recommend the game to anybody. There are other reasons, such as the muddy visuals and absolutely horrendous and lifeless character models, but those are all surface-level issues on top of a game that’s just fundamentally not any fun. And that’s a real shame.
Choo-Choo Charles is quite possibly the biggest disappointment I’ve had so far this year. Lacking any real atmosphere, or even engaging gameplay, the game just feels like a tedious chore from start until end. There is some potential lurking beneath the surface, but it’s thrown away for the sake of being predictable streamer bait. You should choo-choo-choose a different game to play.