There has been a huge trend lately of horror franchises that play off of childhood nostalgia. Arguably started by the success of Five Nights At Freddy’s, we’ve seen horror takes on such beloved franchises as Sesame Street, Spongebob, The Teletubbies, and even Garfield, each one introducing a trademark friendly version of a classic childhood icon with a creepy twist.
Something all of these franchises seem to lack is a sense of self-awareness. While taking the concept seriously can work for some of them, it seems like it can be easy for these horror titles to forget what they are at their core; A parody. There is an innate silliness involved in making a game based around the concept of “Chuck E Cheese but EVIL!” When one of these horror titles wants to take itself seriously and fails in the execution, this innate silliness works against it.
Choo-Choo Charles seems to know what it is. Between goons wearing train masks and shouting pickle-obsessed hillbillies, there isn’t a point in the game where Choo-Choo Charles tries to sell you on it’s own legitimacy. It knows that you’re playing a game about “Thomas The Tank Engine but Scary” and it isn’t interested in pretending otherwise.
At the start of the game, you’re introduced to the island and its resident track-stalking horror by an eccentric old man with a cartoonish southern accent. You yourself are a museum curator called upon by the island’s natives to slay a train-spider-hybrid known as Choo-Choo Charles, in hopes of putting the corpse on display in your museum.
Despite having photographic evidence of the beast, you are the best the island could recruit to deal with this man-hunting beast. There is no attempt to justify the game’s story present in the writing, it just happens and you move along without being given time to question why.
There is no point interacting with these NPCS where you will feel a sense of lingering dread or fear. They won’t try to convince you that you should be scared (as they speak with you without moving their lips) and honestly feel as if they exist only as comedic relief and to help keep you busy between encounters with Charles himself.
And that’s good, because they don’t need to convince you that the game is scary. The first scripted encounter with Charles didn’t have me feeling too scared; I had Eugene right beside me, cheering as I blasted the evil train and instructing me on where to shoot to make him take more damage.
It was only when Charles pulled Eugene off the train and I watched him creep back into the woods with his body did the horror of the game start to sink in.
It wasn’t so much watching my Guide die that put me on edge, but rather it was the moments that immediately followed. With Charles gone and taking Eugene with him, suddenly for the first time since the game started, everything was quiet. With nothing but the sound of the train chugging along the tracks and the forest around me, I realized that I would be alone on this adventure. Just me, my train, and the threat of Charles jumping out at any moment, and the tension of the game started to sink in fast.
This is where the horror of Choo-Choo Charles comes in. Many horror games like to use puzzles and other distractions to create cheap scares; If the player is distracted by something, it becomes a lot easier to surprise them. But in Choo-Choo Charles, the fear comes mostly in anticipation.
The game will have you trek along the entirety of the Island, often multiple times as you miss turn stations or have to go back for side quests. As you make these long, silent trips around the island, you know that Charles could run up on you at any moment. The tension the game builds is real, and it does it effortlessly. And that makes it a good horror game.
The gameplay loop of Choo-Choo Charles is also remarkably simple. Your goal is to gather three eggs to force Charles to face you in a fight to the death. As you do so, you travel around the island, gathering scrap to upgrade your train or repair it as Charles jumps you in hopes of making you his dinner.
While calling Choo-Choo’s gameplay simple may sound like an insult, I promise that it is perhaps one of the best compliment you can give a game. Too many games these days compensate for a lackluster gameplay loop by flooding the player’s experience with a ton of mini-games and time-wasting mechanics. There is no compensating for a good, engaging gameplay loop.
You battle Charles using a weapon mounted on the back of your train, which can be swapped out with several found by helping out the NPCs around the island. All of these quests are simple and just fast enough to complete that it doesn’t take away from where the game shines, which is its tension-filled train segments.
I will say that the times where the game is its worse are when you have to gather the eggs hidden in the three mines around the island. These eggs are guarded by cultists in Charles masks, and you’re intended to use stealth to get around them. However, I found personally that avoiding detection by these guards was impossible, and it was a lot more practical to just run in and run out. Eventually, their guns will kill you, but you can take a lot of damage before it becomes something to worry about.
The Final Word
For what it is, you couldn’t ask a whole lot more from Choo-Choo Charles. It is a game that wants to lure you in with its silly premise and keeps you playing based on solid gameplay and good tension. You won’t get 60 hours of enjoyment out of Choo-Choo Charles, but you don’t need to. It is a good time that doesn’t pretend to be anything but.
Try Hard Guides was provided with a PC review copy of this game. Find more detailed looks at popular and upcoming titles in the Game Reviews section of our website!