The words “spider train” feels like the pitch line of some Snakes on a Plane rip-off, but in reality, it’s the choppily described concept for the open-world survival horror, Choo-Choo Charles. Developed exclusively by indie developer Gavin Eisenbeisz, it isn’t like other games we’ve seen in the past.
Under his Two Star Games banner, Eisenbeisz sought to create a uniquely different horror experience that both succeeds in its mission and stops dead in its tracks. Sourced from a twisted take on Thomas the Tank Engine, he always knew it had potential.
What potential it had, though, is clear and unfortunately, not best displayed in-game. I want to say this -- I like the game and I have no qualms with spending $20 on this two to three-hour atmospheric open-world journey. That said, I cannot say this game would be anything more than a flash-in-the-pan indie horror game. It won’t reach the depth that other major indie horror games have accomplished like Five Nights At Freddy’s or -- more recently -- Poppy Playtime.
Do I think the game will be completely forgotten in a few years? Probably not. There is immense potential in making the game into something more than a single entry. The story goes like this; you follow a friend to an island with promises of something to rejuvenate your failing museum’s traffic. After arriving, you’re thrust into an open map that -- after its quick tutorial -- you can explore in its entirety all while keeping an eye, and ear, out for Charles who is stalking the land.
To progress, you have to speak with four of the locals but to really succeed, you need to talk to some of the other locals strewn about the rather sizable island. These locals can either end up giving you a hefty sum of scrap to upgrade your locomotive or even provide you with a brand-new weapon to attach to your transportation.
The more scrap you collect, the more you can upgrade. This means the faster you can go, the harder you can hit, or the more damage your train can endure. All of these are vital for the sporadic encounters you can have with the demonic train all culminating in one final standoff between you and Charles.
Choo-Choo Charles as a game holds its own, but it could’ve definitely benefited from even more time in the oven. Despite the inclusion of voice acting, no mouths move while talking with NPCs, making me think he didn’t really want to add voice acting in the first place. The gameplay gets rather dull rather quickly as you can summarize that all you do is fetch items for others in exchange for scrap pieces, effectively making me feel like I’m just some courier for this island to use. Sure, there are some unique quests like Lizbeth Murkwater, who wants you to fetch a carcass on the island in the swamp while being mindful of Berry, the swamp monster, but those are few and far between. In the end, though, such a complaint is more of something wrong with the open world genre as a whole since most of its kind often need tedious missions to make the world feel alive. When it comes to survival horror, though, you really just need to get the atmosphere right and that’s something I have to give props to “Choo-Choo Charles” for getting right. During my playthrough, it was refreshing to not have the monster waiting around every corner. Dare I say, it was almost cosmic horror of Two Star to do that, you could easily go more than five minutes without hearing anything but your train whistle and the chugging sounds of metal on metal.
The little engine that couldn’t
Unfortunately, Choo-Choo Charles lacks any real replay value. Once you complete the game that first time, you’ve possibly seen all the important stuff that happens across the island. Personally, it would’ve been nice to have some of the upgrades or weapons or paint jobs trickle over into the new game, ala a New Game+, but I suppose it is a lot to ask from a simple game made by one person. Perhaps the more logical next step is to refine the design, utilize fewer pre-made assets, and allow for mouth movements first.
This will forever be, in my mind, “that game I played for three hours running from a spider train and a cult.”
Overall, Choo-Choo Charles has great potential to brew a new genre of horror and build on its world. Its atmosphere is oddly well-done for a game that finds itself hard to break out of the “spider train” crux. But, what shields it from being any more than “good fun for a few hours” are the troublesome decades-old open-world tropes, a lack of emotion in the voice acting, absolutely no replay value, and absurdly dull and predictable encounters.
It’s a game that you can enjoy for your first sitting, but after that, it’s no more than something you will just go through the motions.
Choo-Choo Charles Score: 3/5