Lollipop Chainsaw Review
Made2Game Lollipop Chainsaw Review Score: 7/10
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Reviewed by: James Bowden
I'll admit I've been a tad worried about Lollipop Chainsaw. With Grasshopper's main man, SUDA 'Flower Sun & Rain, Killer 7, No More Heroes' 51 on creative duties as opposed to out and out Director, and the studio starting to pump out a curiously large amount of titles both in house and collaboratively – Sine Mora, Diabolical Pitch and the upcoming Black Knight's Tale are all 2012 releases alongside Lollipop – I was fretting that such a pace might cause the studio to lose that wonderful, unique flair that Grasshopper and SUDA's game's normally deliver in spades.
Thus it's with great relish that I admit I was wrong. Mostly.
What we have in Lollipop is something that, in feel, is bonafide SUDA. Albeit SUDA on a sugar rush. Indeed it seems strange to attribute Juliet's lolly gorging and rainbow coloured zombie slaying to the same mind that envisioned the dark, labyrinthine and disturbing Killer 7 seven years ago but that's the beauty of a SUDA game, even when he's only on concept duty you never truly know exactly what it is you'll end up with.
With Lollipop Chainsaw you get zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. A genre done to death, perhaps, but Lollipop Chainsaw is more Return of the Living Dead than Dawn. You control Juliet Starling, a cheerleader who also happens to come from a family of trained zombie hunters. The tale starts when Swan, a Goth at Juliet's school San Romero High (Like George A. Romero, geddit? There are a lot of far reaching zombie flick references in Lollipop, it's a veritable love letter to the genre), summons five demonic zombie lords to ravage the world that so shunned him. Cue Juliet, her family, and her decapitated-head-for-a-boyfriend Nick to save the day.
It's certainly SUDA's simplest tale to date, likely stemming from the same sort of 'wouldn't it be funny if' drunken spliel that spawned No More Heroes' Nerd-tastic premise. And while Lollipop's concept doesn't quite stretch as far as Travis' (I blame the zombies) that doesn't mean that Juliet's quest is bereft of memorable moments.
Give me a punch!
Of couse so many zombies means a lot of brawling and combat is fairly simple stuff – you have a weak pom pom attack (Juliet is a cheerleader after all) that stuns enemies, high and low chainsaw swings, and a jump to hop around in combat. Here's the thing – Lollipop Chainsaw's combat doesn't start that great, and at no point does it worry the likes of Bayonetta.
At its heart Lollipop is a high score game that asks you to use pom pom attacks to stun and chorale enemies into a kill zone before popping their heads off with one deft chainsaw swing. Enemies killed in this way cough up score boosting medals and some fuel for your super meter, while killing a group in this fashion will earn a 'Sparkle Hunting' bonus for even more points and coins.
Yep, coins. And herein lies Lollipop's biggest issue – you have to purchase skills. To begin with the combat just doesn't really flow. It's clumsy. Compare it to, say, No More Heroes - that game delivered the combat's hook on enemy number one. In Lollipop Chainsaw you have to buy a few skills to really get the engine going. Once you've got a few moves, however, it genuinly starts to sing. Button combos link organically with pom pom flourishes launching into extravagant, brightly coloured chainsaw swings and Juliet becomes a genuinely versatile combatant.
It takes the full course of the six hour story for the combat to really find its groove but fortunately it's a largely entertaining six hours, full of enough stupidity and entertaining asides to avoid becoming dull.
Even without going into plot ideas there's the fact that Juliet's super mode lets you one hit kill zombies to Toni Basil's 'Hey Mickey', while another titter-some scenario is set to that song by Dead or Alive. Those two facts alone pretty much ensure Lollipop Chainsaw a free recommendation regardless of any other qualities.
Fortunately Lollipop's charms are numerous beyond its brilliant soundtrack (did I mention Human League? Or Jimmy Urine's fantastic boss compositions? Or Akira Yamaoka's wonderfully quirky attempts at 80's synth pop?). One such high point is the game's script which can mainly be credited to scriptwriter James 'Slither, Super' Gunn who deliveres an entertaining, cuss filled western adaptation that's heavy on the pop culture references.
Juliet herself is wonderfully realised by Tara Strong. Unendingly enthusiastic, Juliet's is selectively silly - her knowledge of the occult and weird prove disturbingly substantial while she remains blissfully ignorant to her brazenly perverted sensei. Is she a sexist representation? Absolutely not - Juliet is a competent slayer of the undead and more a wink to Joss Whedon's Buffy than a helpless bimbo. Indeed Juliet and the rest of her family stand completely alone in this world due to every other character being overly, and frequently creepily, sexual in their lines of thought. The real star of the piece, however, is Nick.
Juliet's boyfriend who becomes a decapitated head during the plot's prologue, Nick provides a wonderful degree of sanity to offset Juliet's macabre cheer. Voice actor Michael Rosenbaum plays every response to Juliet with a wonderful amount of sarcastic, nonchalant acceptance which helps sell the game's absurdity even at its most bizarre. 'Look Nick! if I grab that ticket I can use your new super powers!' chirps Juliet 'Yeah, ok, whatever', responds the accepting and ultimately helpless Nick. The pair's story is surprisingly well told, and the voice acting is excellent throughout.
Then there are the levels themselves, all packed with amusing, unique asides both cinematic and gameplay-wise. One later level set in an arcade is wonderfully schizophrenic, ping ponging from one game idea to the next with applaud-able confidence. There's really no downtime to the action and the levels are somewhat long, meaning extended sessions with the game can grate, but the fun of the unexpected does manage to keep hitting right up until the last zombie is slain.
And what last zombies they are, every level in Lollipop Chainsaw is capped off with an impressive boss fight. All based on musical sub genres these zombie freaks provide some truly standout scraps. Punk rocker Zed, for instance, shouts offensive words and names that manifest and hurt Juliet, which only makes chainsawing the foul mouthed corpse into little chunks all the more satisfying.
Lollipop Chainsaw is perhaps most surprising because it's a genuine grower released at a time when most games tend to be somewhat front loaded. This is a game that only gets better the more you play it. The more combos you unlock. The more techniques you learn. The more secret zombie facts you unlock. The bizarre later levels. Clocking yet another reference. Unlocking a big silly alternate costume. Everything about Lollipop Chainsaw starts to click and improve as you get past the somewhat rough outer layer and dig closer to that juicy high score flavoured centre.
While the credits may roll after five or six hours, you'll probably still be playing beyond ten.
But even with its wealth of ideas it's hard to shake the feeling that this is still one of Grasshopper's clumsier games. While I don't want to pin all of Lollipop Chainsaw's shortcomings on Ikeda Tomo, the game's main director, it's Gunn's adaptation and SUDA's creative mind splatter that provide the alluring carrot that will get you through the uninspiring opening act and the tedium of unlocking a few skills that really get the combat flowing. It just feels odd as Grasshopper's games, even at their most unorthadox, normally nail their gameplay in the opening minutes.
Then again I don't want to end on a low note. Lollipop Chainsaw is just the sort of game we expect from Grasshopper – a title crammed with so many ideas, so much entertainment, and such innane absurdity, it provides something genuinly unique and memorable even if it is riffing on the tired zombie genre. Is Lollipop Chainsaw Grasshopper's best? No. Is this SUDA playing things a bit safe? Largely, yes. Is it still hugely entertaining, stylised stuff? Absolutely. It's not the cast iron assurance that Grasshopper is at its best when SUDA 51 steps away from the directors chair but it does show that they're still capable of crafting a solid title even if the boss is a bit busy writing a bit of sci-fi detective fiction. And come on, that Dead or Alive song, you should definately see how it's included.
Words by James Bowden (Twitter: @Dalagonash)