Once upon a time, we had something in games that was paramount to all other qualities; we called it “Fun.” Now, mind you, this was before frame-per-second counts, and before dynamic, living-worlds, and before midnight launch parties. This was before you had to prove your gaming cred on web forums by only playing the best rated games and by playing them before anyone else did. This was a time where the most important element in a game’s design was the arc and tooth exposure associated with the smile of the individual playing it, and Lollipop Chainsaw resurrects that feeling as no game has in a very long time.
GAME NAME: Lollipop Chainsaw
DEVELOPER(S): Grasshopper Manufacture
PUBLISHER(S): Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Kadokawa Games
PLATFORM(S): Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
GENRE(S): Action, Hack and Slash, Comedy
RELEASE DATE(S): June 12, 2012
Lollipop Chainsaw is the newest entry from Grasshopper Manufacture, and directed by studio founder Suda 51. The mind behind twisted titles such as Killer 7 and No More Heroes, Suda 51 has earned a reputation as a bit of a mad genius in gaming circles, so he staffed his production team with a line-up of misfits that share his mad genius reputation.
The story is penned by James Gunn, writer (and occasionally director) on some of the big screen’s favorite horror flicks, such as Slither, 2004′s Dawn of the Dead remake, Tromeo & Juliet, and…well, the live-action Scooby-Doo movies. A credit list like that shows an individual who both understands their genre, and refuses to take themselves too seriously, which comes across solidly here in the tale of Lollipop Chainsaw and its protagonist, Juliet Starling, a bubbly high school cheerleader from San Romero High. (By the way, if that reference is lost on you, you might as well turn the game off right now, because it’s highly likely you’re not the person this game was created for.)
The game opens the morning of Juliet’s eighteenth birthday, which is a big day for her, because today is the day her family finally gets to meet her boyfriend, Nick Carlyle. Unbeknownst to her, today is also the day that dark forces have aligned to turn her high school into Ground Zero for an invasion of undead nasties, turning most of the town into flesh-crazed zombies. Luckily for Juliet, she happens to come from a long-line of zombie hunters, and brought her favorite zombie-killing chainsaw to school this morning.
Juliet is performed by voice-acting queen Tara Strong, who nails her performance as the determined but occasionally ditzy and often inadvertently sexual zombie hunter. Personally, it was a bit weird to hear the often risqué dialogue coming out in Twilight Sprinkle’s voice, but it did not deter too much (don’t judge me–I have kids, I’m allowed to know what Twilight Sprinkle sounds like).
The real show-stealer, though, is Juliet’s boyfriend, Nick, voiced by Smallville’s Lex Luthor, Michael Rosenbaum. Nick is the audience’s character, plain-and-simple. He has no idea what is going on, forces Juliet to explain the paces to him (and us), and more often than not, says the things to the game that you wish you could. By the end, it becomes evident that Lollipop Chainsaw is actually Nick’s story, as he becomes the only character who has to change and grow to move forward–his nutty, chainsaw-wielding S.O. is just the catalyst for that change.
Juliet and Nick’s head (she decapitated him to save him from being changed into a zombie–should I have mentioned that? It feels like I should have mentioned that…) are on a quest to destroy the Dark Purveyors, a quint of powerful undead monsters, who hold the key to closing the portal to Rotten World, the realm from which the noxious vapors turning people into zombies is coming. The boss fights carry Suda 51′s trademark over-the-top awesomeness, and the character design takes playful stabs at different musical genres with each Dark Purveyor, from whiney emo screamers to arrogant hot rod riding rockabillies.
On the subject of music, Lollipop Chainsaw excels in that department. The rest of Suda 51′s insanity stew coalesces here, with original tracks put together by video game legend Akira Yamaoka (of Silent Hill fame) and Little Jimmy Urine, the mind behind the manic, Nine-Inch-Nails-without-the-Id-and-double-the-Ego sounds of Massive Self Indulgence.
Yamaoka and Urine combine to create an original soundtrack that is evocative and varied, which is a shame, because it is totally overshadowed by a handful of licensed tracks that have been used with near-supernatural genius. From the obvious usage of The Chordettes’ Lollipop, to more modern modern licks from metalheads Dragonforce, Lollipop Chainsaw cuts a nice wide swath with its licensed music selection, and uses them all appropriately (not to spoil anything, but there never has been nor will be a better use of Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round than the use this game found). The licensed music is all used impeccably, which unfortunately moves the totally solid and well-done original tracks to the background of your mind. The original tracks end up becoming the George Harrison of the piece–yes, he is a genius, but it makes it hard to notice when he is standing next to the licensed music’s John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The good news is that players have the option to customize their soundtracks, which will give the original tracks more exposure than they probably would have gotten otherwise.
Graphically, Lollipop Chainsaw tries to evoke the comic book aesthetic that has become so popular in games of late. It accomplishes that style well, and expertly uses a light enough touch to remind you of the artistic flourish without slapping you in the face every chance it gets. The level design will likely not blow anyone’s mind, but it does its job, keeping you from being bored during the downtimes, but avoiding distraction and giving plenty of room when the chainsaw gymnastics start.
Those chainsaw gymnastics abound, though Juliet starts with a limited and stilted number of moves and combos. Her repertoire steadily increases both as the game progresses and by purchasing more with in-game currency earned by hacking up zombies. The currency, Zombie Medals, can also be used to increase Juliet’s strength, maximum health, attack range, and ground recovery, so every visit to the shops loosely spaced throughout the levels takes some strategizing before you make your purchases. You can also buy out-of-gameplay items like extra music tracks, concept art, and additional costumes for Juliet (because what’s a good cheesecake game without a dress-up section?).
Juliet starts with three basic attacks (low chainsaw, high chainsaw, and pop-pom, which is used to stun enemies). She also has the ability to enter Sparkle Hunter Mode after killing enough zombies, which makes all her chainsaw attacks into one-hit kills for a limited time. Eventually she gains abilities that allow her to shoot at enemies and even use Nick as a weapon.
A concern early on with the controls was that the jump/dodge button is mapped to the Xbox B button (and, presumably, PlayStation circle button, though we only reviewed the Xbox version), rather than the standard Xbox A/PlayStation X slot. It takes a little getting used to, but after it becomes comfortable, it is hard to imagine any other button configuration (but don’t worry, you can change it if you need to).
Periodic breaks in hacking and slashing with your chainsaw come regularly, as the levels are densely loaded with minigames that change up the game play. They vary from quick-time event cheering sessions, as Juliet uses Nick’s head on headless zombies to open paths for her, to playing basketball by lopping zombie heads off so they fly into the basket, to piloting farm equipment. The absurdity of these pallet cleansers are refreshing and add a lot humor to the game. (As a side note on that humor, it was a real treat to see some of the later portions of the game abandon that humor and take on a gritty, desperate feeling, almost as a defiant message from Suda and Gunn saying, “Yeah, we can make that kind of game, too. We just chose not to.”)
A single playthrough should not take you long; eight to twelve hours seems to be about par, which is about what you want from an action game like this. You have the option to go back and replay any level, and changing the difficulty will change the layouts of enemies and collectables. Add level performance scoring and that can’t-get-everything-in-one-playthrough design that Japanese designers are so fond of, and you have plenty of seeds planted for repeatability.
Lollipop Chainsaw is a ridiculous, raunchy, and red-blooded romp, and that make-you-smile fun factor is totally present. Technically, it is the most solidly coded game I have seen come down the pipe in a long time (which means a lot if, like me, you are tired of seeing reviews give games a pass for buggy code because of some other well-done factor), though a couple of the menus could have benefited from another proofread. With its over-the-top sexuality and raunchiness, it definitely is not a game for everyone (I must say, though, I kept waiting for the game to go “too far”, but it always just toed that line and never crossed it), but if you have any interest in this title, you should definitely try it out.