Thursday, September 23, 2021

Lollipop Chainsaw (Xbox 360) Review

If there's one thing you can say about the games of Grasshopper Manufacture, it's that they are unique.  Their games feature eccentric characters living in eccentric worlds, and who take part in extraordinary situations.  Case in point Lollipop Chainsaw.  A game starring a monster-slaying cheerleader, 2012's Lollipop Chainsaw saw the studio collaborating with James Gunn, writer of the popular Scooby-Doo movies and the director of some movie called The Suicide Squad.  The result meshes Grasshopper's oddball nature with Gunn's twisted sensibility.

It's Juliet Starling's 18th birthday!  But what should be a momentous occasion is derailed by a zombie outbreak occurring at her high school.  One of the victims is her boyfriend Nick, but Juliet saves his head, literally.  She discovers the outbreak was caused by Swan, the school's outcast.  Fed up with being treated as a loser by his peers, Swan used black magic to open a portal to the Rotten World, summoning five Dark Spirits in the process.  With chaos unfolding across the high school and surrounding area, Juliet and Nick set out to defeat the spirits and close the portal before it's too late.

Lollipop Chainsaw is no ordinary zombie game.  Releasing during a time when the market was oversaturated with the living dead, Lollipop Chainsaw was a reminder that the undead don't have to be taken so seriously.  The dialogue is crass, and the gags are plentiful.  You can see the styles of both Grasshopper and James Gunn shine through in the set-up and writing.  Structurally and conceptually, it's reminiscent of No More Heroes.  Instead of fighting ten assassins who are spoofs of superhero and anime clichés, you fight five spirits that are caricatures of different rock styles like punk rock and death metal.

Johnny Napalm from "Guitar Hero" has fallen on hard times.

As much as this feels like a Grasshopper game, it very much feels like one written by James Gunn.  Before directing blockbuster superhero movies, Gunn cut his teeth as a scriptwriter for Troma Films, in addition to directing cult flicks like Super.  His earlier works were raunchy and vulgar, and Lollipop Chainsaw is no exception.  Juliet's mentor is a sensei named Morikawa who tries his darndest to look up Juliet's skirt while giving her exposition.  One of the spirits, Zed, using his cursing as a weapon, taunting Juliet with tawdry phrases like "Vanilla Slut."

Some of the jokes miss, but the dialogue is hilarious.  What's most surprising about the writing isn't the profanity, but how it flips the tables on the characters.  Take Juliet.  She wears a skimpy cheerleader outfit, and her voice sounds like a typical bubbly teenage girl, but underneath the pom-poms is a character who's strong, smart, and can hold her own.  Juliet was raised in a family never afraid to take on a challenge, no matter how insurmountable the odds seemed.  It's her determination that gives her character, and like Lara Croft and Bayonetta before her, she mixes beauty with brawn.

Ironically, it's her boyfriend Nick that is treated like an object.  The dumb jock obsessed with football and boobs is reduced to a head on a keychain.  He feels humiliated for most of the adventure, but by the end, he realizes his lack of a body shouldn't make up for how much he's willing to support the one he loves.  Lollipop Chainsaw's premise doesn't overstay its welcome, and the game reaches a satisfying conclusion in the form of a boss fight with a fat, giant Elvis demon.

Lollipop Chainsaw's hack and slash gameplay is competent but enjoyable.  The goal of each stage is to cut through zombies and defeat one of the Dark Spirits.  Juliet is equipped with pom-poms and a chainsaw, which deal light and heavy attacks respectively.  Halfway through the game, her chainsaw is upgraded with the ability to shoot projectiles.  The pom-poms are great for peppering enemies with fast, quick attacks, while the chainsaw is useful for keeping bad guys at bay, though its wind-up leaves Juliet vulnerable.  

He won't be doing any "easy riding" anytime soon!

When an enemy is stunned, they become dizzy.  Dizzy zombies can be instantly decapitated.  Decapitating three or more zombies in a row rewards Juliet with a "Sparkle Hunting" bonus.  Said bonus is in the form of extra coins, which can be used at the shop to buy upgrades, items, and other goodies.

On paper, Lollipop Chainsaw isn't too different from other titles in the genre.  In fact, it shares a lot of similarities with the Onechanbara series, right down the scantily-clad protagonist.  The difference is Lollipop Chainsaw never becomes a snore-fest due to a little something called variety.  Besides slicing up zombies, you'll rescue survivors.  Survivors are students that need to be saved and escorted to a safe spot.  Protecting survivors isn't too annoying since they aren't harmed by your attacks.  Should they die under your watch, he or she will come back as a super zombie.

As mentioned earlier, Nick's severed head accompanies Juliet.  Juliet can put Nick's head on glowing blue zombies, which initiates a mini-game where you must press a button in time as Nick makes his way over to a steel shutter that needs to be opened or to clear away rubble.  If you have a Nick ticket, you can trigger a roulette wheel where you pick a move from a handful of special attacks.  Tickets double as a revive if Juliet dies, so it's important to decide if you want to use a ticket now or save it for later.

Zombies come in many shapes and sizes.  There's the standard undead, but there's also zombified firemen, football players, cops, and other personnel that are harder to kill.  Fortunately, there's "Sparkle Mode."  Killing zombies adds energy to the meter that when activated, makes Juliet invincible and lets her insta-kill zombies.  Sparkle mode is useful for racking up coins and can make a difference in the final ranking you earn.  The player receives a grade based on factors like how long it took to beat the stage, how many zombies were decapitated, etc.

Pom-poms are a cheerleader's best friend.

Every now and then, the game puts you in a one-off sequence.  You'll find yourself launching zombie heads into a basketball goal, helping Nick in a game of zombie baseball, or driving a combine harvester.  These sequences are a welcome change of pace as the combat gets repetitive.

While Lollipop Chainsaw offers schlocky fun, the gameplay is hampered by various design problems.  Levels are incredibly linear to the point you can't even jump over cars.  Whatever collectibles are available to find are often placed along the path you're taking.  The game is also easy, even on normal.  Lollipops acts as health items, restoring Juliet's health when needed.  On normal, you can carry at least five, but on hard, it's reduced to three.  Lollipops restore a large chunk of health, so dying isn't too much of an issue.

Boss fights are a colossal disappointment.  I like how each one is modeled after a different style of music, but they barely pose a challenge.  The game tells you what weapon to use and where their weak spots are, meaning the player doesn't have to worry much about figuring out how to defeat them.  Each boss has three forms, but these only serve to pad out the fight instead of mixing things up.  While there is a decent selection of moves to unlock, you can get by relying on just a handful of attacks, like the back-kick, which instantly stuns foes.

Lollipop Chainsaw is a colorful game.  Some of the textures look muddy, but the excellent art style makes up for it.  Zombies explode into sparkles when decapitated and the artwork is heavily inspired by classic comics like Tales from the Crypt.  Voice acting is great.  Tara Strong voices Juliet Starling and gives the character an enthusiastic performance.  The rest of the cast features the likes of Michael Rooker, Linda Cardellini, and Jimmy Urine, lead singer of Mindless Self Indulgence.

They look so happy together!

Jimmy Urine also composed the boss music for the game, with Akira Yamaoka composing the rest of the score, and it's an excellent soundtrack.  Each stage's music reflects the boss you're confronting.  For example, Vikke's music features a lot of death metal, while the tracks in the Fulci's arcade level emphasize the techno.  Peppered throughout are licensed tunes that are used when necessary.  It's not everyday you kill zombies to the tune of Toni Basil's "Mickey.

Lollipop Chainsaw is like the B-movies it's based on.  It's schlocky, gory, often in bad taste, but nonetheless absurd.  The premise is absurd, but the writing is on point.  Juliet seems like a brainless cheerleader, but she's really a badass who likes a good challenge.  At seven hours, the game's length is just right and never does tedium settle in.  The game has issues, notably a lack of challenge, but Lollipop Chainsaw makes up for its shortcomings with its irresistible charm.  For those who like their games a little gonzo, this is worth checking out.

Final Score: 7/10

Friday, September 10, 2021

No More Heroes (Wii) Review


Editor's Note: This game was previously reviewed in 2015.  However, that review is outdated and horrible.  Consider this a "Revisited" on No More Heroes.  You can find the original review here.

In a world inundated with sequels, prequels, and reboots, it's challenging to sell consumers on a new idea, regardless of what the concept is.  However, a new video game console is the perfect opportunity for developers to sell people on their new property, as well as drum up attention for the system.  By late 2007, the Wii was dominating the console market, selling 5.84 million units at the end of 2007.  Yet, its focus on the casual market combined with the plethora of shovel ware made hardcore gamers wary.  That changed in 2008 when developer Grasshopper Manufacture and publisher Ubisoft released No More Heroes, a game where you kill guys and jack off a lightsaber.

Travis Touchdown is an otaku who spends his time sitting on the toilet instead of working a job.  He buys a beam katana off the internet, a decision that leads him to a duel with a man named Helter Skelter.  Killing him makes Travis number 11 on the ranking board of the United Assassins' Association, UAA for short.  The organization's leader, Sylvia Christel, promises Travis that if he fights his way up to number one, he'll be crowned the winner.  Travis accepts, with the bonus of getting to sleep with Sylvia if he succeeds.

No More Heroes is a wild game.  It's violent, bloody, lewd, and crude.  The hero is a guy who wants to make it to the top not for the desire of power or wealth, but to have sex with a woman.  The ranked assassins Travis duels are colorful individuals that come off as crazy yet sensible.  For example, Destroy-Man is a mild-mannered mail carrier turned incredibly egotistical superhero.  Shinobu is a katana-wielding high-schooler who wants revenge because she believes Travis killed her father.  The characters are absurd, but everything is played straight, and it rides the fine line between ludicrous and grounded.

Boss fights are fun and require looking for windows of opportunity to lay damage on them.

While No More Heroes is clearly inspired by the works of Takeshi Miké and Quentin Tarantino, it also reminds me a lot of the movie Repo Man.  Both follow a punk protagonist who gets caught up in an unusual line of work.  In No More Heroes, it's the job of being an assassin, whereas in Repo Man, it's the job of repossessing cars.  Otto's job leads him to encounter a variety of colorful individuals and get entangled in a government conspiracy involving a Chevy Malibu.

Meanwhile, Travis' job leads to him cutting off a lot of heads and meeting some interesting folks along the way.  Repo Man is odd yet at times philosophical, with characters waxing about the lattice of coincidence, same goes for No More Heroes, where characters mediate on things like death and finding paradise.  The town of Santa Destroy is a place with few opportunities, like how Los Angeles is a decrepit city where the only jobs give you room to a fry cook.  I guess you could say No More Heroes is the Repo Man of video games.

At the center of it all is Travis Touchdown.  He's equal parts brash, badass, and goofy, but he's determined to reach the top.  As much as No More Heroes is about fighting unusual characters, it's also about going through the daily grind to achieve success.  Success doesn't fall in your lap.  It takes hard work, perseverance, and the desire to push yourself.  Every first rater started as a third rater and worked their butts off.  Travis is trying to do the same, albeit in the name of sex.

No More Heroes' gameplay is a mixture of open-world exploration, hack and slash combat, and odd job simulator, resulting in a concoction that's weirdly addicting.  To move up the ranks, Travis needs money.  Each ranked fight requires an entry fee to be paid.  The higher the ranking, the higher it costs to get in.  The main way to earn cash is to do jobs and complete contracts.  

Santa Destroy is "bustling" with activity.

Jobs are picked up by visiting the job center.  New jobs become available as you progress.  You'll mow the yard, collect coconuts, rescue cats, and perform dangerous stunts to earn cash.  Once a job is complete, you earn the chance to complete a contract from K-Entertainment, a hitman's association. Contracts see Travis either killing a specific target or eliminating a group of bad guys under certain parameters like melee only.

That's the basic rhythm of No More Heroes, but there's a lot more to do besides killing and capturing scorpions.  As the game progresses, new businesses become available for Travis to visit.  The Thunder Ryu gym lets you work out to increase your strength and stamina.  Beef Head Video sells wrestling tapes for Travis to watch and learn new moves from, and Dr. Naomi's lab is where you go to buy new beam katanas and upgrades.  Scattered across Santa Destroy are Lovikov balls.  Find seven of them, and you learn a new technique from Randall Lovikov, a drunk Russian who hangs out at the bar.

Additionally, if you're in need of a little extra spending money, you can go dumpster diving to find cash or shirts.  Alternatively, there's the free fight missions, optional encounters that involve eliminating enemies without taking damage.  I only recommend doing them once you're intimately familiar with how combat works.  On that note, let's talk combat.

Despite being on the Wii, the fighting makes good use of button presses and motion gestures, resulting in a satisfying combat system.  Tapping the A button swings his beam katana but tilting the remote up and down makes him shift between a high and low fighting stance.  When an enemy is weak enough, you finish him off by swinging the remote in whatever direction the game indicates.  Pressing the B button initiates a melee attack that can stun an opponent and leave him vulnerable to a wrestling finisher, at which point you need to swipe the remote and nunchuck in the prescribed direction.

Don't do it.  You'll make Jesus cry.

Killing an enemy makes a slot machine reel appear on the bottom of the screen.  Getting three matching icons triggers one of five Dark Side Mode variants.  "Strawberry on the Shortcake" boosts Travis' speed and lets him one-hit kill enemies.  "Blueberry Cheese Brownie" lets him shoot energy blasts out of his katana.  "Cranberry Chocolate Sunday" turns him into Darth Travis, where opponents fear him and he's able to finish them off with ease.  "Anarchy in the Galaxy" nets you a special bomb that kills all enemies in the vicinity.  Finally, "Cherry" slows down enemies' movement speed, letting Travis score multiple hits.

Using the beam katana drains the battery.  If it runs low, you need to recharge it by pressing 1 and shaking the Wii remote.  Just remember to not shake it too hard, or you'll go blind.  I prefer to use quick, precise shakes, edging the energy bar all the way to the top.

Masturbation jokes aside, there's a rhythmic flow to the combat that keeps the action going.  It's gratifying when you land a killing blow followed by gallons of blood erupting from their bodies.  The violence is brutal, but it's so ridiculous that you laugh instead of reeling from the carnage.  However, you'll need to be mindful of your surroundings because in some areas, enemies can gang up on Travis and stun lock him.  Fighting goons with guns is especially irritating since they run off to a different corner of the arena after firing their weapon.

As fun as the combat is, the sandbox feels empty.  Its only purpose is to connect the key locations together, and aside from looking for hidden goodies, you'll find yourself speeding from one location to the next to get things done quicker.  It's a shame because Santa Destroy is a large locale, and there was untapped potential.  Too bad No More Heroes 2 jettisoned the open world.

Some might grow tired of the constant loop of "Work, Save Up, Kill, Rinse and Repeat."  I never became bored of doing the odd jobs and contracts, simply because I knew the pay-off was another ranked fight.  There's a satisfying sense of progression as you unlock new moves, weapons, and increase Travis' strength.  You feel like he is getting stronger and more confident in his ability as an assassin, and that he's willing to take on what lies next.

When you gotta go, you gotta go.

No More Heroes' cel-shaded look is distinct and plays to the strengths of the Wii's less-than-powerful hardware.  Character models are solid and cut-scenes are well-directed.  Environments are flat and basic, and the short draw distance and scant number of pedestrians only serve as a reminder of how barren Santa Destroy is.  There's also some wonky collision detection.  Travis' motorbike can run down trees, but patio furniture sends him flying off.  Plus, the frame-rate drops when the action gets too hectic.

On the flip side, thee voice acting is great.  Robin Atkin Downes shines as Travis Touchdown. He gives the character the right amount of cockiness, while sprinkling in some goofiness for good measure.  No discussion about the sound design would be complete without mentioning the music.  The theme song is simplistic yet catchy, and there are a lot of remixes that are played during the combat sections.  Exploring the sandbox is made tolerable by the rockabilly music that plays while driving around town.

No More Heroes is a one-of-a-kind game we rarely see nowadays.  It's gory, funny, and even a little philosophical.  The story and characters are offbeat yet cool.  There is no clear-cut good guy or bad guy, only a moral grey where men and women fight to see who will come out on top.  Even though the gameplay can get repetitive and the open world leaves a lot to be desired, No More Heroes' eccentricity pulls you back in.

In short, I love No More Heroes.

Final Score: 8/10