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

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