Grasshopper Manufacture has specialized in odd games. Killer 7 had you playing as seven different people who may or may not be the physical manifestations of a wheelchair-bound man. No More Heroes featured an otaku who rose to the rank of an assassin based on his exploits with a light sword that he ordered from the Internet. Shadows of the Damned had you rescuing your girlfriend from hell. Diabolical Pitch starred a baseball pitcher who throws fastballs to ward off zombies while Sine Mora told a story of betrayal, time travel and violation using anthropomorphic animals. After the brief lap in darker territory, the company moves back to lighthearted fare with Lollipop Chainsaw, which is essentially "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer" with zombies.
You play as Juliet Starling, a high school cheerleader who happens to be the middle child in a family of zombie hunters. On her 18th birthday, she finds San Romero High School overrun by the undead. After saving her boyfriend, Nick, from turning into a zombie by cutting off his head and attaching it to her side, she sets off with a chainsaw to save her school — and the world.
Despite the seemingly ordinary plot, the story is memorable for several reasons. Director James Gunn, famous for his offbeat movies like Super and Slither, was responsible for the script, and both he and Grasshopper Manufacture head Suda51 have similar quirky senses of humor. There's a decent amount of gore in the game, but a good chunk of it is replaced with rainbow colors and sparkles to lessen the impact of dismemberment. Juliet may not fit the stereotypical dumb blonde cheerleader role, but she will sometimes break out into a cheer in the middle of a fight. Nick plays the straight man role, and his humor comes from his casual observations.
Meanwhile, your supporting cast ranges from a perverted sushi chef who is also Juliet's sensei in zombie-slaying techniques, Juliet's family of zombie slayers, and a cadre of boss zombies that embody modified music tropes, such as punk rockers who use curse words as literal weapons and funk gods who only speak in autotune. Dialogue leans toward the vulgar side, and while there are plenty of curse words and unpleasant allusions to Juliet's gender, it is slightly balanced by the same vulgar language used to describe positive things that are simply too crass to describe here. YouTube and Facebook are casually name-dropped, and lines and catchphrases from popular works are utilized at just the right moment. In a way, the game most resembles Suda's earlier work, such as No More Heroes and God Hand, where everything is played up for camp without traversing into parody. The title is enjoyable for that aspect alone.
Lollipop Chainsaw mirrors No More Heroes in terms of gameplay and combat. At its core, this is a hack-and-slash title where you mix up standard melee pom-pom combat with high and low attacks from your trusty chainsaw. Your chainsaw is the only thing capable of actually harming zombies, as your pom-pom melee attacks only stun zombies and push them away. Your arsenal isn't limited to your mechanized blade; as you progress, you'll gain access to a grenade launcher that helps you clear out swaths of the undead and detonate zombies that are strapped with dynamite. You'll also encounter special ramps to cross long gaps and poles so you can swing around and dispatch the dead. Nick also becomes a weapon in certain circumstances, as you get to use him as a projectile to stun zombies from a distance and as a melee weapon, twirling him around you to kill nearby foes.
Defeating zombies nets you coins that you can use at the Chop2Shop.zom kiosks to buy new moves, stat augments, and other extras (concept art, costumes and MP3s for your jukebox). The combos help you quickly dispatch the zombies, and executing enough zombies grants you a power-up so you can one-hit most enemies for a brief period. Alas, combos aren't achieved by hits but by simultaneous executions. Killing three or more zombies with one blow puts you in the Sparkle Hunt, which nets you more coins and displays a slow-motion shot of zombie deaths against a sparkle-filled backdrop. The seemingly mindless zombie-hacking gives way to more strategic gameplay where you use your pom-pom attacks to corral them into one area before hacking off their heads with a well-timed blow. This maximizes your coin payout and adds some much-needed variety to the hack-and-slash gameplay.
As you would expect from these developers, minigames have been thrown in, and the humor is allowed to shine here. Some minigames use the established combat mechanics. Zombie Baseball asks you to use your chainsaw blaster to knock out zombies as they go after Nick. Zombie Basketball asks you to decapitate a certain number of zombie heads while getting rid of blockers and cheerleaders.
Other minigames are much odder. There are times when Nick is placed on a decapitated zombie body, and you have to play a Quick Time Event (QTE) minigame to get him from one spot to another so you can jump over high fences, blow up boulders, or smash open gates. One stage lets you man a mechanical reaper and mow down zombies in a wheat field while another lets Nick take on the role of Pac-Man to open up gates. All of these minigames are not only humorous to watch and absurd in their premise, but they are also sprinkled liberally throughout each stage, breaking up the combat into sections that are large enough to be enjoyable without being monotonous.
Those combined elements make Lollipop Chainsaw fun to play if only to see what ludicrous situation or dialogue comes up next. However, each completed level opens up a ranked version, which you can play at a minimum difficulty level of Normal. Submodes include medal hunt, score attack and time attack. You only have one life to run through the levels, and all of the shops have been replaced with special zombies that yield lots of coins. These submodes have their own leaderboards, so you have more opportunities to get a high ranking on one if you're having a hard time with the others. Even if you never visit this mode, the game has a local leaderboard for the main quest, and topping that leaderboard gives you access to more costumes for Juliet.
The combat is good and varied because of the many combos and minigames, the game is funny, and there's some replay value because of the leaderboards. With that said, there are a few gameplay issues that mar the game's quality. At the default difficulty level, the story mode clocks in at roughly six hours, mirroring the length of most games nowadays. It bodes well for score hounds since that means more time to achieve a higher spot on the leaderboards, but it means less content for those who only care about the campaign.
The pacing is another thing that needs work. There are a few areas where a loading screen suddenly pops up, and while it doesn't occur in the middle of combat, it does when transitioning into new areas that don't look much different from previous areas. The load screens also pop up before and after cut scenes that introduce boss fights, creating a jarring experience. The pacing also suffers from the constant use of a locked room formula. Most of the time, you'll have to clear a room full of zombies before you can continue. It's a common technique, but the difference is that the game always informs you of how many zombies need to die before the temporary gate is broken. With the number of zombies you'll need to fight in this game, you'll wish that more areas were accessible.
The sound is definitely one area where the game shines brightly thanks to its mix of solid production and lunacy. The sound effects are probably the only thing taken seriously. Grenade blasts, chainsaw rips, and the sound of ripping flesh come in with great clarity. The score is mostly by Akira Yamaoka, famous for his work on the early Silent Hill games and Shadow of the Damned, while the boss battle themes were done specifically by Jimmy Urine, frontman for the band Mindless Self Indulgence. Despite coming from two completely different backgrounds, the soundtrack carries the same tempo and beats, and it sounds perfectly in sync. Some unexpected humor comes from the inclusion of licensed music popping up at unexpected times. "Cherry Bomb," for example, starts playing at the main menu while "Lollipop" plays every time you visit the Chop2Shop.zom stores. Some of the minigames start playing "Pac-Man Fever" and "You Spin Me Right Round (Like a Record)." "Mickey" blasts from the speakers when you use up your special meter. The effect is humorously jarring.
The voice work is exceptionally well done thanks to a cast of veteran voice actors who know exactly how to perform. The supporting cast is great, but the main characters of Juliet and Nick really shine. Tara Strong gives her character a bubbly persona but with enough toughness to make her sound like a serious threat while Michael Rosenbaum plays his straight man role very well as he injects a bit of sarcasm without overacting. The only issue with the voices comes from the zombies. The boss zombies can be heard just fine, but the others aren't very intelligible due to excessive growling and lowered voices. You might make out a funny line or two, but most of the time it sounds like someone is talking to you with his or her mouth full. The same goes for the evil spirits; they speak clearly, but the audio mixing makes them seem silent.
Graphically, Lollipop Chainsaw eschews the typical dark atmosphere of a zombie game in favor of something much more colorful. The colors used for the cel-shading are meant to give the game a comic book aesthetic; it's reinforced by the cut scenes, which mix the in-game art style with old newsprint comic panels. There are even black ink dots in a few of the static scenes and loading screens. The animations are great when you're executing moves, and the slow motion in some shots does a good job of making mundane things feel more exciting than normal. The particle effects really grab your attention because they're implemented well and there's so much of it at all times. There's plenty of blood when zombie limbs are cut, but the abundance of glitter and rainbow arches on-screen at any one time is amazing.
The whole package isn't perfect, though. There are a few times when the camera isn't in the optimal position when dealing with large zombie hordes and some mid-boss fights. There's also the issue of object fade. There are very few cases where the objects fade in from a distance, but when they do, the dithering effect makes it look cheap. The same goes for objects that fade out, such as cut trees and rescued classmates. Admittedly, the use of the effect is better than simply having the objects vanish immediately, but using a different effect for the same purpose would've looked better.
Like most Suda51 games, Lollipop Chainsaw is an acquired taste. There might not be too many people who will be fine with the short gameplay length, the humor and dialogue may be offensive to some players, and the scattershot mix of minigames and combat may not sit well with those who are looking for a more straightforward title. Lollipop Chainsaw is very hilarious if you're into that style of humor, and the combat system is enjoyable while the score attack system encourages replay. It is a lot of fun, and action fans who are open to trying something out of the ordinary will enjoy this game.
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