Scantily clad, chainsaw-wielding, freshly legal cheerleader... check. Vulgar-quipping, wacked-out zombies... check. Outrageous, over-the-top, B-Movie quality styled dialogue... check. Disembodied head that acts as both special weapon and said chainsaw-wielding cheerleader's boyfriend... check. Yep - all the pieces are here indicating that Grasshopper Manufacture and the sadistically zany mastermind that is the creative director Goichi "Suda51" Suda have released a new game. But even if all the flare for another successful jam from Suda51's crew primes itself for some good ol' fashioned gaming fun, the beat can still be missed, apparently. What we're left with is the shell of what could have been another unique gem from the guys behind No More Heroes and Shadows of the Damned.
With what feels like the bastardized child of Joss Whedon and Quentin Tarantino, Lollipop Chainsaw throws you headlong into the tripped out zombie hunting family of the Starlings, with cheerleader Juliet celebrating her 18th birthday and taking center stage. With the script written by James Gunn (of the revamped Dawn of the Dead fame) and clearly influenced by the ridiculousness that is Goichi Suda, a hysterical, if cliched tale awaits you. A zombie outbreak has befallen Juliet's high school, San Romero (reference!).
Juliet's boyfriend Nick is soon bitten, and through Juliet's ingenious quick thinking she saves his life by decapitating and creating a disembodied head out of him. After some quick tutorial carnage of the local zombie population, Juliet soon discovers that her classmate and resident emo-goth (yes I know they're different... but not really) Swan has called upon the horrors of Rotten World (read: hell) to condemn the world of the living due to his obligatory ostracization. While the frame work may sound a bit dull and cliched, it's all hysterically relayed with some of the campiest dialogue to grace a "Suda51 joint." From vulgar one liners like "what the dick?!" and "I'm gonna fist your ass with my head," to many genuinely funny interactions between Juliet and her ever-increasingly strange zombie hunting family, to the surprisingly awesome decapitated head that is Nick, Lollipop Chainsaw hits its stride and blends the best that B-Zombie-Movies have to offer. Gunn and Suda collaborated for a pretty fantastic script, it's just too bad that's where the fun-train stops.
Where Lollipop Chainsaw possesses the same comedic style that the developer has become known for, it falls short of the quality gameplay that usually accompanies their games. Obviously with LC, the primary zombie killing tool is the chainsaw, yet I've never played a game where wielding the chainsaw against the horde was so unsatisfying. Hacking and slashing is a clunky affair, driven mostly by three or four button combos. Juliet also makes use of her cheerleading skills, providing a much faster, yet less deadly approach in repelling the undead via her pompoms, bursting with sparkles, glitter, and stars along the way.
Making use of both the chainsaw and pompoms is the key to victory, as her cheerleading attacks help to stun the zombies, enabling a one-hit-decapitation 95% of the time. While it all sounds great on paper, in action it succumbs to mediocrity. Chainsaw attacks are clumsily slow, which makes killing zombies especially boring. Even when sizable chunks of regularly available upgrades, which are admittedly pretty fun at first, become available, it fails to become anything better than an average hack and slash. Boss fights also do little to help the situation, as each one seems to be easier than the last, straight down to the final boss. And in a game where killing zombies is the primary objective, this isn't exactly a good thing.
Though pompom bashing and chainsawing your way through thousands of limbs is the main combat focus, the more enjoyable and unique aspects of the game save Lollipop Chainsaw from becoming a complete mess. Being a cheerleader takes some serious skills, and Juliet utilizes most of them, including some birthday presents from her crazed family and some special attacks using a certain bodiless head. Many of the cheer-tastic moves require timed button presses, but provide a refreshing change from the hack and slash monotony. Using Juliet's vaulting and trampoline abilities (and some extracurricular pole dancing skills) is surprisingly fun, and proves to be more entertaining than the bland combat. Comedy isn't neglected with Juliet's moves, for she uses Nick's head to throw on a headless zombie, hitting buttons to make Nick groove to her cheers, smashing an obstacle or launching Juliet high into the air. Not terribly original in terms of input, but amusing nonetheless.
Nick's head can further be used as a special attack, fueled by collectable and purchasable "Nick Tickets." One sees Nick's head being used as a party toy popper, and another sees him swung around like a tasseled baton. Juliet's alternative move-set provides for a more entertaining and satisfying experience, but because of the ineffectiveness of the main combat focus, it's hard to ever get into a good groove with the game.
Lollipop Chainsaw also features a relatively well-stocked shop, complete with stat upgrades, new combos, costumes, mp3s for the soundtrack, and concept art. Items can be bought with gold and platinum coins, which are found around each stage, dropped randomly by zombies, and given by the few survivors that require rescuing. A standard asset to any action adventure these days, the item shop isn't exactly original, but it does provide enough variety to help keep the game fresh - yet that's not really a problem given the length of the game.
With a prologue and six stages, and each stage easily cleared in well under an hour, the game clocks in at a measly 4-6 hours, and that's even with the hardest setting. Sure, there are four difficulties, a ranking mode that lets you compete against the rest of the world, plenty of items to purchase, and zombie and item locations change in different modes, but this does very little to justify such a short game. However, I guess it's a "blessing in disguise" (a $60 blessing) since it really doesn't let the repetition - something characteristically common in these games - set in.
Making the mediocre and unsatisfying combat feel worse is the fact that LC has an amazingly robust soundtrack fueling the entire game. Backed by some hard-hitting tracks like Dragonforce's "Heroes of Our Time," the awesomeness that is "Pac Man Fever," and specific boss tracks composed by Mindless Self Indulgence frontman Jimmy Urine, Chainsaw's music is a complete joy to listen to (besides Skrillex, that is). Most of the soundwork is pretty stellar, especially the voice actors' superb performances led by industry queen Tara Strong and lovable Grandma's Boy and Freaks and Geeks star Linda Cardellini. Their work is spot-on with the B-Movie styled script, gracing us with a torrent of laughs and absolute ludicrousness. Yet, where soundwork is ace, visually, Lollipop Chainsaw is a mixed bag. The main character models, Juliet, her family, and the creative bosses, are strikingly impressive, showcasing a detailed look and great animation. But when it comes to the normal zombies and level design, the game falls flat and fails in achieving the same level of quality.
Lollipop Chainsaw is a curious beast. On one hand, it's very easy to recommend this game and look past the flaws based solely upon the ridiculous story, but with the added greatness of the soundtrack, unique special attacks, and some seriously great voice work, it's almost a no-brainer. However, on the other hand, we have frustratingly slow combat, an embarrassingly short playtime, Skrillex, and no real lasting appeal. It's pretty difficult to tell you to pony up that $60. The best advice: if you're a true fan of Grasshopper Manufacturer and their previous efforts, then looking past the flaws that Lollipop Chainsaw contains shouldn't be a problem. If not, then save your money.
This review is based on a PlayStation 3 copy of Lollipop Chainsaw, provided by the publisher.