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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Xbox 360 review: Lollipop Chainsaw


Following the formula of No More Heroes, Grasshopper Manufacture's Lollipop Chainsaw is equal parts violent hack-and-slash and comedic romp through the zombie-infested city of San Romero. Juliet Starling arrives at school on her eighteenth birthday to discover that an emo student named Swan has unleashed the armies of the undead. Juliet - born into a family of zombie hunters - fights her way through the sea of zombies until she finds her boyfriend Nick, who - attempting to protect Juliet - becomes infected himself. Very much in love with Nick, Juliet performs a magical spell that allows her to remove Nick's head and keep him alive, while his body cannot be saved. Chainsaw in-hand and Nick's decapitated head hanging from her belt, Juliet vows to undo Swan's work.

Juliet avoids typical blonde ditz clich├ęs due to the fact that she is a Zombie Hunter and has a game plan in mind with each new peril she faces. Some of her behavior does come across as silly, but that is primarily a result of her innocent nature combined with her bloody line of work. These two opposing forces allow her to become a truly memorable protagonist, and quite a likeable one at that. Nick is a source of great humor as well, considering he is more or less along for the ride, and is well aware that he is by far the most normal and sane member fighting the undead - the rest of whom are all members of Juliet's family. He constantly quips about his lack of a body, but also acts as eyes in Juliet's blind spots, rooting her on as she dishes pain to the zombie masses.


The games' jokes and one-liners bounce back and forth between stupid and uninspired to rather clever set-ups. Some NPCs swear simply for the sake of reminding players that Lollipop Chainsaw is an M-rated game, while the majority of Juliet and Nick's conversations are as cutesy as they are awkward and entertaining. Each of the boss characters represents a different genre of music, with most bearing a resemblance to a specific famous musician. These character designs, as well as much of the dialogue, are far less subtle parodies than what Grasshopper Manufacture presented in No More Heroes. While Lollipop Chainsaw may not win any awards as a comedic work, the B-movie atmosphere is consistent and the game does not take itself too seriously, despite the writers seeming to think it is more cleverly-scripted at times than it actually is.

While the earliest levels take place in bubbly cheerleader/zombie hunter protagonist's high school, later stages explore the greater area surrounding the school. Most stages incorporate some sort of minigame element, though the core of the gameplay lies in pom-pom hits, chainsaw swings, and the resulting combos you can chain together. Certain attacks will be unlocked as part of the game's natural progression, but most will be unlocked through the in-game store by spending medals earned from zombie hunting. This allows for a significant degree of freedom, as players can effectively unlock new combos at their leisure, making each person's individual playthrough unique. The gameplay may not be as fluid or exciting as the likes of No More Heroes, but it certainly holds its own in following a similar formula to the combat system in games like Devil May Cry.


Nick's head can occasionally be attached to an empty zombie body to open new pathways for Juliet. Using these will prompt a sort of quick-time event that requires players to press specific buttons one after another. It's rather dull, and each of these Nick-on-a-headless-zombie sections must be completed to progress through the entirely-linear game. On the other hand, Juliet can collect Nick Tickets throughout the game which can be spent on a few different attacks that utilize Nick's head, from firing him out of a popper cannon, to spinning him around on a ribbon. These will cause a fair amount of damage to foes and some even grant Juliet temporary damage resistance, acting as an alternative to her other powerful attack that results from chaining enough kills and filling the chainsaw gauge. Once the chainsaw gauge is filled, Juliet can temporarily power up her swings and slashes, making them rainbow colored and briefly granting her invincibility. Decapitating three or more zombies at once rewards Juliet with a large sum of medals, and this is made much easier in her powered-up state.

While the fighting is largely repetitive, the game mixes the experience up by placing environmental barriers that Juliet must cut down, encouraging players to race across rooftops with the chainsaw dash ability, and placing Juliet within classic arcade games like Pong and Pac-Man. Each boss fight has multiple phases and distinguishes itself from the others very well. One element the whole experience seems to lack is something to properly connect the different stages. The story does well enough to explain why Juliet and Nick land on a farm and need to scale a skyscraper-sized arcade, but each level feels like it could have been expanded upon. The game only lasts around six hours, and while it does encourage multiple playthroughs for completionists, there seem to be a lot of missed opportunities on the part of the development team. The game also lacks much of a challenge factor. For fans of typical action hack-and-slash games, the normal difficulty setting will be a walk in the park, and even rookies of the genre will likely find the challenge at least a little underwhelming. Meanwhile, the harder difficulty settings do little more than restrict your stock of health-rejuvenating lollipops.


Graphically, the game looks okay - nothing more, nothing less. There is a subtle cel-shaded look that layers everything, adding to the comic book style the game tends to lean toward in its overall artistic presentation. While character models are well-animated, textures and character models themselves do not look particularly good when compared to many other games of this generation - due in large part to the aging of the Unreal Engine - and the game's brightly-colored environments do little to mask this visual shortcoming. On the other hand, the soundtrack is a standout part of the game's presentation. The original score is upbeat and action-oriented, while licensed tracks like Toni Basil's "Mickey", Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)", and Skrillex's "Rock n' Roll (Will Take You to the Mountain)" are plain fun to listen to and add an extra level of pep and silliness to the cheerleader-driven narrative. Though few and far between, there are a handful of moments where the audio mixing becomes very unbalanced, and it is difficult to hear scripted dialogue over environmental noises.

There are ranking modes and plenty of unlockable costumes, but the core of the experience lies in playing through the story. A single playthrough of Lollipop Chainsaw will only last a few hours, which may be a deal breaker for some, especially when stacked up against its contemporaries. Fans of Grasshopper Manufacture and Suda51's previous work will no doubt feel at home, though they may not be laughing quite as hard nor as often as usual. Lollipop Chainsaw is fun, fast-paced, and the individual levels are well-developed. Unfortunately, the game lacks significant extra substance to land it a spot comparable to other games of its kind.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)

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