Thursday, June 21, 2012

New Review: Grasshopper Manufacture’s downward trend continues with Lollipop Chainsaw. Still has its fair share of fun, just not nearly enough to recommend it.

Suda 51 is one of my favorite developers, with some incredible games under his belt. Killer 7 was a disturbing masterpiece, and I mean that in the best possible way. No More Heroes was a lot of fun and a truly unique game, and I couldn’t have been happier to learn that it did well enough to bring Suda 51 and his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, into the public eye. It was with true excitement that I had looked forward to Grasshopper’s following games, though unfortunately, something happened after No More Heroes, and since then it hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride.

No More Heroes 2 left behind much of the original’s spirit and attitude as it attempted to appeal more to its predecessor’s critics than its fans, while Shadows of the Damned was a unique and memorable action/horror game unfortunately crippled by frustrating game design choices. Now comes their latest, a zombie-killing hack and slash that feels so lazily put together that it’s like they’ve stopped trying. The game’s not completely without merit and Suda 51’s crazy attitude is definitely on full display, but the writing and the gameplay are both so one-note and repetitive that even the developer’s most die-hard fans will be more than happy to see the end credits roll.

Things are not going well at San Romero High School. A Goth student who spent his high school years as an outcast has decided to retaliate against those who have wronged him, and sets a plan in motion to break open the gateway to Rotten World, unleashing a full-on zombie attack on the high school and, soon, the rest of the town. Cheerleader Juliet Starling and her family of zombie hunters plunge headfirst into the action; she’s armed with a chainsaw and her Sensei-trained knowledge of combat, while her family brings weapons and total insanity to the table. Oh, and Juliet also carries with her the head of her boyfriend, Nick, whom she decapitated to save from a zombie bite. He provides sarcastic commentary throughout the adventure, more or less playing the part that Johnson did in Shadows of the Damned.

It’s a fun setup, and there’s no shortage of cool undead bosses to fight, but it’s far below Suda 51’s talent as a writer. This is a guy who’s written what I think is one of the most compelling, twisted, and unpredictable storylines in the history of the medium with Killer 7, and here he’s just in non-stop joke mode. Much of the humor’s centered around Juliet’s sexiness and the way people inappropriately react to it, while other jokes reference everything from Katy Perry to My Chemical Romance, and they deliver laughs just about as often as they crash and burn. Suda 51 collaborated with Hollywood writer James Gunn (the Dawn of the Dead remake, Slither) on the script, and though I laughed a bunch while playing it, I have to say, I expected more from these two than a series of pole dancing jokes and Hot Topic references.

But Lollipop Chainsaw’s not meant to be taken seriously, that much is clear from the outset. The game’s actually structured a bit like an arcade game, with emphasis on replaying levels to boost your score on the online leaderboards; it even features endangered NPCs who you can rescue (if you’re quick enough) ala House of the Dead. The problem is that the gameplay’s just not fun enough to warrant the promised replay value. It’s never a good sign in a beat-em-up when you’re sick of the combat system about 15 minutes into the experience, and while the skills and powerups you can buy from shops improve things a good deal as the game goes on, there’s no getting around the fact that combat feels clunky and repetitive almost throughout. You progress through linear levels and take out wave upon wave of zombies, while gameplay variations such as the boss battles, Grasshopper Manufacture’s typical “video game” segments, not to mention Zombie Baseball, are as hit-or-miss as everything else is.

What keeps you going through the levels is the pacing; cutscenes are frequent, (though unskippable, even if you die and are watching them again, which is unfortunate) and Juliet and Nick’s back and forth banter is the source of a lot of laughs. In the age of Youtube, though, this alone doesn’t justify a purchase. Why buy a game with average gameplay if you can watch its best moments on the internet? Story’s always played a central role in Grasshopper Manufacture’s titles, and that’s awesome, especially when it’s penned by someone like Suda 51. But in this day and age you can’t just write some funny dialogue and call it a day, you have to design a game that also plays well, and that’s simply not the case here.

With the exception of the music (including Silent Hill’s Akira Yamaoka, not to mention an incredibly entertaining collection of licensed tracks and the always awesome Tara Strong voicing the main character) and voice acting, this just doesn’t feel like a $60 game. Though it’s running on the Unreal Engine 3 like Shadows of the Damned was, Lollipop Chainsaw looks like an upscaled Wii game for the most part. You take that into account along with its short length and simple gameplay and this feels like a digital title that you should be paying $20 for, not full price. It’s built for replay value; unlockable harder levels of play, tons of items to collect and purchase, plenty of choice in the customization of Juliet, but it needed stronger central gameplay to warrant the return trips, and playing through this again without the novelty of its storyline is about as unappealing to me as anything.
Verdict: Lollipop Chainsaw may have been made by some incredibly talented people, but it’s like they were on auto-pilot here. There are a few moments of inspiration, plenty of dialogue that will have you laughing out loud, plus a great soundtrack to ensure that your playthrough of Lollipop Chainsaw isn’t a total waste of time. There’s fun to be had, without a doubt, but not enough to make up for a stiff combat system, and definitely not enough to warrant a $60 purchase.

Presentation: A fun story with some hilarious dialogue from Suda 51 and James Gunn, though this is work far below the capabilities of each, I feel. The menus feature a cool comic book motif that I wish carried over to the visuals in the game itself. Jokes hit as often as they miss.

Graphics: Grasshopper Manufacture’s sense of style is muted here by a washed out color scheme and bland-looking enemies. Frequent load times on dull load screens. Carries the look of a last generation game upscaled to HD.

Gameplay: Combat plays like an even less fluid No More Heroes 2, and considering the large role that zombie-killing plays in Lollipop Chainsaw, this is a big issue. Upgradeable powerups and some fun mini-games shake things up but can’t make up for core gameplay that’s lacking in as many ways as this one’s is.

Sound: Definitely its strongest aspect. A killer soundtrack and fun voice acting brings some much-needed life to the proceedings.

Replay Value: This game was designed around multiple playthroughs, though how many people will take advantage of this remains to be seen. Game ended for me after a little over 5 hours, and in that time I’d definitely seen enough.

Overall: 5.5/10

(Note: This is a review of the Xbox 360 version. My reviews go on a .5 scale)


  1. wow that's really disappointing

  2. A bit, yeah. As a fan of Grasshopper Manufacture I was pretty let down by what I feel is something they could have developed in their sleep. As an XBLA/PSN game for $20 I may have felt differently but there's just not a $60 game here.