Lollipop Chainsaw (PS3, 360) — Review

The latest Grasshopper joint.

A lot of gamers these days like to bemoan the trend of games built out of set pieces and quick time events that publishers call “cinematic” and “visceral”. After playing through Lollipop Chainsaw I have to admit that this style of game direction is actually a pretty good fit for Grasshopper manufacture.

The game is a fitting collaboration between the personality of Suda 51’s games like Killer 7 or No More Heroes, and the writing of James Gunn of Dawn of the Dead (2004) fame. Typically when someone puts out one of these “cinematic experiences” with some big-name writer it translates into gameplay that feels less interactive with decent-but-typical writing on top, a good Japanese example being Ace Combat Assault Horizon. At least in the case of Chainsaw we get a sincerely entertaining “cinematic experience” out of the deal.

The latest player character to come out of Grasshopper is Juliet Starling – a high school cheerleader who was raised by zombie hunters to kill the evil supernatural. In the midst of an attempted zombie apocalypse she must do just that with a chainsaw she flings around like a broadsword and the help of the still-talking decapitated head of her boyfriend Nick.

Now when I say “cinematic experience” I’m mainly talking about relatively thin gameplay broken up by faux mechanics and QTEs with a lot of in-game banter between characters wrapped around it. When you’re using a chainsaw in either this game or Gears of War to break down a barrier, you’re performing a canned action in exactly the way the game wants you to, which removes what would be special about deciding to tear a door down with a chainsaw. But like I said, I may bemoan this in most triple-A games that do it, but it’s a good fit for Grasshopper.

At least since Killer 7, Grasshopper’s games have been mainly known for how much personality they have in their story, characters, art direction, and gameplay. Their games never have particularly deep or challenging gameplay, but in NMH it still feels cool when the player gets to transform into a tiger and maul enemies to death with 8-bit sound effects in the background.

Chainsaw oozes this kind of personality from the moment you press start as the different options come up in the form of sliding comic book panels with “Cherry Bomb” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts playing in the background. That continues straight through the game’s entire user interface, its loading screens, and what have you. The whole thing manages to look different and fresh if you’re just coming off of another military shooter.

To this end, Chainsaw even makes really good use of Unreal Engine 3. After seeing this and Shadows of the Damned, Grasshopper seems to really know their way around the engine that so many blame for the grayness and brownness of modern games. Chainsaw in-game comes off as a colorful, inspired comic rendition of 80’s/90’s American high school with some 70’s horror exploitation for good measure.

The character models and environments in this slightly cel-shaded style all look great and Grasshopper even employed some decent anti-aliasing. Chainsaw is one of those games that make you think the graphics of current generation consoles don’t look quite so old yet if developers just knew how to skillfully employ some art direction.

The narrative part of how Grasshopper’s style slides into “cinematic experience” game design – James Gunn’s writing, works really well. Expectedly, the banter between Juliet and Nick forms the backbone of the game’s writing. Never mind the rarity of a video game protagonist who is in a stable relationship that stays intact throughout the game, Chainsaw’s dialogue is built on jokes that work, especially for gamers and geeks, without coming off as exploitative.

The mechanical side of Chainsaw’s personality plays like a descendant of No More Heroes’ hack n’ slash action with its own brand of weirdness. Juliet’s fighting style is based on cheerleader movements right down to the stances at the end of her combos. Her chainsaw eventually doubles as a gun and a rocket booster of sorts, which the game employs in a lot of set pieces and mini games like having to play basketball with the decapitated heads of zombies. I’ve heard difficulty complaints comparing these to the “big boner” mini game from Damned but I personally didn’t have that much trouble with them.

Between zombie baseball, zombie harvesting, QTEs, and chain sawing objects though, you eventually realize that you’re still spending most of your time slashing around in a relatively simplistic combat system, similar to a lot of shooters or in Grasshopper’s case, NMH.

To Chainsaw’s credit, its fighting system does feel more challenging than that of NMH with stronger enemies and a more demanding scoring mechanic. The goal in Chainsaw’s mainline combat is to decapitate zombies with special combos to get coins with which to unlock better combos and costumes. It actually turns out to be compelling enough to encourage multiple runs through the game, if for no other reason than to unlock all Juliet’s costumes, of which there are a lot. The system still pales in comparison to titles like Bayonetta or Ninja Gaiden though, and Chainsaw’s boss battles are frankly a cakewalk compared to the ones in NMH.

If you’re a fan of Grasshopper and Suda 51 you should already have a general idea of what to expect in Lollipop Chainsaw – a legitimately funny game with just enough gameplay to keep it going and even keep you coming back. In today’s world of cinematic games that seem to have just enough gameplay to keep them going, Chainsaw seems to fit right in and stand out at the same time.