Game Review: Lollipop Chainsaw
Suda51 and grasshopper manufacture are possibly the most underrated game company out there at the minute, for despite having such games as Killer7, No More Heroes and Shadows of the Damned (all critically acclaimed) they have never really had a big success. If the current UK charts are anything to go by then Lollipop Chainsaw may be the game to change that.
Yes, that’s a trailer in my textual review, but I felt it necessary for you to see what this game is before I started talking about. Already you probably have an idea of whether or not you’re going to like this game by how much you like the idea of purposely immature over the top cartoon violence with a hint of exploitation. Some of you will have already stopped reading because it isn’t your kind of thing, after all this is as far from games-as-art as that argument could probably get. Their loss I say, because what Lollipop Chainsaw really is, is a stupidly fun, potentially clever parody of everything from misogyny to misandry to pop culture to videogames themselves.
Let’s start with the basics. Yes you do play as a cheerleader who appears to be wearing a uniform a little small for her – Juliet Starling – and yes it is often used for fanservice with the more than occasional upskirt shot or down top view, but it also treads a very fine line between being actually exploitative and parodying the nature of exploitation. Which side of the line you see it on, however, will be down to your personal view, whether you take it as overly gratuitous or see it as a silly bit of fun at other characters expense.
Juliet and her family are zombie hunters. We never learn how or why they started hunting zombies; all we know is it’s the family business, and to be honest that’s all we need to know. The story throughout is decidedly standard fare, but it is well written and comedic to the point that you will actually enjoy the cut scenes between missions. What really grabs your attention are the characters, and the dialogue between them. While it may consist mainly of references to other mediums such as music and the internet, it all serves to help the world be slightly more relatable to the player, so we can understand in our own terms what’s going on, and leads to many observations about the modern world in doing so. For example during a particularly gruesome protection of some students one remarks that they’re filming the encounter to put up on YouTube. A quick joke, but also something that points out something we tend to forget – no matter how dark or terrible a situation, someone will always be ready to put it on the internet.
Most of the in game banter, however, comes from Nick, Juliet’s boyfriend, who for the vast majority of the playtime is nothing more than a decapitated head hanging from Juliet’s backside. The poor guy can often be heard terrified at the over the top situation Juliet willing throws herself into, but will always be ready with a snarky comment or general banter, breaking up the combat with a little humanisation of the carnage and comedy relief. Juliet’s family serve little more than comedy value and upgrade dispersal as well, though the scenes with Juliet’s father are some of the best in the game, with the father-daughter bond and father-boyfriend hostility being taken to comical degrees.
All in all it’s a very very Suda51 game, though with the help of James Gunn its also a little more refined and reigned in, which leads it to be possibly one of the most relatable and understandable Grasshopper games to date.
This over-the-top attitude carries over to the gameplay as well. While mechanically shallow compared to games such as God of War or Devil May Cry, Lollipop Chainsaw manages to make the combat feel fun throughout the entirety of its playtime. This is achieved through a sense of satisfaction that the game has managed to capture. Despite the few combos available being simple, and often times you’ll find yourself relying on one or two in particular, when you start splitting the un-dead in half or chopping off their heads in a shower of rainbow hearts you can’t help but smile and want to do it again.
Juliet is limited to only two standard weapon types, pom-poms and her titular chainsaw. Pom-poms act as very low damage quick attacks that are mainly used to stun an enemy, while the chainsaw is used to deal the actual damage. Stunning enemies allows for them to be instantly killed with a chainsaw attack, so pom-pom attacks are often invaluable for large groups you want to whittle down quickly. However, another element known as sparkle hunting also adds a twist onto the slaughter. If you manage to kill 3 or more zombies in a single attack you’ll be rewarded with extra gold and platinum medals (the games currency) and a better end of stage rank. Getting the zombies down to little enough health for a lot of them to be killed in unison is nigh oh impossible (especially on higher difficulties) and as such stunning them is often the only way to achieve this with any regularity, though stunning them in proximity for a single attack can also be a hassle.
Despite only having two standard weapons that doesn’t mean Juliet’s arsenal can’t grow a little. After a certain point in the game you will have access to a chainsaw blaster, basically a limited ammo long range weapon that if used correctly can be seriously overpowered. Word of advice, you’ll want to go into the options menu and turn off the auto-aim for the blaster, otherwise you’ll be locking on to enemies you don’t want to aim at and will have to wrestle the controls to even make an accurate shot. The game forgets to mention this, and without manual aim enabled most of the blaster required segments are an almost unplayable mess of frustration. With full control, however, it adds an extra dimension to the combat and allows some distance to be maintained.
Along with her chainsaw and blaster Juliet also has an ace up her sleeve, on more precisely hanging from her skirt – Nick. Nick, or what’s left of him, can be used as a weapon through the use of Nick tickets. Akin to special attacks, these are chosen from a roulette wheel and range from using him as a whip to shaking him for money to shooting his head at enemies. While rarely used, these can often come in handy for large groups, with most of these attacks being stun attacks, leading into the ability to rack up some sparkle hunting points. Although you may wish to keep some tickets in reserve as upon death a Nick ticket can be used as a choice for revival, again using the roulette wheel (another mechanic the game forgets to mention). Nick also is of use when his head is attached to a zombie body, allowing for a quick cheerleading QTE segment to destroy a barrier or launch Juliet to a higher platform. These are often enough that they can be a little bit too much of a break in pacing but are ultimately inoffensive overall.
Racking up kills also fills a special meter that when triggered allows for instant decapitations (all set to the tune of Hey Mickey). This is chance to be the main way anybody racks up sparkle hunts outside of using the power combos on normal or easy difficulty.
Upgrading Juliet in Lollipop Chainsaw is achieved through spending hard earned zombie medals at stores situated throughout the games 7 stages. While the store has possibly the catchiest background music of any in game store ever, they can be rare, often not appearing for extended stretches of a stage. On sale are new combos, health/strength/recovery/homing upgrades, Nick tickets, health recovering lollipops, new costumes, new background music and artwork.
“New background music?” I hear you wonder. Yes, in a nice addition that more games should have you can customise the backing music from any unlocked tracks from the entire game, which in my case ended up with a constant loop of “You Spin me Right Round Baby, Right Round” at one point.
Outside of the combat there is little else to do in Lollipop Chainsaw. Being a linear game there are no side quests like No More Heroes, though it does have collectables in the way of lollipops and named zombies, although being a Suda51 game at one point there is the obligatory retro-styled gameplay switch, though to tell you when or what would spoil the experience.
Graphically the game looks good. Utilising a very subtle degree of cell shading the game has the look and feel of a comic book, with the menu and loading screens even consisting of motion comic like animation. Each stage has its own unique feel and never repeats an environment from earlier, which keeps things feeling refreshing.
Design wise a lot of the game seems a little subdued, with the zombies being very stereotypical, and the bosses, while interesting, lack that certain something a lot of Suda bosses have. While each boss is their own musical genre, they are all very human like, showing the dress sense and attitude of that particular culture without taking it to any sort of extreme or parody. The fights themselves can often involve a small puzzle element but can often degrade into dodge, hit, dodge, hit, dodge, win. This never takes away the fun factor from eth combat though, with every hit feeling satisfying as the health bars noticeably go down (a satisfying sign of progress) and after a final gruesome chainsaw attack theres a wave of glee as the rainbow hearts start pouring out of wounds.
Bottom line, Lollipop Chainsaw is just fun. There is no way this game didn’t start with someone buying Suda a Buffy box set. It never takes itself seriously, being very-self away of what it is and what’s its doing allows it to exaggerate a lot of its content for laughs, although it can often seem like its coming off as little more than pseudo-sexual gratification with the likes of Juliet. In the end it will all come down to which side of the parody-exploitation line you think the games falls on.