Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture / Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment / Played on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language]
Despite being a well-made game, I wouldn’t recommend Lollipop Chainsaw to just anyone. While the pulpy presentation and bizarre humor stands on its own well enough, the game’s real meat is in a score-based ranking mode. There aren’t a lot of gamers out there that love competing for higher scores, but if you’ve ever replayed a level five times just to squeeze out that higher rank, Lollipop is your kind of jam.
As indicated by the smirking, chainsaw-toting cheerleader on the game’s cover, Lollipop Chainsaw is not a subtle game. You play as Juliet Starling, middle sister in a family of zombie hunters who must subvert a plot by an angry goth kid to destroy the world. You can’t say anything about the game’s story or setting without it sounding absurd — for instance, shortly after being bitten, Juliet must behead her boyfriend Nick to prevent him from zombifying. Naturally, she loves him too much to let him die, so she casts a spell allowing his disembodied head to survive… which she then wears as a charm from her waist.
Lollipop’s presentation is all about the aggressive, pulpy punk of the 80s. The entire game is styled like a comic book, complete with paneled pause menu and a visual filter that gives the whole game that dot-matrix shadowed look. The game (like many of Suda’s works) is also steeped in music culture. Each of the game’s zombie villain bosses represent music genres, like the hippie zombie that waits at the end of a farm filled with psychedelic mushrooms. It’s sort of like Mega Man… but with zombies and chainsaws.
And while this will surprise no one, Lollipop is a sexual game, though not how you’d expect. The game’s pre-release trailers may imply pantyshots a’plenty, but the game’s sexuality differs from the typical jigglefest you’d find in, say, a Team Ninja game. For instance, Juliet introduces her dad as a DILF and credits her mom as the woman that taught her and her sisters to “wear our vaginas proudly.” Sure, this is a game about a scantily-clad cheerleader killing zombies, but the game frequently avoids the low-hanging fruit and opts for more universal sexual references. As someone that is rather burned out on hyper-sexualized female video game characters, I appreciated it.
All of the expected beat-’em-up mainstays are present in Lollipop Chainsaw. You can gradually unlock stat upgrades and new combos with the gold medals that erupt from dead zombies, and a variety of enemies force you to adapt your attacks to successfully clear out combos of enemy types. Those mechanics hang together well enough to carry the game through seven stages and around six hours of play time, but the real depth hits in the game’s ranking mode.
If you kill three or more zombies in a single chainsaw swipe, you’ll get a “Sparkle Hunt” bonus of medals (don’t ask me why they call it that). If you have more zombies or harder zombies in the Sparkle Hunt, you’ll get a larger bonus. When you angle for these bonuses, the game is no longer about repeating the most powerful combo you have, but employing each of your combos surgically to corral zombies into one area and whittle their health down before laying the killing blow. It works extremely well too — every time you play a level, you’ll get better ideas of when to activate Juliet’s hyper mode (which causes “Mickey” by Toni Basil to play, ‘natch) or use particular combos instead of others. It reminds me a lot of playing Child of Eden or other shoot-‘em-ups where repetition and perfection become extremely gratifying.
That repetition is encouraged by adding new enemies and collectibles on harder difficulties. I laughed when I first saw an old lady zombie with a stroller hobbling up to me in the first stage, then freaked out when she ran me over with it and it took about half my health. The game holds tons of little secrets that you can still discover on your second or third play through, provided you’re interested in investing the time.
Executing combos in Lollipop is easy and straightforward, but there are some annoying problems surrounding the basics. Camera control is unwieldy, as it will sometimes swivel around to avoid popping through a wall and turn away from an incoming horde of zombies. You can lock the camera on to an enemy, but when you’re fighting groups of 10 or more, that’s not especially useful. The camera is super touchy too, which compounds the problem. I’d often try to pull the camera back around but end up over-adjusting.
The other big problem is with Juliet’s chainsaw blaster — a gun that pulls the camera to the over-the-shoulder view. The target locks on to enemies so stringently that it’s extremely difficult to aim at anything else, and I experienced a few situations when the lock-on point wasn’t actually on the zombie, making all of the shots whiff.
VISUALS AND SOUND
Generally you have to trade lacking production values for charm when it comes to a Suda 51 joint, but Lollipop Chainsaw looks and sounds amazing. Since the game embodies 80s pop music, it’s only fitting that the game is astoundingly colorful. Like, in a vomiting rainbows sort of way. Activating a Sparkle Hunt temporarily warps Juliet and her zombie victims into a trans-dimensional area of space filled with stars and rainbows… it’s just visually amazing. The boss designs are astounding as well; I can’t wait to see a crew of cosplayers recreating Juliet and her oddball family.
Lollipop’s soundtrack manages to outdo its visuals by combining licensed tracks from bands like Dragonforce and MSTRKRFT with an original score from Akira Yamaoka. While a majority of the soundtrack is thrashing metal — which makes for amazing zombie-killing jams — each stage also incorporates musical influences from its dominating theme. The aforementioned psychedelic rock works in lilting guitar riffs while the funk stage adds in tons of jazzy electronic synth. This is easily my favorite soundtrack from Yamaoka, and I loved the shit out of Shadows of the Damned’s score.
If you want to crank through a game once, enjoy the trip, and then leave it behind, Lollipop Chainsaw won’t give you much bang for your buck. The game is crafted like a shoot-‘em-up, meaning you really need to dig in and master it to understand where its value lies. If you have the temperance for that type of play, Lollipop Chainsaw is one of the best brawlers in the last few years. Combine that with an effortless sense of humor and Suda 51’s one-of-a-kind style, and you have gaming perfection for the right kind of gamer.