Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Lollipop Chainsaw

Xbox 360 / PS3

Lollipop Chainsaw
Juliet Starling's chainsaw-fueled zombie-killing adventure through San Romero high school often feels as empowering as it does insulting.

It's difficult to hate Grasshopper Manufacture or Suda51, because you know, whatever they do, they are being completely earnest about it. Nothing in Lollipop Chainsaw feels like a cash grab (indeed, the Grasshopper Manufacture catalog is filled with games that have "grabbed" precious little cash). These are a group of guys who love zombies, and 80s music, and Americana in general. When they populate a level with Japanese rockabilly zombie thugs you know their heart is in the right place.

So you can't get mad at them, per se, when they have their missteps -- hey, they're trying their best! -- but, when a rescued student shouts "I never thought I'd be saved by someone with such great tits!" or a foul-mouthed punk rock zombie, repeats his three or four "bitch" "slut" and "whore" portmanteaus a hundred-plus times, it's hard not to feel exasperated.

You've probably started on the wrong foot with the main character, Juliet Starling, having seen her in turgid lead-up advertisements where she is presented, literally, as an anatomically correct robot doll that exists solely for the pleasure of three horrific nerds. In reality, Juliet more fits the mold of the ditzy-yet-competent Cher Horowitz or (movie-style) Buffy the Vampire Slayer. By day, she's a mild-mannered cheerleader, but when satanic zombies assault her school, she switches into chainsaw mode.

And you know what? She's actually kind of charming. Juliet evinces a "can-do!" attitude and a shrewd competency when the chips are down. Garcia Hotspur, of Grasshopper's Shadows of the Damned, welded together strings of profanity and incessant "taste my big boner" refrains that sounded like a bunch of writers trying way too hard. By comparison, Juliet's satisfyingly genuine worldview and complete lack of cynicism flies in the face of the rest of the game's lewd assholes.

But they keep finding ways to ruin it. The miserable, stapled-on oral fixation (lollipops, guys, really?) feels neither fun nor funny and the incessant self-digs about the size of her ass fall completely flat. For every classmate who shouts something innocuous and silly like "I'm gonna friend you on Facebook!" there's another who slobbers out "I'm totally going to masturbate to you to tonight!" and you're forced to remember you're playing a Grasshopper game, and these guys never know when to call it quits.

Still, her unironic way of shouting "OMG!" when decapitating a string of zombies is cute, and never gets tired and, this is the important bit: is indicative of a vivacious and fun-loving personality that makes you think "I like this character" in a way that no one has ever thought about Marcus Fenix or Sam Fisher or Kratos, the God of War.

And it ties in nicely with her combat style, where her sprightly cheer attacks daze zombies with pom-poms and leaves them open for instant chainsaw decapitation. Enemy variety is greater than expected: firemen zombies, and auto-tune zombies, and boombox-toting zombies, and Pacman-alikes, and they're rotated with enough frequency that you never think "ugh, another pack of cheerleaders/baseball players/math teachers." The interplay between light and heavy attacks is a solid feedback loop, and it's a all damned-sight more mechanically sound than the average Grasshopper game, but that's not a particularly high bar. It's primary problems: limited movesets and repetition are somewhat excused by its short playtime.

And it's short because it wants to be a score-attack game. Juliet's primary goal is Sparkle Hunting: a charmingly quasi-English label for the act of decapitating chains of three or more zombies at the same time. These skilled takedowns are followed by a rainbow-laced cutscene and a huge spike in score and money. The game provides options of "score attack" "time attack" and "coin attack" for cleared stages, but they all boil down to the same method: Sparkle Hunting combos.

It's a goal that, at least on a first playthrough, teeters between just-enough and too-much effort. Before certain key moves are unlocked, corralling and dazing several zombies into the range of a single chainsaw swing takes a disproportionate amount of time for the rewards granted. Yet paradoxically, putting in the effort of getting Sparkle Hunting chains is nigh-on required in order to scrounge up the cash to buy the moves that make Sparkle Hunting exciting instead of exhausting, even if the combination leapfrog-and-dropkick cuts the perfect middle ground between cheerleading and combat.

Simply put: after you've mastered the basic attack patterns, things sink into a serious lull until you earn enough money to buy the really cool abilities, at which point the fun skyrockets and the game abruptly ends after the next level. The primary issue with Lollipop Chainsaw's combat is that all the awesome stuff shows up in fits and jerks. What would be basic moves in other games require huge amounts of zombie-killing cash to purchase here. Even the most bread and butter action game combos, a light-light-heavy combination, for example, are locked in the shop when they really should've been available from the start.

The second-to-last stage unlocks a couple super-fun, super-effective pom-pom and chainsaw combinations that are a prime example of the game's stingy nature. The ultimate combo, which ends with Juliet doing jump rope hops over her chainsaw as it murders every zombie in a 360 degree radius, is so damned cool there's no reason it shouldn't have been part of the basic movelist. Instead, it's unlocked so late and requires such an insulting amount of money that the game is basically over by the time you get it.

The whole thing ends just about when the bag of tricks has run out. Along the way, Juliet has killed a whole lot of zombies and shown a whole lot of skin. Exploitation films, the game's most obvious influence, sometimes hit an extremely small target of "empowering" in the middle of a whole field of "asinine" or "insulting." Lollipop Chainsaw has the style down-pat, but the cultural climate of 2012 is very different from that of the 60s and 70s. The skin-flashes and swear words tend to lack social impact and the game misses its mark more often than it hits it.

As such, Lollipop Chainsaw becomes a curio instead of a classic. Like a Tarantino film, it understands the mood and the mechanics of exploitation -- with its coy references to George Romero and Lucio Fulci and its zombie-killing sprees set to Toni Basil and Joan Jett and Dragonforce, whose choice of music induces smiles 20% more often than it does eyerolls -- but it bears none of the immediate cultural resonance that made Night of the Living Dead, or even something like Foxy Brown, stand the test of time.

There's something to be said for Juliet, when she's compared to the faceless morass of average female videogame characters, but, Juliet's characterization is inextricably bound up in the world around her, which is filled with the same masturbation-obsessed schlubby nerds from the game's advertising campaign.

It's never quite certain if the commentary is on purpose or just a happy accident. Is the boss whose attacks are physical instantiations of words like "slut" and "whore" an examination of the way those words are used... or was he just created by bunch of immature dudes who really like slinging profanity around? Both interpretations are valid, maybe even both at the same time.

That's the problem with anything Suda51-related, isn't it? These games tend to fumble around in blind leaps until they, awkward and wheezing, cross a nebulous finish line somewhere between incisive commentary and exceptionally poor taste. Lollipop Chainsaw is better written than most of his library, and it's got more in the way of gameplay mechanics than Killer 7 or Shadows of the Damned, but it's impossible to recommend it without reservation.

When you want to recommend something by Grasshopper Manufacture there's always an "if..." or a "but..." somewhere in the sentence. Even though Suda51 didn't direct this game it's got his influence writ large all over it: it's in the coarse language and the larger-than-life bosses and the miserable camera angles during combat and the nit-picky Japanese interpretation of American pop culture.

Is Lollipop Chainsaw worth the effort? Sometimes, it is. It is fun when, eventually, it gets its ass into gear. And it is endearing, when it isn't actively working towards ruining its main character. What's perhaps most important is there's something, maybe just a little thing, that's actually thoughtful about Lollipop Chainsaw. It might be intentional and it might not be, but here is a game whose very existence poses some pointed questions about sexuality, and femininity, and what we've come to accept as women in games. That's a good thing, regardless of the quality of the game, but it is often difficult to rationalize in the face of the panty shots and the lollipop sucking. Is it enough to ask the hard questions out of one side of your mouth while regurgitating the same tired tropes out of the other?

Overall : C
Graphics : B
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : C+
Presentation : B-

+ (eventually) satisfying score attack modes, top-notch soundtrack featuring new work by Akira Yamaoka in addition to licensed songs
not much game outside of challenge modes, writing varies wildly in quality from moment to moment

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