As many in the game industry (as well as those outside looking in) reflect on the tropes and treatment of women in games (and to a fair extent women and girl gamers), Lollipop Chainsaw hits the scene as a title that is, by design, guilty of the same tropes while gleefully upending them. Like Baoynetta, Lollipop Chainsaw is super aware of the kind of exploitative, hyper-sexual game it is, while at the same time giving us a giddily competent (and upbeat) heroine in chainsaw wielding zombie hunter Juliet Starling rambling around through an endless stream of horror and rock references, all set to a fantastic soundtrack.
Whether you think Suda51 and creative director/writer James Gunn went too far over the top or that they hit the sweet spot with winking at the audience just enough, it’s a game whose content, points of reference, and ideas will be worth talking about for a while. It’s a shame, though, that this is all wrapped around an actual game that’s occasionally a chore to play, thanks to some clunky hack and slash action and a camera that constitutes maybe the most challenging enemy in the entire game.
Zombies have attacked San Romero high school, many of her classmates are dying, dead, or the living dead, and she’s had to decapitate her boyfriend Nick to ultimately save his life—cheerleader Juliet Starling is having a rough birthday. It’s not all bad: Nick ends up making a handy weapon and helper by being able to take over the body of several headless bodies, and her zombie hunting sisters and father show up throughout to pass along presents that happen to be very helpful weapons.
The actual plot of Lollipop Chainsaw isn’t exactly what you’d call deep (disgruntled goth is angry at the world, unleashes a potential apocalypse), and while some of the connective tissue of the plot is missing (villain Swan knows Juliet but we don’t see any of their previous interactions making his beef seem weak), the mood, dialog, and bouncy energy of the game keep it aloft. Peppered throughout are all sorts of obvious winks and nods to horror and music (with the occasional more general pop culture nod thrown out there), meaning every location, every music cue, every joke is loaded in some way, that makes you want to discover where the whole thing lurches towards next.
If it’s taken me this long to get to the mechanics of actually chopping zombies to bits, it’s because like No More Heroes, Lollipop Chainsaw is a way better idea for a game than what’s actually playable. Juliet has four basic attacks: a stun move with her pompoms to daze enemies using the X button (I played this on the 360), a low chainsaw attack to cut off enemies’ legs and kill crawling zombies using A, a leapfrog move to jump over zombies’ heads using B, and a heavy chainsaw attack mapped to Y. You can chain these together to create combos and buy new moves at shop locations strung throughout the game (along with clothes, music, and power ups). But you’ll spend most of your time trying to keep Juliet away from crowds of zombies so you can execute those moves. In and of itself, this is kind of cool, but given the way the camera whips around and how busy the action gets, it’s easy to miss when a zombie’s slightly too close for comfort, putting your chainsaw-wielding cheerleader in danger.
Unlike other melee action-based games, this one isn’t focused on combos as a measure of skillful fighting—instead, Lollipop Chainsaw provides the greatest award (in the form of coins and medals for use in the shop) for multi-enemy decapitations. Again, a cool idea, but in practice, given the lackluster responsiveness of Juliet’s moves (and again, that camera), you’re not really provided with the tools to herd zombies together to do this with any kind of consistency. There’s a special attack meter filled with stars earned by killing zombies that will allow you to deliver one-hit kills, and it’s in these times that you have the most success here, but more often than not, it’s a losing proposition.
The excellent ideas that don’t always shake out continue in the five boss battles, four of which are structured almost identically (you hack away at the boss until you’re able to cut them to pieces, they reform and come back tougher). In nearly every instance, the challenge from the boss fight will come from figuring out how to properly evade the enemy and land an attack with the unreliable targeting system, but the setpieces that give each their context (the first boss, for instance, hits you with 3D words), are clever and well worth playing through the game just to reach.
On top of all of that, you can replay the levels to raise your final score and potentially reach one of multiple endings (there are at least two that I’m aware of), as well as more moves, power ups, and costumes that you probably couldn’t unlock the first time through.
It’s a funny game helped by an excellent voice cast
Gunn staffed the Lollipop Chainsaw cast with a few vets from his films, most notably the wonderful Mr. Michael Rooker as a demonic Viking. That, along with the oddboall tone of the game and the terrific interplay between Juliet and Nick make the game worth the price of admission.
It’s just not always fun to play
The clunky controls, the fights that are challenging for technical and not design-related reasons both put a real damper on the experience. It’s not shoddy by any stretch, but some extra polish and thought about how Juliet moves would have benefited Lollipop Chainsaw.
In the same way that No More Heroes was Grasshopper’s game about otaku culture, Lollipop Chainsaw is about horror tropes and rock and roll. And like No More Heroes before it, this pop culture blender leads to a host of imaginative setpieces that don’t necessarily play all that thrillingly. Weirdly, in spite of the imprecise combat, the challenging camera, and the hassle of targeting enemies, I’m still going to play through Lollipop Chainsaw again. It’s ripe, there’s a lot to catch in the game, all kinds of small, curious details, and if you’re a horror fan, you owe it to yourself to at least check it out and see this East meets West homage to sex, blood, and rock and roll.
Lollipop Chainsaw is available now for the Xbox 360 and PS3.