Nobody will ever accuse Suda51, the twisted mind responsible for Killer7, No More Heroes and Shadows of the Damned, of subtlety. Videogame development’s equivalent of Quentin Tarantino has never met an F-bomb, decapitated head or crimson shower of blood he wouldn’t showcase seven times over.
All of these and more are front and center in Lollipop Chainsaw, an utterly bizarre and over-the-top action game that wraps its sex-and-violence sundae in a shiny rainbow sheen…and nearly sinks it all with a way-too sexist vibe.
The vapid and irresistibly upbeat center of the action is Juliet Starling, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the zombie set, if Sarah Michelle Gellar had been wearing skimpy cheerleader outfits and sporting a Poulan-5000 instead of spandex and a stake. Juliet’s in the middle of the Worst Birthday Ever: Her beloved San Romero High School has been utterly overrun by brain-munchers and she’s been forced to perform an emergency decapitation to save her beloved boyfriend. What’s a girl to do but crank up the chainsaw and kick some major zombie ass?
Lollipop Chainsaw leads with typical Suda51 lunacy, but its combat is where the fun’s hanging out. Juliet’s attacks alternate between bashing zombies with her pom-poms and slashing at them with her chainsaw. Decapitation’s the only way to take a zombie out, and that first requires stunning, which means combos, combos and more combos . Assuming you’re deft with your moves and can avoid getting hit, it’s possible to string together some surprisingly long attack chains, reducing a crowd of ten-plus zombies to so much sparkling dust in a matter of minutes.
Juliet leapfrogs and backflips around with a grace and aplomb Kirsten Dunst could only wish for, zipping over the heads of zombies that once were her classmates, janitors and teachers. Time your combos just right and you can segue from a vertical leapfrog straight into splitting a zombie in half. Multiple decapitations lead into a rainbow-inflected effect called Sparkle Hunting, where score bonuses abound and zombie heads fly like ping-pong balls in a lottery bin. Just make sure you’re touting as many health-boosting lollipops as possible at all times—these zombie hordes don’t do mid-level save points.
As you’d expect from a Suda51 creation, this Lollipop oozes clever style, beginning with the comic-panel presentation, which shows up everywhere from the game menus to the arrows and “SOS!” balloons that announce that another kid from Juliet’s English class is about to become the daily special in the zombie cafeteria. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is stone-cold essential, running the gamut from classic ‘50s (The Chordettes’ “Lollipop” plays in the items/upgrade store) to ‘80s cheese (Toni Basil’s “Mickey”) and punkalicious (Sleigh Bells, Joan Jett and Five Finger Death Punch). It’s pretty rare to have an action game with a soundtrack honed this sharp.
If the classroom and hallway zombie encounters begin to blur together at points, the boss battles are completely inspired, jacking the lunacy factor through the ceiling. Having to dodge attacks formed by the letters of the words the punk-rock zombie boss is howling at Juliet is brilliant and clever. So are some of the weird mini-games that break up the action, like a basketball game in which Juliet has to zing the decapitated noggins of zombie basketball players through the hoop. I wish the same sort or creativity had been applied to fleshing out the members of Juliet’s zombie-hunting family, who instead get relegated to the role of an underdeveloped upgrade-delivery system.
The real star of the show is Juliet’s quarterback boyfriend Nick, who spends all but a few minutes of the game as a disembodied head attached to Juliet’s waist. While he offers plenty of gameplay utility—at various points, Juliet can stick him on decapitated zombies to solve puzzles, whip him around like a weapon or score bonuses by using him in bizarre mini-games. His dopey/insightful commentary and bons mots (“Juliet, I only know one word in Japanese”) are a stark contrast to Juliet, whose flat characterization never manages to rise above brainless bimbo/insult target. Put it this way: She’s lucky she’s such a badass with the chainsaw.
If it isn’t already obvious by now, Lollipop Chainsaw double-dog dares you to wallow in the depths of its copious sex and violence, riffing gleefully at every clumsy sexist remark and flip of Juliet’s cheerleader skirt. At first, this sucker-in-cheek approach complements the crazy mood; before very long, the ick factor adds up and infects the proceedings for the worse. By the time the fifteenth zombie has called Juliet a whore and you’ve encountered her sensei, who comes off like an uber-lecherous version of 70s-era Cheech Marin, any urge to nervously nudge and laugh off the escalating misogyny has basically left the building with the rest of the survivors. You thought the copious use of the B-word was a bummer in Batman: Arkham City? Dude, Arkham’s worst offenders have nothing on the zombies and students of San Romero High. Ugh.
It didn’t have to be this way. Garcia Hotspur and Travis Touchdown were also lecherous and unlikable, but they were also deeper and fully defined characters whose shortcomings and slaverings invited us into the joke as part of a bigger and more complex package. Juliet, the bodacious blank, is the joke, one that’s driven into the ground until not only is it no longer funny, it’s actually kind of nauseating.
When the whirr dies down and the last zombie’s been separated from his head, Lollipop Chainsaw is a narrow triumph of style over a (lack of) character substance. The combat, boss battles and gritty grindhouse style are a batshit joy to experience. But don’t be surprised if there’s a bad taste in your mouth to complement the blood on your shoes.
+ Music and in-game menus are filled with typical Suda grindhouse goodness
+ Boss battles are epic and entertaining
+ Combat chains amp the zombie-kill thrills
– Juvenile, sexist humor wears out its icky welcome faster than an exploding zombie-bomb.
– Lack of save points is a lollipop bummer
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PS3
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Release Date: 6/12/2012
ESRB Rating: Mature
Source: Review copy provided by publisher