As video games become a more popular medium for people to create in, and as they expand into new areas, many trends are becoming extremely popular amongst developers. Online multiplayer, character upgrade systems, and hidden collectibles: these examples have seen integration into nearly all of the games we play whether they be the next triple-A blockbuster or cost-effective indie titles. But there is one fad that plagues the game industry: yearly sequels. Luckily for us, one man named Suda 51 and his team at Grasshopper Manufacture have been delivering quirky, new intellectual properties for us gamers such as No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned, and most recently Lollipop Chainsaw.
Boobies! And Zombies!
Just looking at the title is enough to convince the average person this isn’t your boilerplate Call of Duty or Halo. No, Lollipop Chainsaw basks itself in the charm that Suda consistently laces his games with, along with some heavy sexualization and retro funk. Of course, one of the defining features in a Suda game is a completely over-the-top and insane story. Lollipop Chainsaw stars Juliet Starling, a cheerleader for San Romero High celebrating her 18th birthday on the day the story takes place. As the pandemonium starts, Juliet is on her way to meet her boyfriend Nick at school when she arrives to find zombies overrunning the campus, and she must fight her way through the crowd to find her boyfriend. Oh did I mention that the Juliet's relatives are all zombie slayers? Yes, just two minutes into the game and Suda has already made his mark on the story. Unfortunately, by the time that Juliet reaches Nick, he has been bitten by a zombie, and to save him she decapitates him and places the head on a stand hanging from the back of her skirt. Right up against her butt. The rest of the game focuses on the couple slaughtering their way through zombies to stop Swan (the main antagonist) from destroying the world, but Lollipop Chainsaw gets too wrapped up in style and presentation to bother forming a decent plot.
One of the shining things about the style though is the vivid characters. As I previously mentioned, the Starling family is a group of zombie slayers, and their personalities are equally appropriate for the nature of their “job.” Juliet is a peppy cheerleader that absolutely loves Nick, her older sister is a muted version of Juliet that loves rifles, and their younger sister is an amplified version of them that will make you hate every sixteen-year-old ever born. The plot also includes their father, a man that embodies Elvis in almost every way, Juliet’s sensei, a perverted man that is Juliet’s zombie slaying teacher, and of course Nick, the bodiless boyfriend who isn’t in on the zombie slaying traditions of the family. These eccentric characters bring the tepid plot to life with their crazy antics and their shouty dialogue.
There is also a retro sensation to the style as well. The game is plastered with neon and pastels, making your zombie hunting feel as though you were in 1980s Miami. The main aesthetic, though, is lollipops. Everything from the collectibles, which are lollipops, to the health kits, which are lollipops, to the health bars, which are lollipops, is focused on lollipops. Even the UI design has lollipop striping, which I guess we should applaud Suda for his consistency. And my favorite stylistic touch is the music selection. Using Toni Basil’s "Mickey" every time you go into your special mode and Ronald & Ruby’s "Lollipop" for all of the menus is a great touch that surprisingly never gets old. Some of the other music sucks, but it at least falls in line with the puck, rock ’n’ roll and metal theme associated with the undead.
As with every Suda game, some elements of the presentation bog down Lollipop Chainsaw. I take major issue with the blatant, assuming sexualization in the game. As Juliet delivers the opening monologue, she introduces the player to her room but tells us not to try any funny stuff just because we’re there, even though she “doesn’t mind doing any funny stuff.” And as I previously stated, the decapitated head of her boyfriend Nick is resting directly on her ass, which he goes on to comment about at least two dozen times. Even the character of Juliet herself is heavily sexualized with her breasts and butt bursting from the outfits she wears. While I’m not one to complain about sexuality in games, the perverse nature of Lollipop Chainsaw rubs me the wrong way.
I don’t mind busty, curvy characters, or the fact that new outfits containing less fabric are purchasable rewards. But when you have an old sensei insisting that the hot, barely legal cheerleader wear white panties with little teddy bears on them because “they help her fight,” you have to question at what point it becomes too much. As you save one of the school children from the zombies, he exclaims “I’m going to masturbate to you tonight Juliet!” There is a cutoff when raunchy teen sex comedy becomes a little too eager and on-the-nose; Lollipop crosses that line within the first half-hour and continues to do so throughout the seven or eight hours of story. Hell, there’s even an achievement for looking up her skirt. The way that the bosses and antagonist always call you a “filthy cocksucker” or a “dirty whore” also made me uncomfortable and had me checking every so often to make sure I hadn’t become a misogynist. I’ll cede that not everything is bad. When Nick inquires if he can ask Juliet something personal, and she becomes excited just to be asked if she could remove his face from her butt, I gave a light laugh. Or even when Juliet’s father asks how Nick is going to help the family business and Juliet replies that he can use his “nimble” tongue, leading to an awkward 30 seconds, those moments aren’t overly awful, but when that’s the “clean” end of the scale, there’s something amiss about the game.
The graphics are another thing that I feel could have been a lot better about the game. For a title that uses the Unreal 3 engine, it sure does look grimy. The game uses a cell-shaded style very similar to Borderlands, although Borderlands didn’t look as mucky as this. If you catch the game at an awkward angle, then be prepared: it ain’t pretty. The character animations aren't terrible, despite the atrocious lip syncing. When it comes down to actual gameplay, the graphics aren’t nearly as bad as I depict them here, but the cutscenes using the in-game engine look especially bad.
But I must digress as there are good parts Lollipop Chainsaw too. And lucky for us, one of them is the gameplay. By this point you've probably figured out that Lollipop Chainsaw is about killing – or rather slaughtering – zombies. The third-person hack-and-slash compares to God of War, minus the swords and rampaging infected. There are three main attacks: a low chainsaw slash handy for lopping off undead legs, a normal chainsaw slash serving as Juliet's main attack, and her pom-poms ideal for dazing zombies and later, instant kills. Juliet can also use all three of these attacks in conjunction with her dodge/jump to create new attacks such as the dropkick (jump then pom-poms).
The game also allows you to purchase new combo from predetermined locations unlocked as you progress through the game. Rather than string together huge combos like a typical God of War, the main point of the combat is "Sparkle Hunting” which occurs when Juliet kills three or more infected with a single strike. This earns Juliet bronze zombie medals, which in turn can be used to purchase things, and they also earn her much rarer silver zombie medals depending on how many she kills at once. The combat in the game feels good, although sometimes too many animations get cued up and you lose precise control, meaning you’ll have to wait through a few more motions before you can attack again.
And yet the combat goes deeper than that. Juliet also has a meter that, when full, allows her to go on a killing spree where every zombie – not including bosses – only takes one hit to kill. This meter replenishes quickly and comes in handy against tougher zombies or when you really want to rack up the Sparkle Hunting. Juliet also gets upgrades for her chainsaw periodically that grant her new abilities. These upgrades include a sprint mode – where Juliet digs her chainsaw into the ground and speeds around – and a launcher for small grenades. Finally, Juliet can also bring Nick into the combat with a “Nick Ticket” that spins a roulette determining how she uses him. The attacks are different, but they all act as a way for Juliet to dizzy zombies and kill them more easily. These attacks all help the combat feel more varied, but sometimes you’ll forget to use them because you’ll be too focused on killing what’s in front of you.
Of course, how fun the killing is depends on what you’re killing. As I said earlier, all the enemies are zombies. There are your typical sluggish undead, that only take a few hits to fell, but then there are also special infected with health bars, weapons, and the occasional named zombies that are logged as collected once you defeat them. Once you’ve cleaned out all the fodder from the stage, you are left to fight a boss. While inventive, they almost feel a tad too easy. With the exception of the last one, these undead masters follow the same rule of three that Japanese games have been following for ages. Empty the health bar, go through a sawing animation, empty another health bar, another sawing animation, another health bar, then the final kill shot. While the bosses might be a tad easy, the real fun in them is the design. For example, the first boss you fight is a punk rock zombie named Zed, and one of his attacks is throwing giant letters that spell out things like “dirty slut” and “filthy whore” that you then have to dodge. I don’t appreciate the misogyny of it, but the concept is cool nonetheless.
As with any video game that came out in the past five years, Lollipop Chainsaw comes with an upgrade system to spec out Juliet how you like. The upgrading is done at specific locations in the game where you can stop to shop at shop2chop.zom. Here you can use the bronze zombie medals to purchase physical upgrades for Juliet such as health, strength, and recovery speed, or you can buy new combos for Juliet to use in fighting. You can also buy artificial things like new costumes, MP3s, and concept art with the rarer silver zombie medals. The one problem that I have with the upgrade system is that until you’ve unlocked a few certain combos, the combat gets bland after a while.
Finally we arrive at the stats. This game has an unhealthy addiction to stats and I love it. Everything that you do is recorded somewhere. The game tracks all the types of zombies you killed, all the special, named zombies that you’ve killed, and even all of the little telephone calls that you receive that give you advice. There is also a leaderboard system in place that ranks you amongst the world, but also within your own in-game family. If you beat the top score – who is always your father – then you unlock new stuff at the store. After every stage you beat you get a score card ranking you own zombie medals, Sparkle Hunting, completion time, the score for that level, and then it tallies it up for you and puts it on the leaderboards. This was a smart move by the developers because it gives the game replayability since there is no online multiplayer.
Some odds and ends to the gameplay are saving students from zombies – whom you must save all of to get the good ending --, racing around using the sprint upgrade to the chainsaw, collecting special lollipops, and plopping Nick’s head onto random zombie bodies to have him break down a wall to progress. These are all fine, but there is nothing spectacular about them. I should also mention that this game loves its quick time events and will make you do them often, although they at least give you enough time that I very rarely ever messed up.
To conclude, Lollipop Chainsaw is a game that I could easily recommend to someone. While the sexual overtones become a bit unbearable sometimes, the hack-and-slash action is spot on, and the eccentric style was a breath of fresh air. If you can overlook the muddy graphics and perverse innuendos, then Lollipop Chainsaw is at least worth a rent if not just to try something different that is also coincidentally fun to play.
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Release Date: June 12, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3