Lollipop Chainsaw is the kind of game I dread having to review. Not because I necessarily dislike the game, and not because I foresee it becoming the center of yet another trite videogame review controversy. I dread these kinds of game because attempting to describe them is just so difficult. No words will ever truly do them justice, and no description can ever adequately substitute for a firsthand experience.
Experiencing Lollipop Chainsaw firsthand, however, is something that I believe almost all of you ought to do. Few products are as dedicated to fun as this, bearing as it does the soul of games that many of us gladly tossed quarters into at the local bowling alley, so many years ago. Its similarities to other games are abundant, but as many games as it can be compared to, Lollipop Chainsaw defies a suitable description. It is, at once, like so many titles out there, and so unlike anything else.
Now I have to try and review the damn thing.
Lollipop Chainsaw (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Released: June 12, 2012
Juliet Starling is a high school cheerleader who has just turned eighteen. She has a loving boyfriend, a popular social position, and a fondness for lollipops. She's also one of three zombie hunting sisters who were born into a long lineage of heroes forever opposed to the undead. Armed with pom-poms, and a chainsaw far too big for even a professional wrestler to wield, Juliet is the ultimate nemesis of all who seek to invade Earth from the fittingly named Rotten World.
Never once does Lollipop Chainsaw even attempt to take itself seriously. Its protagonist is overly sexualized to such a comical degree that it feels less like genuine perversion and more like the product of a miniskirt-fetishist on a mescaline binge. The undead opponents are torn straight from Return of the Living Dead. They talk, loudly and ridiculously, and their zombie overlords consist of punk rockers, viking drummers, and malevolent hippies. The soundtrack is glorious in its stupidity, at once featuring original compositions from Akira Yamaoka and Little Jimmy Urine alongside kitch pop songs such as "Mickey" and "Pac-Man Fever."
This is, without a doubt, the stupidest game I have ever played.
I also think I am in love with it.
Lollipop Chainsaw is a score attack game, born from the very essence of the arcade classics we played as children. While it is fundamentally a third-person beat 'em up, all I could think about while playing the game was House of the Dead and Crazy Taxi. From HotD, we obviously have the zombies, but we also have civilians who need to be rescued before the undead claim them, and who will reward the player should they be saved. From Crazy Taxi, the pop music and colorful art style are hard to ignore, while the fast-paced need to complete objectives against the clock add to the similarities. Lollipop Chainsaw is, to me, a cross between both of these SEGA arcade games, despite being neither a shooting or driving game. It's all about the spirit, which this game possesses in spades.
Juliet uses both cheerleading pom-poms and her oversized chainsaw to deal with vast hordes of decaying cannibals. The pom-poms deal minor damage, but sustained attacks can send zombies into a groggy state, allowing them to be instantly decapitated by Juliet's chainsaw. While it may make sense to just use the chainsaw and cut the enemies to pieces, there is a tactical advantage to making groups groggy, as decapitating three or more opponents at once initiates "Sparkle Hunting," multiplying the score and helping to boost the end-of-level grade. Downed zombies drop zombie coins, which come in both gold and platinum varieties. These coins unlock passive upgrades, new attack combos, and optional content such as music for personal playlists or extra costumes for Juliet.
Although commands are very simple (no combo is overly complex), there's a lot of variety to Juliet's attacks, making use of both varied button input and contextual situations to add a ton of diversity to the battles. Juliet can attack with both high and low chainsaw swings, hop over enemies' heads, and combine these skills with regular attacks in order to unlock some powerful moves. For instance, if a zombie loses a limb or two, they become vulnerable enough for Juliet to jump over them and swing the chainsaw up between their legs, cutting them in two. By jumping and hitting the low attack button, crawling zombies can be impaled with a brutal and lengthy finisher. As more attacks are purchased at the store, the arsenal expands and becomes evermore visually stunning.
Juliet has a power meter that fills whenever she collects stars from slaughtered zombies which, when full, can be triggered for temporary invincibility, instantly deadly attacks, and the aforementioned playing of "Mickey" -- which is really the sole reason you need for activating it. Juliet also gets added help in the form of Nick -- her boyfriend who becomes a living head after an early decapitation. By collecting Nick Tickets, players can initiate a roulette wheel at any time, which allows for temporary head-based attacks if successful.
Progression through each level consists mostly of hacking and slashing, rescuing San Romero students, and partaking in the odd minigame. While I appreciate the desire to break up the action, most of these minigames are somewhat infuriating and serve only to destroy the flow of an otherwise enthralling series of battles. It doesn't help that failure to meet their sometimes unclear and strictly time-limited objectives can mean an instant game over and return to a checkpoint (which affects that all-important rank at the end). I can do without being forced into a shooting section/glorified escort mission halfway through what is one of the fastest and most delicious stages in the entire game. That said, the way the playstyle switches up during a level set in an arcade emporium makes up for the bad eggs in the rest of the bunch.
At the end of each stage, Juliet will face one of the Dark Purveyors -- powerful zombies who have been invoked by the local goth kid, Swan. These boss battles, fought in multiple stages as the Purveyors change their tactics, are among some of the best I have ever fought. Whether it's battling a punk rocker who can turn his words into physical weapons, or an auto-tuned funk master who transforms his entire world into an arcade game full of pixel bombs and neon colors, these battles are huge, inventive, and violent. Beating every single one is supremely satisfying, since you get to dig your chainsaw in and drive it through their bodies by pulling the analog stick in the indicated direction and tapping furiously on a button.
At times, Lollipop Chainsaw can be quite agitating. Although Juliet can dodge, her ability to defend is still rather weak, especially when faced with so many opponents onscreen that it is impossible to see where the attacks are coming from. Many zombies can shrug off attacks and fight through them, while the same cannot be said for Juliet, making it exasperatingly difficult to pull off some of the more powerful and crucial crowd-clearing attacks. At times, Juliet can get up from one attack only to be smacked right back down by another, and each time the player will need to hammer a button to get her up again. There are plenty of healing lollipops to keep Juliet from death, but when trying to go for high scores, it can be a real pain to deal with the less combo-friendly opposition.
The camera, too, can get in the way of the action. While it generally does a decent job of following the action, it can struggle to keep up with fast-moving enemies, especially when players are trying to lock onto them. The camera is also needlessly slow when manually moved, and there is no way to boost its sensitivity.
These bedevilments aside, Lollipop Chainsaw is one of the most fun games I've had the privilege of playing. The demented humor of Grasshopper Manufacture has never made less sense nor been more amusing, and I was laughing at the ludicrousness filling my screen within minutes of play. The clashing colors, assaulting screams, cringeworthy quips, and eclectic music combine to form what is an absolute sensory overload. Lollipop Chainsaw walks the thin line between pleasantly chaotic and just too much, but never crosses it. It's not content to stay in one place and will change gears on the player at a moment's notice, a gleeful glint in its eye and a confident knowledge that, whatever it does, even if it annoys you, it'll still have you grinning before the day is out.
There is one sizable detail, however, that will cause a significant rift between this game's potential audience -- the length. It falls on me to tell you that, on a first play, you'll likely get this game cleared between five and six hours. I know, I know, that is a short game. However, this is a game designed for replay. It's an arcade game built for scoring and leaderboard domination. After clearing the story and more than likely seeing only the bad ending, there is still a lot to do. Lots more music, costumes, and upgrades to buy, and a ton of high scores to beat. As well as attaining the highest grade you can, you also have Juliet's dad's score to contend with, the beating of which unlocks further prizes. Above all, the game is just too enjoyable to play once, so as far as I am concerned, this is at least a ten hour game, as opposed to five. Your mileage will vary, so if first-play length is crucial to you, at least you know the deal. It is not crucial to me, not when I'm planning to keep playing after the credits roll.
Lollipop Chainsaw is, mechanically, the most accessible game Grasshopper has ever made. The combat is intuitive, solid, and made to raise a smile. Thematically, this may be the most impregnable and insane yet. Making rainbows shoot from the ripped-open necks of zombies while The Human League is blasting through one's speakers is an experience that defies all human sense. As weird as it may be, however, there is a very nicely crafted game running underneath, one that provides a consistently intense sense of power and brutality wrapped in a cartoon package. After so many years, Suda 51 and his team have finally struck a near perfect balance between oddity and playability in a way that should delight those with an open mind and a strong stomach for inanity.
As a piece of entertainment, Lollipop Chainsaw is something truly memorable -- shameless, camp, idiotic, and so very enchanting. As a game, it is a celebration of the arcade era, an era when games felt free to be outrageous without worrying about being taken seriously or making even the vaguest lick of sense. As something to review, it is not deserving of the dread I wrote about at the beginning of the article. As it turns out, trying to describe Lollipop Chainsaw is half the fun. Talking about it is a joy. Playing it, even more so. It's one of the straight-up dumbest games you will ever encounter, but at the end of the day, it proves one thing ...
Just because something is dumb, that doesn't mean it can't be brilliant.