Lollipop Chainsaw Review
When it comes to making weird ideas blossom into big budget games, few developers out there can boast about it quite like Japanese developer Goichi Suda, AKA Suda51, can. The creator of Shadows of the Damned, No More Heroes, and Killer7 is back with a new game poking fun at Americanized cheerleader, zombie, and popular culture, with his signature oddball style, weird sexual tones, and action-focused gameplay. Lollipop Chainsaw riffs off of creations like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it does some very strange things that become what I feel quickly becomes the most charming (or off-putting, if it doesn't appeal to you) thing about the whole game. While it's nice change to have a game that focuses on its weirdness and characters over RPG elements or combo systems, it does help to have both if we can, and only once in a while does Lollipop Chainsaw fire on all cylinders.
The game takes place in suburban America during a zombie apocalypse. With this outbreak, high school cheerleader and trained zombie killer Juliet Starling gets to fulfill her destiny to clean up the mess. On the way, hopefully she can also save lives along with her boyfriend, who after a very short while into the game, winds up as a disembodied head hanging from her belt, kept alive by a magic ritual she had to do to save his life. Juliet's big weapon is her chainsaw which happens to double as her purse, as an early part of the game has her pulling her phone out of the chainsaw's body to answer a call. And if you're wondering, these are far from the strangest things that happens in this game. Juliet's other weapon is her set of pompoms, and she collects lollipops that she can use to refill her health. The enemies are of course zombies, and the player will use quick attacks with the pompoms and heavy attacks with the chainsaw, along with both jumping attacks and low sweeps, to take on the horde and slice her way through them. And when you mow through all of these zombies, each kill releases big pink hearts and showers of glitter, because, well... because this game is made by Suda51. That's why.
Throughout the game you'll find the 18-year-old Juliet to be sexualized in a silly way that borrows from old exploitation films, and this comes through in her movements, the characters' dialogue, and the style of voice acting. At first it was a bit strange to me, but I realized quickly that this is entirely based on a stereotype of American high school TV shows and movies, although it seems to be borrowing from Buffy the most when it comes to the irreverent theme and style of humor. The difference here is that Suda51, at the helm of studio Grasshopper Manufacture, will often take this ridiculousness even further than any American TV shows have.
The action is usually frantic, with the game being plenty difficult the first time through on easy mode, especially if you're not an expert at 3D beat-em-ups like Bayonetta and the current Ninja Gaiden series. If you're not already familiar with games like these, I do recommend you begin on easy mode, and only turn it up when you feel like you can get through most fights having only taken one or two hits at most. Having the ability to dodge around and get temporary invincibility during the animation is hugely important here, as zombies will gladly stomp all over you if you let them, even while you've got an active combo on one. For this reason, you'll need to move around a lot to stay safe and stop yourself from getting surrounded; sure, the chainsaw does sweep in a big arc to hit multiple enemies, but it's slow to swing and you'll almost always be open to attack from one side or another.
Carving through zombies is of course the main goal of the game, even though the plot takes you around Juliet's little town (and eventually a big city) to save as many people from the zombie horde as you can. Minute to minute, though, it's all about chopping the undead into pieces, with many sections stopping you and giving you a fixed number of zombies to finish off before you're allowed to progress. And while the game doesn't throw up big red walls to limit your movement, you'll still usually be trapped in some kind of limited area pretty often. Secret stuff comes by way of taking out special named zombies in the Sparkle Hunter mode, which you activate by building up a meter and then unleashing with your right trigger. Other upgrades and bonuses, including a pretty amusing gun to use here and there, come eventually, but none of it really vastly changes the way Lollipop Chainsaw plays.
With all of that said, I tried to compare Lollipop Chainsaw with games like Bayonetta, and very quickly I realized that as a pure zen-like action experience, Lollipop Chainsaw just comes up a bit short. The level design and overall atmosphere can fall apart here and there, especially since the zombie theme has been worn kind of thin in recent years. At this point, developers that choose to go with zombies as the main enemies really need to be building some serious immersion or delivering constant, fun gimmicks to stand out. In that respect, Grasshopper doesn't always succeed.
If you've already gone through games like Bayonetta a dozen or more times and you're looking for more tight, slick action games, well, that's where Lollipop Chainsaw can come in, as the game grades you on your performance in pretty fine detail - and then you can compete with your friends on leaderboards with the grades you get. Still, the game runs at 30fps and doesn't seem to have quite the tight controls and action that we often expect from Japanese action game developers, and it's pretty short on top of that, so you'd really need to want to go back through the game at higher difficulties to really get your money's worth. Lollipop Chainsaw has some fun thematic gimmicks and a rather amusing story and setup, but if it can't stand on its gameplay (which it struggles with at some points), then I can't really recommend a full-price purchase. Pick it up if you're a serious Japanese action fan, but if not, then at least wait until it's on sale.