When Suda51 says he’s going to develop a game, I listen. Throughout his career, the director has displayed a panache for unusual, mind trippy games involving assassins, demon hunters and otakus. With Lollipop Chainsaw, he can now add cheerleaders to the list. When details about his new project started trickling out, it sounded like it was hitting all the right beats: Zombie hunting cheerleader? Okay. Disembodied head of her boyfriend? Sure. Rock gods as the primary antagonists? Hell, why not? Although I am happy to have experienced yet another Suda51 creation, the problem I had with Lollipop Chainsaw is that its style and presentation greatly outweigh the average, by-the-numbers gameplay experience.
Juliet Starling is the most beautiful girl at San Romero High School. Having just turned eighteen years old, she wants nothing more than to celebrate her birthday with Nick, the love of her life. However, a sudden outbreak of zombies threatens to ruin the idyllic, lovey dovey day Juliet was hoping for especially when Nick is bitten by one of the creatures. Thanks to some quick thinking, Juliet saves Nick by cutting off his head and keeping safely attached to her hip. Together, along with Juliet’s zombie hunting family, they must uncover the source of the plague and help save the world, one peppy cheer at a time.
Lollipop Chainsaw is a score based third person hack and slash/brawler that plays very much like the on foot sequences in No More Heroes. There’s an old school vibe that permeates throughout the game’s linear stages as Juliet must take out small groups of zombies before a big, flashing arrow points the direction to her next melee. The adventure is broken up into six different levels, each designed around the personalities of the ethereal villains our heroine must defeat. Throughout her travels, Juliet will be called upon to save students from attacking zombies and failing to do so will result in those victims turning into stronger zombies. At the end of each level, Juliet will come face to face with one of the rock gods and engage in a multi-stage battle to the death. Afterwards, the game will compile the scores for a number of different categories and attach a rank to your completion stats. Levels can then be replayed to earn better rankings.
Typical of the genre, Juliet is armed with high and low attacks and can stun enemies by striking them with her pom-poms. At the start of the game, Juliet will only have a small number of combo moves at her disposal, but collecting Zombie Medals from fallen corpses will allow you to purchase new moves along with health items and other stat boosters. For every zombie Juliet kills, a power meter will fill up that, when activated, allows for easy one hit kills and better chances to perform a Sparkle Hunt attack, providing you can decapitate three or more zombies at the same time, and earn extra medals. Despite being a disembodied head, Nick can be used in battle and help Juliet get through environmental obstacles. Using Nick Tickets will open a roulette-style mini-game that will unleash different types of special attacks. From time to time, Juliet will need help getting past areas that she can’t cut through with her chainsaw and for that, she will put Nick’s head on specially marked zombies which will initiate a quick time event sequence (fair warning: you’ll be doing a lot of these). Additional gameplay deviations include short, sport related mini-games that require you to reach a target score within a short time window.
Lollipop Chainsaw is a Lisa Frank folder come to life. While most of the game makes use of a somewhat drab color palette, there’s an added layer of neon pink, rainbows and sparkles that make Lollipop Chainsaw a dazzling spectacle. Every swing of the chainsaw gives off a rainbow tinged trail and Juliet’s pom-poms shine with yellow sparkles after each hit. Zombies bleed red, but in some situations neon pink liquid and hearts ooze from their bloody stumps. Juliet herself has some really fluid animations as she chops, leapfrogs and spin kicks her foes. She’ll even perform short, choreographed cheer moves after each pom-pom strike.
The major players in the game are presented in vivid detail and designed to accentuate their strange personalities. Juliet Starling, the sexy cheerleader with an self-image problem, constantly has her body presented in all sorts of provocative ways (try to look up her skirt though and she covers up). Each of the evil rock gods are modeled after a musical genre, be it metal, punk or hip hop and make for a good snapshot of their chosen musical theme. For a game set in an a fictional American small town, however, it’s hard to not notice the decidedly Japanese-looking gestures Juliet and her sisters make. If you’ve seen an anime or two, you’ll notice all the little quirks: flashing a peace sign over the face, sharply nodding during conversations, etc. etc.
Lollipop Chainsaw is fun, if not slightly bland. While she’s not as graceful as Bayonetta, watching Juliet perform all sorts of crazy acrobatics gets to be pretty entertaining. My Little Pony fans out there will probably enjoy hearing Tara Strong (who voices Twilight Sparkle) shout out all sorts of Valley Girl-tinged expletives and sexually suggestive exclamations. New music by Akira Yamaoka is backed up by a few licensed tracks from different genres like metal and rockabilly as well as some odd inclusions, like “Pac Man Fever” by Buckner and Garcia and “Mickey” by Toni Basil. Your feelings towards the classic tune “Lollipop” by the Chordettes will certainly be affirmed by the end of the game.
As bland as the button mashy combat can get, there are moments of satisfaction in pulling off a devastating Sparkle Hunt move. Where the game tends to falter a bit are the mini-games, specifically Zombie Baseball. Remember that bit in Shadows of the Damned where Garcia F. Hotspur had to fend off giant monsters in a neon-flooded sex metropolis? Remember how many times you had to play through that? That’s pretty much what Zombie Baseball is. After acquiring the Blaster Cannon mod, you’ll have to defend Nick as he uses a zombie’s body to round the bases three times, each run getting progressively difficult as more and more zombies enter the fray. It certainly doesn’t help that the fire and reload rate of the Blaster Cannon isn’t very quick.
Compounding this frustration is a janky aiming system. When you press the aim button, the reticule will auto lock on the closest target in your vicinity. Well, sometimes. During the baseball run, it was common for me to move the camera toward third base and press the lock button only for it to zip back to first base and target a zombie in that area, leaving Nick vulnerable to an attack. It took me about five tries to get through the sequence and by the end of it, I wasn’t a happy camper. The poor aiming system also affects a particular boss battle, resulting in a few cheap hits. Additional technical hiccups, such as long load times and poor camera control in tighter areas and corner, make for some degree of frustration. These annoyances aren’t enough to unhinge the entire game (mercifully, you’ll only play one round of Zombie Baseball), but they are hard to not notice.
One thought that nagged at me during my playthrough was the notion that Lollipop Chainsaw, for all its wackiness and general “what the fu*kery,” feels decidedly more subdued than Suda51’s previous games. Granted, the premise and situations are ridiculous enough (example: fighting zombies in an arcade leads to Pac-Man and Pong-inspired levels, a mixture of modern and retro pop culture references, a villain who speaks in autotune) and there are odd, nonsensical Suda51 trappings such as Juliet receiving non-essential phone messages from her family. In spite of all this, the game seems to lack the over the top surprises and genuine off kilter-ness of Killer7 and Shadows of the Damned. Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps I’m simply getting used to Suda51’s unique and twisted direction.
Lollipop Chainsaw is an average brawler made interesting and memorable by a slick, sickly sweet presentation. It does what it set out to do: tell a goofy zombie story starring a lollipop-loving cheerleader who dispatches her foes with cutesy gusto. The gameplay doesn’t really do anything to set itself apart from other games of the genre and in some cases, it feels like Suda51 is dipping from his own well. I should also point out that the game is pretty short. I completed it in about three evenings and the only reason I would go back to the game now is to unlock more moves, costumes, concept art and get the perfect ending (yes, there’s a bad ending and I got it first!). Lollipop Chainsaw certainly isn’t bad, but it could certainly have done so much more.
As far as Suda51 experiences go, previous games have done a better job showing off his approach to game direction. Perhaps it is due to him collaborating with screenwriter James Gunn, but the game just feels - and I apologize for using the word - mainstream. This is no critique on Gunn (the script is good), but the experience, to me, is like seeing David Lynch step away from his unique style of film to do a light hearted romantic comedy. The idea sounds interesting at first, but in the end you can’t shake the feeling that something just isn’t right.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.