From 1960´s to 1980´s Grindhouse and Exploitation films were popular. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino even did an ode to those films not too long ago. These films contained everything fans loved about “B” movies, gratuitous violence either of a crude or comedic nature, sexual innuendo, foul language, and just some crazy shit you wouldn´t believe in any other type films. Lollipop Chainsaw is essentially the video game equivalent, a game that does not take itself too seriously but it has flaws people can evidently see. It really is up to the viewer to decide how many of those flaws they are willing to accept in order to progress through the game. Lollipop Chainsaw also has the developer credit of Grasshopper Manufacture and some production from Suda 51 (Killer 7, No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned.) James Gunn is also the writer for Lollipop Chainsaw, who has the Dawn of the Dead remake and Slither to his horror writing credit line. So, by this point, you are either salivating at the thought of all this craftsmanship coming together for one game or hating the mention of their names. My point is, it does not really matter what I say in this review, you already love or hate this game.
Lollipop Chainsaw follows the story of Juliet Starling, who happens to be from a family of Zombie Hunters, which started with her Rockabilly Father and continues all the way down to her youngest sister Rosalind. Supposedly this head cheerleader of the San Romero Knights has a 3.4 GPA and loves her jock boyfriend Nick. It does not take long to figure out Juliet´s character varies a tad from your run of the mill happy 18 year-old high school girl, I mean she has been killing zombies since she was six months old for goodness sakes. Juliet spends the first few minutes inviting the player coyly into her bedroom and the next minute she is riding her bicycle to school while Zombies get crushed into the wheels and smashed into the front. The birthday girl gets off her bike and gets out her Pink Chainsaw. This is about where players take control of Juliet and the Zombie slicing begins. Eventually, Juliet continues through the Parking Lot of her high school and finds out her boyfriend Nick is getting attacked by a Zombie. Sadly though, Juliet does not make it in time and Nick is bitten. Juliet then has to reveal her big secret to Nick in a not so pleasant way when she has to use a little bit of Black Magic to separate his head from his body. Nick´s talking head then gets clipped to Juliet´s right ass cheek and the story unfolds from there.
As Juliet, players will journey through six stages, each with their rather simplistic theme. Juliet goes about slicing and dicing through hoards of zombies, while collecting all sorts of coins as a bonus. Players then journey to the next stage and do it all over again, while stopping at a shop to be a few things too. Players may find themselves running through classrooms and down the halls of the high school, only to travel to a farm or an arcade later. Almost all of the levels have the theme as a static backdrop, which seems to only exist so that the developers could create specific undead for that area. Each area is detailed and many of the zombies are funny looking or just whacked out crazy like the Giant LSD Chickens. However, the issue I had was that, with the exception of the awesome arcade level and the two times Juliet runs into crazy shrooms, the rest of the stages were just there. Most of the environment cannot be destroyed and Juliet just goes from one preset area to the next one battling zombies and then continues along until more zombies appear. Even though it never feels like Juliet is locked into an area while sawing through zombies (mainly because a cutscene will breakup the action,) it only takes a little exploring to find out that she cannot leave the area until all the zombies are gone.
This would be forgivable if the combat wasn´t so uninspired and riddled with issues. Firstly, I should point out that Juliet has three basic attacks, a regular slice attack, a low slice attack, and a pom pom shuffle that serves the purpose of “dazing” the zombies. If players happen to be able to get three zombies dazed long enough or luckily, when surrounded by a crowd of zombies (which happens a lot) can slice off three zombie heads at once, they will obtain a sparkle hunting bonus that nets them extra gold coins and special platinum coins. All of this dazzling damage leads to the filling up of a sparkle meter, which when full, can be used to make Juliet a supreme zombie killer. Juliet will become invincible for the entire length of the sparkle meters duration allowing her to slice off zombie heads at will and usually results in plenty of sparkle hunting bonuses as well. Add to that, the coins obtained can be used to purchase more combos, health upgrades, and even different outfits for Juliet, and this all sounds like a wonderful package. Well, it should be in theory, but it fails miserably in execution.
The camera in Lollipop Chainsaw has a horrible habit of positioning itself in the wrong spot when Juliet is surrounded by zombies or stuck in small areas, forcing the player to have to realign it. Also, the camera itself is slow and the time it sometimes takes to realign the camera can cost Juliet half her life bar. The fact that there is a way around this, by mashing the Y button, which helps players eventually kill the zombies in question, does not mean it should be forgiven. The even bigger issue is that the game has bad collision detection and lengthy animation sequences, particularly when using the pom pom shuffle. These zombies know how to withstand a lot of pain and the game is inconsistent with how many slices it takes to kill a certain zombie. So, there were many times where I felt I hit various zombies, but the game tells me otherwise. Needless to say I had to suffer through quite a few grabs and gnaws from zombies because I had to spend more time killing them than I should have.
This also creates havoc when you are trying to save students because they have life bars and the failure to kill a zombie completely can result in him or her dying, meaning you don´t get the true ending of the game. This forces players to have to go back through the entire stage again to make sure they saved those students that died in order to get the “happy ending.” There were probably two or three times I lost a student to a zombie that somehow lived through a bunch of my attacks only to kill the student while it crawled around with no legs, how stupid.
If you can even get enough coins to unlock some of the more powerful combos available later in the game, players will be unhappy to know they also require an increasing number of Pom Pom or high slice attacks, which become almost impossible to pull off because the game has to continue through these long animations and it causes the game to overcompensate. So, if the new combo you bought requires you to press X five times and then hit Y to pull off the finishing move, the long animations will make the game think you pressed X seven times, or only pressed X four times so you either have to start the sequence all over again to try and pull off the move, or it winds up doing the move that only required you to press X four times. This makes trying to pull off the combos frustrating and many times I just said “screw it, I´m just gonna get this over with and kill these idiot zombies with Y so I can move on to the next area.” The combos also tend to run over each other because many of them require the same button presses, so players may find themselves doing the wrong move a lot too.
The mini-games, which serve as a random break in the zombie slaying action are very hit and miss as well. Zombie Basketball and the Tractor killing mini games are fun little diversions. While shooting bomber zombies and Zombie Baseball are painful inclusions that may cause some players to lower the overall difficulty of the game just to get by that small section. Zombie Baseball is also extremely frustrating because at one point in the game Juliet´s chainsaw is given the ability to shoot bullets. This is pretty much your introduction to the shooting mechanic and really shows off the bad camera, mainly because the auto-aim is terrible and the manual aim is too slow. I think I wound up having to repeat “Zombie Baseball” about ten times because according to the game I missed my shots and could not prevent them from all ganging up on Nick.
Really, if it wasn´t because the main characters and bosses are fantastically animated and highly interesting, I probably would have stopped playing the game after stage 2. This ultimately is what Suda 51 became known for, quirky characters with weird fetishes and the liberal use of the English language, which is probably seen at its best in Lollipop Chainsaw because of James Gunn´s writing. I loved that the bosses were part of this “band” called the “Dark Purveyors.” From the Punk Rocker that shouts nasty words at Juliet, to the auto-tune Keyboard Player, all the way to the final boss are just so unique and a breath of fresh air from the mundane zombies you plow through in every stage. The bosses are multi-tiered and each have their own little quirks you must surpass in order to beat them, which makes the battles a joy to play through. So, at least the game gave us a reason to battle to the end of each stage. The only stage I was happy to go all the way through was the arcade level, because who does not love playing a human version of Pacman or Mario Hotel. Luckily, Juliet and her clan of Zombie Hunters actually made me want to keep playing because the exchanges between them left me wanting more. Juliet´s older sister Cordelia in particular always seems to have something useful to say, like giving us the word “shitmuffins.” However, the true star of this game belongs to the talking head Nick. His exchanges with Juliet´s dad are quite memorable and made me laugh out loud. Juliet and Nick have some endearing conversations throughout the stages as well. Juliet discussing the possibilities of children with her beloved head almost made me say “aww I feel bad for Nick.” Nick also has some of the sharpest and funniest lines in the entire game as well. Not to mention, dancing Nick mini games are hilarious.
The developers also did a great job with the ambience and music in the game. The fem rock like Joan Jett´s solo version of “Cherry Bomb” playing in the opening menu and cutesy tunes such as: The Chordettes “Lollipop,” which plays when players are scouring the in-game store or Tony Basil´s “Mickey,” which serves as the theme music for the invincibility activation, just immediately let the player know the two sides to Juliet, and immerse you into the game. She is a strong character who is on a mission to save the world, but at her core she still remains a regular high school girl. Yes, she says dumb things and seems to be worried a lot about zombies “looking up her skirt” but that´s to be expected. This is also brought together well, not just with the music, but also with the comic book flare the game has. All the things in the game make you feel like you are in a campy “B” movie and that is nice when you can actually enjoy everything going on around you.
There is a lot of controversy out on the interwebs about whether or not this game is “sexist.” Personally, even though some of the stuff that´s said in the game borders the line between funny and just plain wrong, I still never felt it was sexist. Yeah, I don´t like hearing Juliet being called a “slut” or “whore” by random zombies, but its not like every zombie says it either. What struck me more was the absolutely random stuff the students say when Juliet saves them. “I am going to go home and masturbate to you tonight,” or “I can´t believe I just got saved by someone with such great tits.” Hearing big boob jokes is nothing new in video games, and the students are not the only ones to make jokes about them in Lollipop Chainsaw, the issue is the way it´s said. They really are not sarcastic or funny, the jokes comes off more as silly and more like something a teenage guy would think in his head but not say out loud to the girl. Even though there are a few more awful lines I didn´t list on here, if you even happen to catch the joke in the first place, it is not as if the “sexist” language bombards you every second. Players are more likely to hear actual foul language we´ve all heard before, than those controversial statements made by unintelligent beings.
Aside from the combat and camera issues, Lollipop Chainsaw also suffers from being very short. The entire story campaign can be completed in 5-6 hours. There are a ton of items to unlock, zombies to find by playing the game on a higher difficulty, and even telephone conversations to run into, and there is even a ranking mode, which rewards players with leaderboard scores and times. If you enjoy the premise of the game many people may want to tread on forward by playing the game over and over, but the majority of gamers are probably just going to put it down after the first playthrough and this is where lack of depth can hurt games like these. Personally, I understand the short length also goes along with the overall theme, but it can be the ultimate decider when choosing whether to purchase the game or not.
Overall, Lollipop Chainsaw is a game that takes pride in being what it is. That´s really what makes the game enjoyable, everyone knows what is going on and seem to be fine with it. I thought Juliet and Nick played interesting protagonists wrapped in a campy grindhouse zombie infested world. I just wish the combat was up to par with the terrific atmosphere of the game. Throw-in the shortness of the main campaign and you have what will amount for a lot of people as a “bargain bin purchase or a weekend rental.” It´s actually sad I have to say that because there is so much to like about Lollipop Chainsaw. It just makes you wonder why, to borrow a line from Juliet, “What the Dick?” the playing part of this game kinda sucks.