Suda 51 doesn’t just design games. He and his crew at Grasshopper Manufacture lovingly drip the paint from their imaginations onto a digital drop cloth to create some of the most unusual settings, characters, and storylines to be pressed onto plastic. In as much as their ideas ooze crazy atmospherics, the gameplay has also lived up to the technicolor rain around it.
Lollipop Chainsaw is the latest from the eclectic designer and features everything that you might expect from a high school cheerleader ripping through hordes of zombies with the decapititated head of her boyfriend talking occasional smack. Most everything, anyway, but I’ll get to that later.
Juliette Starling is an ace cheerleader who leads a secret life as a zombie hunter thanks to her family of (secret) monster killers. This comes in handy when a zombie outbreak hits and nearly turns her boyfriend into one of the walking dead.
Nearly, because she manages to “save” his life by removing his head from his infected body before it becomes zombified, applies a spell to keep him alive in his new state, and wears him on the back of her skirt like a keychain fob with a smart mouth. Yep, this is definitely a Suda 51 game. It also helps that James Gunn (PG Porn, Dawn of the Dead) had also lent his considerable writing talents to help flesh Suda 51’s ideas out. No pun intended.
The good news is that Juliette’s favored weapon is a giant chainsaw with a convenient mobile phone attachment for when someone needs to drop her a line. She can also use her pom poms to stun zombies and remove their heads for easier slaying, or you can just bash the attack button and dodge jump around the dead instead. She’s got enough moves to make her dangerous and she’ll need them to survive what has happened to San Romeo.
If loaded innuendo, frank language, and weirdly amazing characters poking fun at nearly everything aren’t for you, Lollipop Chainsaw’s story might come off as a little too juvenile with toilet humor rearing its head at nearly every corner. At the same time, it feels as if it knows exactly what it is and makes no apologies in serving your ears with a mix of punk rock, 80s hits, and smart mouthed zombies while dealing with high school issues laid over a motif of zombie extermination. Not every character I encountered was as enjoyable to work with, but enough were that I needed to know who was next.
The third-person action takes place in San Romeo with a cel-shaded look to nearly everything around it building on the comic pulp feel right down to the popped heads and limbs. Nothing is taken seriously. The game is like a running parody of horror movies while loving every moment.
This also isn’t a sandbox. It’s linear with only one way to get through each level while carrying itself as an arcade beat ’em up using a giant chainsaw. It also isn’t all about whirling blades. She can also use her boyfriend’s head on headless bodies that occasionally turn up starting a QTE mini game where matching the buttons onscreen will keep him jamming along to help Juliette out of a jam while she cheers. Other QTE moments include trampolines to reach high areas for precious coins, or hopping on zombie heads in succession before a big finish at the end that finishes them all off. There’s even pole dancing, or in Juliette’s case, pole slaying thanks to her chainsaw.
Later, Juliette will also get hold of a Baseball Blaster giving her ranged attacks. Special spots in each area equipped with a laptop allow her to purchase things online like new combat moves, lollipops to restore her health, and even new threads and tunes to rock out to adding a little custom variety to the straightforward action.
You can go back and grind up previously cleared areas for more coins as well as in improving your position with the online leaderboards, or challenge yourself by raising the difficulty. Art gallery items, naughty and nice costumes for Juliette, and a host of other extras pack in additional post-game excitement for when you want to wind back through the chaos and literally complete everything there is to do. It’s as if Suda 51 and the rest of Grasshopper Manufacture went back and read my review of Shadows of the Damned and doubled up on what was missing.
Yet all that makes Lollipop’s clunky combat feel even more out of place. The raunchy, tongue-in-cheek humor, the wild villains, and pop stylings lifted from Suda 51’s head are ultimately let down by a stuttering and clumsy system that making me nostalgic for a basic beat ’em up from the Streets of Rage or Final Fight days when moves were moves without having to wait for a hero’s posing session to finish. I’m not asking for the kind of responsiveness seen in Street Fighter IV or Platinum Games’ Bayonetta, but it was hard not wish that I were playing those instead.
It’s confusing why this is when Grasshopper Manufacture has the experience to make combat work fluidly. I didn’t have any issues with Travis Touchdown’s moves in No More Heroes and enjoyed the blast ’em up action of Shadows of the Damned. Yet the tangible, locked-in feel of being unable to switch up moves because a combo has to finish out first over the player’s button presses and having to wait as Juliette poses or swings the chainsaw in another excessively animated arc simply made her feel like a gawky wannabe as opposed to a deadly zombie slayer.
Unlike a game such as Bayonetta, Juliette doesn’t start off with as many moves to help string things together. New attacks need to be purchased during the game to fill in the blanks. It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth stage that the combat system finally felt as if it clicked thanks to a few clever purchases, but it was the worst way to demonstrate Juliette’s newfound abilities after making the player suffer for a few hours.
This also meant that for most of the game up to that point, slashing away at zombies felt like a tedious chore of waiting for a move to finish before embarking on the next combination and it’s not because she’s wielding a chainsaw. Juliette can obviously cheer-combo and swing slash as deftly as a zombie killing Errol Flynn, yet the built-in delays that fight what you want her to do versus the commands she’s still carrying out onscreen from a few button presses ago can kill the mood all too often. And that lasts the entire game.
Invisible walls are still as obvious as they were in Shadows of the Damned and the game still likes to close off certain areas behind you using them. I slipped around the corner to scout on ahead before buying anything at a Chop stop and then discovered that I couldn’t go back because of this even though there was a huge hole in the wall for me to “walk” back through. Don’t even get me started on the camera.
One of the more frustrating moments came with its emphasis on mini-game checkpoints where players were challenged before moving ahead. Some of the more inventive ones included a Pac Man knockoff (and yes, the song “Pac Man Fever” is in the game), Zombie Basketball, and my personal non-favorite, Zombie Baseball. The baseball mini-game was the most frustrating one thanks to a problem that no one should ever expect – the auto aim.
In Zombie Baseball, you’re introduced to the Baseball Blaster and have to dust zombies in the way of your boyfriend who needs to run the bases three times in a new body. There’s no way around this. This is mandatory shooting action.
By default, the auto aim for the cannon is switched on which makes Juliette switch targets as if she were caught in a blender. Juliette would be facing one way, but take aim, and she’ll suddenly flip to her left or right at a target that isn’t in front of her nearly every time, throwing me off. Turning it off was the best solution to what shouldn’t be issue and I ran with manual aim for the rest of the game. But this also emphasized just how these mini-games can stop players cold if they simply can’t make it past which can be frustrating.
This is a game that oozes attitude and a funky style that Grasshopper Manufacture fans and Suda 51 groupies can rightly appreciate. There’s no question that if you like buying a game for that alone, Lollipop Chainsaw belongs in your library. The comic-style menu with Joan Jett’s Cherrybomb playing in the backdrop to making the credits entertaining to watch because it can make this a game unlike many others on the market. It’s got that B-movie swagger it simply revels in from the opening perv jokes to the cheeseburger-lovin’ mega-boss down the line.
On the other side of the coin, as a game, it’s not really that great especially when combat staggers things down with delay after unresponsive delay. Smooth and responsive it isn’t, but sometimes it tries to be before hitting the brakes again after a basic spin or pom pom combo that finally triggers several moves later.
It’s also relatively short at seven or so hours, though post-campaign completionists have more to look forward to. With a bit more polish in the combat department, Lollipop Chainsaw might have been a lot more than an artsy argument for only the most die hard fans to get down with. As it is, it’s probably at its best as a brief, yet memorable, weekend fling.
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment / Grasshopper Manufacture
Xbox 360 / PS3 (reviewed for Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature