Saturday, June 16, 2012

REVIEW - Lollipop Chainsaw.

So there's this girl.  An all-American girl.  She's super-cheerful, captain of the cheerleading squad and, as it turns out, pretty handy with a chainsaw in a zombie outbreak.  

Well, shit.  I can dig it.

art by semsei

That's unexpected, to be sure. Games with the Suda 51 sticker have never really penetrated, for me.  I bypassed Killer 7, didn't care for any aspect of No More Heroes beyond its presentation and felt specifically positive but generally lukewarm about last year's Shadows of the Damned.  Here, though, I feel it all works.

It's taken a long time, but here, I feel, is a game with all the best and none of the worst of Goichi Suda's formula (perhaps, like Shadows, Lollipop benefits from Suda producing, but not directing.) We have a clever, charming, tongue-in-cheek riff on classic horror tropes, a vibrant cast of colorful characters, presentation that pops in all the right places and pleasing gameplay that smacks of old score attack arcade challenges while comfortably speaking the language of a modern gamer.

Lollipop Chainsaw is proudly low-budget, but feels more cohesive and accomplished than Shadows, even as it sidesteps into gameplay switch-ups that one abhors on first contact.  It's a sly, grinning, joyful romp of a game with simple but tactically satisfying combat and the type of presentation that allowed modern not-quite-triple-A classics like Alice: Madness Returns, WET and Brütal Legend to stand out like Jimi Hendrix's bandanna in a sea of suits.

So let's talk presentation.

Let's talk music.

Like 2009's Brütal LegendI refuse to say anything ill of a track selection which results in me embracing a musical flavor I've all but ignored.  Lollipop Chainsaw's soundtrack employs too many styles, too many genres to have it all boil down to one representative track - though Lollipop by The Chordettes may do in a pinch.  Above, I've included Rock N' Roll (Will Take You To The Mountain) by Skrillex, which has seen so many replays on my iPod in the past week it borders on obsession. 

The main menu looks like a spread from a comic book, with Joan Jett's Cherry Bomb playing in the background.  During one of Suda's classic arcade-y gameplay switch ups, you'll pilot a very analog scaffold up a skyscraper as zombies drop big, pixelated bombs towards you, bopping your head to late 70s track Empire State Human.  It's one of these perfect gaming moments.

When you first enter the high school and begin lopping zombie heads in a classroom, you're greeted by Sleigh Bells' Riot Rhythm and... it's wonderful.  Lollipop Chainsaw now stands comfortably in competition with Max Payne 3 for Best Soundtrack of 2012 - but music is just one facet of this game's delicious overall presentation. 

Lollipop's environments are often - not always - rather bland, with zombies and most of all Juliet standing out from the background thanks to the very gentle employment of cell shading which give lines and silhouettes a touch of cartoony punch.  

The most startling touch is what, precisely, happens when you Ginsu a zombie.  Yes, there's a bit of blood, but what you see is a dazzling firework of pink neon hearts and sparkles launching from its decapitated stump.  Your chainsaw's arcing slashes color the world in bright rainbows, and through it all Juliet is giggling like a maniac. 

It's entirely counter-intuitive, but the game's art direction - and its effect on the player - brings Ōkami to mind. This is a fun, light-hearted experience - a happy place to visit - and a weirdly refreshing contrast to the grim "maturity" we see so often in modern, high-profile games. Terrible things are happening in Juliet's world, but the game - and she - approach it with such cheerful optimism and joy that it's hard for the player to focus in the least on the dark side of these happenings.  

It's been near-impossible to find a really good screenshot of it, but trust me when I say the gleeful smile on Juliet's face and her declaration of "pure gold!" when executing a Sparkle Hunting multi-kill is terribly infectious.

Zombies in literature may pre-date almost everything of the last 4,000 years, and were only introduced to the United States by way of Hatian voodoo arriving on American shores via the slave trade - but it's not unfair to suggest that, by modern sensibilities, the Zombie is the quintessential American monster.  The creature was picked up by George Romero in '68 (Juliet attends San Romero High) and the rest is history.  They have, ever since, been a staple of American horror - and it is from that template, rendered by cinema, that writer James Gunn begins.

Gunn is no stranger to the horror genre himself (Michael Rooker, the villain from his 2006 horror-comedy Slither is the second boss you'll face here), and if you're familiar with his work you'll find he does a great deal here, again, to invest the zombie genre with the sort of joie de vivre it hasn't seen since Shaun of the Dead.

Central to that ambition is player character Juliet Starling - who is both a celebration of American horror movie archetypes and a joke at its expense.  No one with Suda 51 experience should have picked up Lollipop Chainsaw expecting even the shallowest of characterization for the heroine, but Gunn comes out swinging and renders her as a wholly endearing, infectiously cheerful girl very much like ones you've probably known yourself.

NICK: "You've killed sasquatches?"
JULIET: "Sure - sasquatches are total dicks."

Or at least, I've sure known girls like her.  A-type personalities who will tackle anything with a grin and a wink, girls who obsessively work out and still worry that last innocent remark was made at the expense of "my ginormous butt."  She's both a cliché and surprisingly three-dimensional.

Despite the player's ability to dress her up in a dizzying array of zany or otherwise barely-there costumes - despite very clearly riffing on the sexually exploitive elements of the genre - the game instead comes across as a glorious exercise that only a female hero could carry, and a wisely respectful one at that (even as zombies throw gender-specific slurs at her.)  Juliet's gender is a necessary ingredient to the formula, and instead of treating her as mere eye candy - or worse, ignoring her sex entirely - she is well-realized to the point that one can both glory in how awesome she looks, doing the splits as she hops over a zed...

...and love her for her irrepressible confidence and willingness to see the bright side in everything.  The game is well aware that folks will be quick to objectify her, but once you're past the opening cinematic you'll never see another lingering butt shot again.  It's like Lost In Translation.  Here as in there, the central character is introduced first as a sexual object (the first shot of that movie is Scarlett Johansson's panty-clad ass), and then investigated as a character before being celebrated as a hero.

It's like the game is saying "yes, she's super hot - are we over it?  Good, let's have some fun."

I love that we have a brawler with an asskicking lady front-and center (who's very lady-like), I love that when Nick points out a student in need of rescuing, she'll casually say "I'll take care of it," and I love that her sidekick is the impotent, disembodied head of her boyfriend - who gets seriously pissed if anyone ever suggests that he might be a mere object.
"But there's a lot of cool things about being a head," Juliet cheerfully points out.  "First of all, I can put you in a bag and sneak you into movies for free!
"Alright, that hardly makes up for-" 
"Carpal tunnel syndrome?  You're immune!  And it's totally cool.  I'm like the only girl with a decapitated head for a boyfriend!" 
"I don't want to be a fashion accessory, Juliet!  This is my life!"
Juliet comes alive thanks to the contribution of veteran voice actor Tara Strong, who's pretty damn close to flawless in her delivery.  Click this link, skip to 06:00, and listen to the way she says "jump on a fire truck."

That's all I'm gonna' say.  She nails it.

NICK: "Where do the sparkles come from when you cut off a zombie's head?"
JULIET: "From awesome."

There's a wonderful silliness to Lollipop Chainsaw, but a silliness I can wholly embrace because - while it achieves dizzying heights of insanity - it never feels less than considered, referential and intelligent.

So, delightful presentation across the board.  Voice work, writing, music and art direction are all either exemplary, thrillingly canny or both.  There are a lot of load times - but none of them were long enough for me to switch the inputs on my TV.

Now, we come to the place where - Shadows of the Damned aside - Suda titles have always failed me.  The gameplay department.

You've likely heard that Lollipop Chainsaw is short - which is true.  I'd clock it at about six hours on an initial playthrough - but the important part of that term is 'initial.'  This isn't a game to play just once.

Your first playthrough, I'm afraid, will be the least fun you ever have with this game.  On a first playthrough, things will feel rather button-mashy and not particularly tactical - and it'll be fair to get pissed right off when the game sidesteps into gameplay switch-ups (using the chainsaw blaster to win a fucked-up game of baseball, driving a combine through a field of zeds, the aforementioned arcade tributes).  It's incredibly frustrating to be expected to understand mechanics so far removed from the game's core - and be punished with score-crushing continues upon failure.

After your initial playthrough, things open right up.  The attacks you must unlock and purchase for Juliet are all so handy - so necessary - that the sense of progression this offers doesn't quite make up for how lacking the game felt without them.  Once you've obtained her entire arsenal, however, the game reveals itself to be a simple but pleasingly tactical brawler.

Lollipop Chainsaw, it turns out, isn't a game about just killing zombies.  You can step in to a room and clear it out right quick - but the biggest rewards (and those glorious Sparkle Hunting vignettes) come from killing multiple zombies with a single slash of your 'saw - specifically, not killing zombies until it's most profitable.

In order to do this, you need to understand the precise properties of every chainsaw attack you have, and when to use them.  Juliet's martial art consists of (fantastically animated!) exaggerated cheerleading routines as she smacks the crap out of zombies with her pompoms.  Each pom strike will drive a zombie (or group) back a teensy bit, and once you understand what the game desires of you, pulling off a precious Sparkle Hunting kill in a room populated by a mere three zombies becomes hugely satisfying.

You dash up - pop pop pop kick one enemy into a corner and backflip over another just before it would have landed an attack.  You corral them into place, back up - position yourself between the lone straggler and the others and pop pop pop him into place before wham finishing the combo with the chainsaw.

(Jazz hands) sparklies!

A bit of additional depth is added by way of zombies with different AI or attacks and stronger, life-bar-toting named zeds. These dudes (or ladies) provide the biggest rewards if you can kill them and two weaker zombies in a single blow - and softening them up while not killing the weaker zombies is nigh-impossible until you have Juliet's full arsenal.

Once you've got it, though?  It's really nice - and you graduate from wanting to merely slaughter zombies to wanting to do it in the most spectacular, score-enhancing way possible.

Which is good - 'cause that's what the game actually is.

Each of the game's seven levels - five of which are huge - can be tackled in ranking mode.  There's score attack, time attack and medal attack (medals are earned by defeating zombies and, of course, by Sparkle Hunting), and you can take them on in any difficulty setting you choose - essentially rendering 84 different scores to beat.

The question being, would one want to?

Well, I would.  It's fun - and I'm coming up on my fourth playthrough, which is saying something for any brawler. Coming up to a crowd of zombies, turning on your invincible, one-hit-kills Star Soul mode (Hey Mickey plays, and Juliet flashes rainbow colors), and wrecking fifteen enemies with three perfect cuts...  Dancing around the last conscious zombie, bop bop bopping him into place for that gorgeous final strike...

Yeah, man.  It's fun.  It's simple fun - not terribly high-minded and not particularly challenging until you start score attack and decide to master everything - but fun for fun's sake is all too rare, even in video games these days.

The Ash costume. Brilliant!

The cheeky, ambitious B-quality game is in decline.  Outside of the indie space, it's increasingly difficult to come across such gems - but investigating games that are perhaps more easily written off is how one discovers Bionic Commando, Dead Island, Alice: Madness Returns or Darksiders.

Strolling through the store, folks will see the cover to Lollipop Chainsaw and write it off as a junk game, devoid of value or spirit - but I assure you, the opposite is true.  When you peruse Metacritic and discover this game is hovering in the high sixties or low seventies, know that that score is reasonable.

It's hardly perfect.  It's juvenile, but wisely so.  It's often beautiful, but it accomplishes it with simple tools. Cheerful, funny, clever in all the right ways, and gorgeous without being too made-up, Lollipop Chainsaw, like its star, is easy to fall for.

  • James Gunn's writing is exemplary, here.  He pulls off three things at once; a genre piece, funny dialogue that anyone can appreciate, and biting satire of a genre and its exploitive tropes.
  • Tara Strong as Juliet is perfect, and Michael Rosenbaum's Nick is pretty funny too
  • the soundtrack is pretty damn incredible
  • Juliet's animations are excellent
  • it may not have much of a budget, but the game's eye-popping art direction goes a very long way to making up for it
  • little touches are everywhere - gorgeous menus!
  • delightfully light-hearted
  • The combat is pleasingly tactile and strategic once you have all the tools at your disposal, and
  • does for brawlers what Dead Space did for shooters.
  • a remarkable amount of replayability for a linear action game
  • gameplay switch-ups - while a huge downer at first - end up feeling like a necessary (masterable) part of the formula, and a sage nod to the game's arcadey roots
  • "But they love human face!  It's their favorite part!"
  • Juliet is a refreshing, wholly endearing protagonist - both three-dimensional and archtypically heroic at once.
  • I love that the game and the writing doesn't pull any punches
  • a crapload of unlockables
  • brief load times!

  • tons of loads
  • combat is relatively simple compared to the standards of the genre
  • the game isn't nearly as much fun when you haven't unlocked all of Juliet's moves - and that takes a while
  • if you're only going to play through it once, don't bother - it's six hours long, and the first playthrough is the frustrating one as you knock your head against a lack of combat options and
  • zany gameplay switch-ups that can be really frustrating the first time you see them
  • ppft - it's hardly triple-A - in fact, it feels downright cheap-looking until you start pulling off Sparkle Hunting kills
  • Occasionally the aim function on the Chainsaw Blaster will totally bug out.  That's the single biggest problem I have with the game. 
  • People will look at you funny, when you show it to them at first.  Then they totally come around and start talking about how adorable Juliet is.
I love Lollipop Chainsaw


  1. Wow, great review and great site. Totally following.

  2. Thanks! I was worried this one went on way too long.

  3. It's great to see a small budget and a good direction make a fun, interesting game and that's what i'm choosing to take away from all this.

    It's just. . . well, America filtered through a Japanese lens tends to freak me the hell out. so i'm a-gonna pass on this particular rodeo.