Review: Lollipop Chainsaw

As much as video games have the capacity to deliver escapism and joy, very few seem to demonstrate a capacity for humor without the attempts coming off as forced or, even worse, flat. Portal is renowned for its genuinely hilarious writing as much as it is for its brilliant puzzle design, but it is also an exception. All too rare are games that elicit laughter, but Lollipop Chainsaw does that and more.

Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive, Kadokawa Games [Japan]
ESRB Rating: M
Released: June 12, 2012 [NA], June 13 [AU], June 14 [JP], June 15 [EU]
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360

On its surface Lollipop Chainsaw is a frenetic and vapid action game beating the undying horse of the zombie genre. It’s filled with stilted dialogue and a protagonist who is little more than a stereotypical teenage cheerleader; pencil-thin, weight-obsessed, and endlessly peppy. Given that and the plot which isn’t much more complex than that of Super Mario, Lollipop Chainsaw appears to be a euphoria-inducing cloud that also numbs the mind. Appearances can be deceiving.

It is actually rather smart in its subversion. Our hero, Juliet, carries the disembodied head of her boyfriend around clipped to her skirt like an accessory. At one point the boyfriend, Nick, compares himself with the mindless undead while arguing with Juliet, stating that she, by forcing him to live a unfulfilling life as a mere head, has taken away his choice. He is literally objectified. The role reversal regarding objectification, where the main character is a teenage girl and the subject of the objectification is male, is quite effective and the game certainly manages to find a fresh symbolic use of zombies in this way. The situation can also be likened to that of the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate, where Nick, had he been fully in control of his own body and choices, would have let himself die rather than suffer such a humiliating and powerless existence. Similarly, the primary argument surrounding pro-choice is that nobody except for oneself should have the power to make decisions concerning one’s own body.

That doesn’t necessarily absolve the game of criticism regarding the hyper sexualization of the main character, but it does provide some food for thought and puts the audience in a different pair of shoes.

The perpetually sunny Juliet, as voiced by the wonderful Tara Strong, combines with the dazzling parade of explosive visual effects and vibrant colors to provide the experience with a relentlessly energetic and positive vibe. Its visual flair is similar to that of the movie adaptation of Scott Pilgrim. Despite the zombie convention, simply being in the world was enough to paint a smile across my face constantly. Add in the quirky out of place soundtrack 80s-love-letter sondtrack and some smart, often self-aware, one-liners and I found myself laughing often.

At times this sense of joy and wonder is derived from the fact that, in so many ways, the game is a parade of bewilderment. One mechanic involves playing something similar to roulette and can end with you swinging your boyfriend’s head around on a chain to dizzy enemies. Late in the game I came to a level set in an arcade where I played a take on Pac-man and later fought zombies in the middle of somebody’s game of Pong.

New mechanics are drip-fed throughout the game, and each one changes the way you can play enough to justify its inclusion. The most prominent mechanics, though, revolve around the game’s essential score attack nature. Sure, there is a linear story progression here, but it’s still more of a score attack game than anything else. In order to maximize your score, you’ll want to decapitate as many zombies as possible with a single attack, also known as *snicker* sparkle hunting. The easiest way to do this is by beating zombies up with your pom-pom light attacks, using special combos that make enemies more groggy than normal attacks, or simply by activating Juliet’s power-up mode. The latter comes highly recommended if you can’t get enough of Toni Basil’s “Hey Mickey.”

Despite the sluggish camera and slightly awkward targeting, each facet of combat, including the plethora of combos available as upgrades, is pure fun. The game utilizes QTEs to break the combat up. For most of these QTE sections, the player attaches Nick’s head to a headless zombie, allowing Nick to gain control and, err, dance his way over to whatever object needs taking care of.

That might seem odd given that Juliet and her custom chainsaw are otherwise more than capable of taking care of business, but these situations are usually contrived such that something needs to be blown up, and a zombie with dynamite strapped to his chest will do the trick. Speaking of enemies, the variance in zombie types is actually quite refreshing. Zombie cheerleaders bounding through the air doing gymnastics may stray from convention, but this game is all about that anyway, and it’s as much a lampoon of the zombie genre as it is anything else. My only gripe is with the football padded enemies who come in groups of 2 or more and can stagger their charge attacks to keep you knocked down indefinitely.

The stage design is even more impressive in that regard. Each level has a very distinct theme, and each level gets progressively more fantastic. The later levels brought me to such interesting places that it retroactively made me slightly disappointed in the opening prologue level and the first two proper levels. While the stage designs are mostly linear, and the game presents few environmental puzzles, each level still manages to put you in an interesting place and have you traverse that place in an equally interesting way.

Concluding each stage is the chapter boss who acts as a culmination of the level’s themes. While that isn’t anything new as far as games go, it feels like it’s been quite some time since bosses were this well thought-out, this cool, and this fun. It’s a return to a school of thought which posits that boss fights should be big flashy events that don’t just ask the player to do the same thing they’ve done through-out the rest of the game.

It is a manic journey bursting at the seams with Suda 51’s textbook quirky charm. As is typically the problem with reviewing anything that Suda has had a hand in creating, the task of doing justice to every minute detail that coalesces to make this bizarre experience is nothing short of daunting. It is hard to break such a game down into its base elements without making the game itself sound more pedestrian than it actually is. And yet there is still a very grounded cohesion in its schizophrenic madness that keeps it within approachable boundaries rather than being a total mindfuck.

If nothing else, Lollipop Chainsaw is delightfully quirky, and underneath all that quirk it has some truly enjoyable levels, mechanics, and perhaps even something very relevant to say about society and gender issues.

8.5 / 10

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