Platforms: PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive | Kadokawa Games
Juliet Starling is an ordinary 18-year old. She's one of the most popular girls in school, captain of the Cheerleading team and totally in love with her wholesome beefcake boyfriend Nick. She loves lollipops and shopping. She's well adjusted, comes from a loving nuclear family and gets reasonable grades at San Romero high.
Oh, and did I mention that she's a Zombie Hunter who beheads the undead with a massive chainsaw while wearing her cheerleading miniskirt? All while her boyfriend's animated severed head dangles from her belt?
This is a Suda51 game, after all. The
demented genius auteur behind Killer7 and Shadows Of The Damned is at his reckless, most inventive best here, creating a grindhouse slasher flick overlain by a candy-sweet tweeny visual style. Unbridled sexploitation, streams of vicious profanity, upskirts and gory ultraviolence go hand in hand with rainbows and pixie dust; brought to life by a slick and darkly hilarious script from Slither writer James Gunn. Lollipop Chainsaw is a visually exciting, styish and anarchic romp, and one that makes no apologies for being as dumb as it is brilliant, unpredictable fun.
However, there's no denying that Grasshopper Manufacture have gone out of their way to court as much controversy as possible. Perceived sexism and objectification permeates every aspect of the experience, and has already outraged more than its fair share of pundits and gamers. As such, this review will need to tread some divisive ground... and answer a more basic question. Behind the rainbows, gore and glitter, is Lollipop Chainsaw actually a good game?
After a disaffected Goth classmate opens the barriers between San Romero High School and the nightmarish Rotten World (read: hell), the endearingly ditzy Juliet is thrust into a battle to retake the town, which essentially boils down into a traditional brawl-crawl through some corridors and killboxes. Large numbers of fast, ravening undead attack her at every opportunity, along with possessed teachers, townsfolk and students who act as mini-bosses. As a cheerleader, Juliet can lash out with incredibly weak pompom attacks that stun zombies where they stand, and lop off heads with powerful slow chainsaw swipes. Instead of a standard dodge roll, she can athletically leapfrog over zombies, putting her in a perfect position to strike from behind or deftly relocate. A few basic combos allow you to mix up attacks, and the system is provides a streamlined framework for fun, replayable antics. Especially when cleaving through a zombie's torso is accompanied by a stream of hearts and rainbows.
The combo-driven combat may lack the fluid grace and versatility of Bayonetta (to be honest, most games do), and the boxy linear level design isn't much to write home about. However, you'll soon realise that Lollipop Chainsaw is a little different to your standard brawler. It's an addictive score attack game, pure and simple, that puts the emphasis on simultaneously decapitating as many zombies as possible. Do so, and you'll be rewarded with a psychadelic Sparkle Hunting score bonus, which is the key for ending each level with a decent score. To this end, you'll quickly learn to corral zombies into groups, mixing up stun attacks with chainsaw sweeps, separating the herd from the more dangerous named zombies. It's slightly reminiscent of a CAVE SHMUP in that regard, and you'll continually develop better and more effective ways to chain Sparkle Hunting combos together. On the flip-side, players looking for a more traditional brawler and who dislike the hardcore score attack mindset may be better served elsewhere.
Decapitations, Sparkle Hunting and environmental destruction grants Juliet Zombie Medals that can be redeemed for persistent upgrades, new combos and outfits. Brilliantly, you're free to replay earlier levels to toughen her up, which vastly increases value and replayability. Hidden collectibles are ripe for the taking, and eventually contribute to an enormous encyclopedia to browse at leisure.
Bosses, a range of undead rock lords who each tote their own instruments, are a real highlight of the package. You'll fight a Viking drummer on the deck of his floating longship, for example, and throw down on an undead punk rocker who manifests his lyrics (and insults) as physical weapons. These encounters are deliriously inventive, laugh-out loud funny and dangerously unpredictable, with multiple stages requiring very different strategies to defeat.
Sadly, a number of minigames and set pieces, often featuring some QTEs and instant failures, don't fare anywhere near as well. While mowing down zombies in a combine harvester to Dead Or Alive's You Spin Me Round may be a lot of fun, having to stop some flaming zombies from reaching an enormous dynamite cake in a tiny arena or running through a Pac-Man inspired maze tend to act as aggravating and repetitive padding. At least these sections are usually extremely short, and do break up the pace somewhat. You'll always feel as if anything can happen around the next corner, and to Lollipop Chainsaw's credit, it usually does.
So, Lollipop Chainsaw is a solid and enjoyable brawler, but its major selling point is presentation. James Gunn's script is absolutely brilliant, poking fun at high school movies, Juliet's zombie hunting family and making the most of her innocent banter with confused decapitated boyfriend. You'll sometimes need to disengage your brain to get into the swing of things, but it's well worth doing. Suda's juxtaposition of gore and glitter is always exciting to look at, and the legendary auteur has liberally sprinkled the experience with unexpected comic cutscenes, retro throwbacks, fourth wall-breaking shenanigans. A sensational (and customisable) soundtrack rounds out the gleefully silly package, featuring appropriately upbeat tracks like Hey Mickey and You Spin Me Round alongside a selection of original J-Pop and metal tunes. Combined with the addictive points-centric combat, Lollipop Chainsaw proves to be pure, unabashed, exploitative fun. In an age when the game charts are dominated by grit and po-faced exposition, Lollipop Chainsaw is a welcome and refreshing burst of creativity and visual spectacle.
There's a more divisive discussion to be had, however, since Suda and Grasshopper have done their best to shamelessly court controversy. As well as having her 'assets' being made centre screen at every opportunity, Juliet is constantly bombarded by genuinely nasty, unbelievably sexist insults from her enemies. Not five minutes go by without zombies referring to her as a "slut" or "whore," while even grateful classmates promise to "masturbate over her later" after being rescued from certain death. Many people will be incredibly offended by this, and it this comes down to personal opinion, I'm not going to tell you what to think. What I will do, though, is offer my own personal take on the situation.
Is it okay to refer to women as "sluts" and "whores?" No, of course it isn't. But Lollipop Chainsaw doesn't go out of its way to debase Juliet or objectify her more than any low-rent horror film would. Throughout the campaign, she's portrayed as a warm, caring and likeable character who rises above every insult with dignity - simply ignoring and shrugging them aside. She doesn't care about what other people think of her, and has enough maturity and self esteem to realise that her foes are just overcompensating, pathetic idiots who don't deserve a shred of attention. It's the men who are objectified in Lollipop Chainsaw, cast as slavering, insecure goons, not Juliet herself, who comes across as assertive and confident. Whether that's okay is another question entirely. Since it fits with the high school setting, grindhouse theme and 'jock' stereotypes, I'm inclined to believe that it is.
Length will also be a bugbear for some players. In keeping with the subject material, I'm tempted to say "size matters." A single playthrough will take between 5-8 hours, but this isn't really a fair assessment of Lollipop Chainsaw's worth. As mentioned, you're encouraged to replay earlier levels to increase your score, find collectibles and accrue permanent character upgrades. Upping the difficulty changes the zombies you'll face, and a hardcore leaderboard Ranking mode throws tricky modifiers into the mix. There's a lot to do here, so if you're willing to invest and dig deep, there's a huge amount to do here. Plus, you'll want to see many of the cinematics more than once - and I daresay that some of you may want to earn enough medals to unlock Juliet's underwear outfit. On the other hand, if you're a gamer who craves straight-up value, you might understandably want to wait for a price cut or consider a rental. That's totally fine.
Lollipop Chainsaw is the very definition of a 'marmite' game, one that you'll either love or hate with a passion. Personally, I love it.
- Deliciously, deliriously inventive - both visually and in terms of gameplay
- Competent gameplay with a focus on high score runs
- Boxy level design, some weak minigames/set pieces
- Potentially incredibly offensive
- Empirically short campaign, poor value if you're not a fan of score attack
The Short Version: Lollipop Chainsaw is riotously inventive, colourful rampage with a hilarious script and unpredictable unsanity aplenty. It's also exploitative, potentially offensive and frequently stupid beyond words. Grasshopper Manufacture have gone out of their way to split opinion, and as such, you'll need to adopt the right (wrong?) mindset to make the most of its score attack gameplay, value and presentation.