Lollipop Chainsaw Review
Posted by Jon Wahlgren
Goddammit, video games
It's generally a bad idea to judge anything by its title or cover, but one look at either pretty much spells out what to expect from Grasshopper Manufacture's latest fever dream, Lollipop Chainsaw: comic books, pop music, rainbows, titillating exploitation and lots and lots of violence. These are all the makings for perfect video game pulp, and in many ways Suda51's vision of chainsaw-wielding cheerleader zombie hunter Juliet Starling slicing through the undead community with help from her boyfriend Nick's magical decapitated head absolutely nails it, if not mechanically then at least with regards to presentation.
In fact, Lollipop Chainsaw's world — with one really, really large caveat — is a beautifully realised comic book fantasy world. It's tough to understate just how much the art team kills the aesthetic: the bright cel-shading, playful animations and tongue-in-cheek gore and a well-implemented halftone dot filter create the kind of living pulp comic book a Hogwarts student might stash. The soundtrack alone, featuring Lollipop by Chordettes, Sleigh Bells, Joan Jett and boss music by Little Jimmy Urine of Mindless Self Indulgence, makes some of the strongest use of licensed music we've heard in a game. Finding yourself leaping around in a neon kill room, ripping up swarms of zombies with a chainsaw to the sounds of Skrillex's Rock N' Roll (Will Take You To The Mountain) encapsulates a certain effortless cool that few other games approach. Hollywood writer James Gunn, of Super and Sliver fame, lends a hand with the writing and story, and his voice is clear throughout the absurd premise of a high school emo bully who cracks the wall to the Rotten World to get revenge on all those who sidelined him and the zombie hunter family who goes after him.
Under the icing is a decent cake, too, as Lollipop Chainsaw is no combat slouch. It's flavor of beat-'em-up doesn't threaten the fluidity and grace of a Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, and after the first few stages doesn't leave a very strong impression due to simplistic demands. However, as Juliet gains access to new moves, weaponry and combos, the game's rhythm grows louder and stronger, blossoming into a spectacle of crowd control rewarded with sparkles and rainbows as she lops off multiple limbs and heads in one cruel swipe. It takes perhaps a little too long to get to that point of fluidity and diversity, eventually giving Juliet access to a chainsaw blaster and use of Nick as a weapon to complement punches and swings. But by the time the final kill rolls around, it barely feels like Juliet is getting started — the seven stages are over and done with in a matter of 5-6 hours, although considering the wealth of unlockable attacks, power-ups, extras and difficulties, Lollipop Chainsaw is clearly built to be played more than once. Returning to earlier areas with new abilities makes the game feel like a different one altogether — the one we wish started earlier. There's something of an over-reliance on Quick Time Events, though; a nasty habit that crops up all too often with very little reason when it does. This being a Grasshopper game, expect plenty of technical quirks: load times are curiously long and frequent, and an uncooperative and overly jittery camera does a somewhat poor job of keeping an eye on the action.
Stage-specific minigames break up the gameplay and for the most part are welcome diversions, although some certainly hit where others whiff — Zombie Baseball strikes out, whereas a neon wireframe Pac-Man style maze knocks it out of the park — and impressive boss battles punctuate the long stretches of hordes. Bosses are an improvement over Shadows of the Damned’s taste for “shoot the red glowy bits” and far more memorable, each merging a genre of music with clever attack patterns and held together by that signature Grasshopper touch of over-the-top insanity.
While Lollipop Chainsaw is built to be played over and over again, your willingness to do so depends in large part on how much you can stomach its sexist language. We have no problem with obscenity, but Lollipop Chainsaw is massively sexist in its fantasy rendition. The constant barrage of misogynistic insults flies in the face of its cheery attitude, rendering it tonally confusing and undermining Juliet as a strong female lead. The contrast of Troma gore and rainbows works well enough by itself to provide the sense of identity that Grasshopper seems to be aiming for, so the need to add a little extra edge through gratuitous use of gender-oppressive words and copious masturbatory references with Juliet as subject puts Lollipop Chainsaw in a place that many may find tough to stomach — or downright refuse to subject themselves to in an entertainment medium.
The secret ingredient, seemingly, to Suda51 games is to throw a ton of ideas at the wall to see what sticks. Here, it's every campy high school stereotype blown up to extreme overt levels for satire. The tricky thing about satire is that it needs to have an underlying intelligence about what it is poking fun at, sufficient self-awareness and a clever twist for its bite to be felt. Lollipop Chainsaw lacks that twisted intelligence for to achieve any kind of parody on a meta level, leaving a weirdly sexist bite to its humour. Just because you wink at the end of it all doesn't mean that the words coming out of your mouth are suddenly OK, and it's saddening that any form of commentary that Grasshopper attempted is lost to sheer stupidity.
One boss encounter in particular, the punk-rock zombie Zed voiced by Jimmy Urine, is particularly off-putting, literally using his words as weapons in the battle as they fly as monoliths towards Juliet and she rips them to shreds with her chainsaw. Had this been the sole instance of such offence then we might even give Grasshopper the benefit of the doubt and read it as a physical manifestation of words as weapons and the battle to overcome them — but when every other rank-and-file zombie calls Juliet a "bitch" then that scene's meaning and symbolism is lost, leaving a terrible taste behind.
Which is a shame considering how genuinely funny the rest of the game can be when it isn't throwing around violent sexual imagery. A lot of the same humour found in past Grasshopper's and Gunn's bodies of work are just as effective here, each complementing the other effectively, and the clever banter between Juliet and Nick is a reliable source of absurdist laughs in absurd situations. Much of the humour is gross-out offensive, but at least these instances know what their words mean, avoiding the trap of genuine social offence and making it all the more funny.
While it won't win any best-of-genre awards, Grasshopper does a lot right with Lollipop Chainsaw. Once the core combat finds its rhythm and comes into its own, Juliet's first outing is a solid take on the beat-em-up with a killer comic book aesthetic, memorable characters and genuinely funny writing. But — and this is a really big one — the unnecessarily oppressive language blows the game past the boundaries of fun schlock into distasteful territory, turning what otherwise feels like a fun and playful pop song into a GG Allin joint. If that's something you can deal with then by all means give Lollipop Chainsaw a swing.