Lollipop Chainsaw is probably one of the most difficult games I’ve ever had the privilege of reviewing. It’s not because I feel very strongly about the game either way, but because conveying what happened over the seven-to-eight hours I spent playing it into words feels like a fool’s errand. I mean, Jesus.
The premise falls within the classic brand of loony nonsense that Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture are famous for: High school cheerleader/accomplished zombie hunter Juliet Starling, armed with just a chainsaw and her gymnastic prowess, must stop an undead invasion from another dimension, started by one of the moody goth kids at her school. Her boyfriend Nick survives conversion when Juliet decapitates and enchants his head, allowing her to carry him around by fastening him to her skirt like a charm. It only gets crazier from there.
The writing for something like this — where a teenage girl is hyper-sexualized and oftentimes objectified — has to be spot-on. In Lollipop Chainsaw‘s case, it is and it isn’t. As you start, with zombies and boss enemies alike throwing sexist slurs at Juliet, it’s eye-rollingly shallow. By the end of the game, though, I found Juliet to be the creepiest character in the entire game. While the trophy for looking up her skirt and wealth of unlockable costumes suggest that she’s a piece of meat to be ogled, it’s actually the way that Nick is treated by Juliet and her family that was most unsettling for me. There’s some commentary there, I think, for those that choose to see it, and it deserves more credit than I think most people would give it. For those that don’t, it’s still plenty funny in spite of the liberal use of words like “bitch” and “whore.”
The game itself is a fairly standard hack-and-slash action game that, on a nuts-and-bolts level, you’ve played a hundred times before. Light attacks, heavy attacks, dodging should all feel pretty familiar to anyone who’s played games like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta.
Lollipop Chainsaw manages to differentiate itself with a few traits that it can definitely call its own, though. Zombies have to be decapitated to die, and that can only happen with a heavy attack via Juliet’s chainsaw. However, you have to daze them with your light attacks before you can do that. If you’re good enough, you gain a Sparkle Hunting bonus when you kill three or more zombies at once, earning you extra medals to spend in the upgrade shop. There are also Nick Tickets that allow you to use your boyfriend in a number of different ways — whipping him around for a while, shooting him out of a gun, and so forth — with the end result usually being a large group of dazed enemies for you to easily dispatch.
While Nick Tickets and Sparkle Hunting are all well and good, they don’t quite make up for the fact that the combat as a whole falls a bit flat. It’s easy to rely on the same two or three combos once you unlock attacks beyond your basic moveset. Meanwhile, the light attacks don’t always home into enemies the way that you expect them to, and the lock-on feature added to make up for it…doesn’t. The camera also manages to get stuck in too many corners when you’re fighting, and can zoom in a bit too much and allows for off-screen enemies to get cheap shots in.
Understandably, boss fights have fallen out of vogue in recent years because so few seem to be able to do them right. In a world where levels end with a fight against an overpowered but otherwise unremarkable goon that does little to actually test your skill, it’s refreshing when someone puts in the work to make sure that they’re memorable for all the right reasons. Previous Suda51 games like Shadows of the Damned and No More Heroes are notable for this, and those kinds of imaginative encounters carry over to Lollipop Chainsaw. You still have to deal with the same combat problems as before, mind you, but the boss encounters are so outrageous that you don’t mind them as much.
With the exception of the fairly repetitive design of the typical zombies you fight, Lollipop Chainsaw’s art direction is wholly unique. It’s oftentimes outlandishly colorful, with a barrage of sparkles, rainbows, and hearts contrasting against the red and gray of the undead slaughter, and the comic-style menus and overlays are surprisingly fitting. The boss characters are all memorable, and there’s a level taking place in an arcade whose retro touches are inspired. Unsuprisingly, Juliet’s character model is painstakingly crafted.
Whatever you may think of Lollipop Chainsaw’s writing and gameplay, there’s no denying that the score is top notch. At this point, expecting anything less from Akira Yamaoka would be ludicrous, although he wasn’t alone working on the game. While he composed what you hear throughout most of the levels, Jimmy Urine handled the boss music, doing a great job as well. Together, they both collaborated on selecting the handful of licensed tracks peppered throughout the game (Pac-Man Fever, anyone?), and the end result is what is sure to be one of the catchiest and most memorable soundtracks of the year.
Depending on your threshold for crazy and your patience against repetitive combat, Lollipop Chainsaw will last you anywhere between 5 and 15 hours. If you’re on the low end of the spectrum, there’s little for you here beyond getting through the story. If you find yourself wanting more, there’s plenty to do once the narrative wraps up. You can replay each level in Ranking Mode, offering you a chance to rank on a number of different leaderboards. Beating “Dad’s Score” in each level also unlocks a bevy of goodies, with plenty more available within the game’s shop. From music to concept art and costumes for Juliet, completionists will be pleased with what’s available to them.
At its core, Lollipop Chainsaw is a competent game. It’s quirky as hell, both narratively and mechanically, and those quirks will endear as many people as it puts off. It’s a difficult game to recommend, even to fans of Suda51’s previous work. While the music shines, the writing isn’t always sharp and the combat could’ve used another coat of polish. It’s definitely worth getting your hands on just to see the lunacy first-hand, but a rental or waiting for the inevitable price drop is probably in your best interests.
FINAL GRADE: C+