A Fun Hack'n'Slash with Plenty of Style (And Sexual Overtones)
As video games become a more and more popular medium for people to create in, and as they expand into new areas, many trends are becoming extremely popular amongst developers. Online multiplayer, character upgrade systems, and hidden collectibles: all of these are examples of trends that have become integrated into nearly all of the games we play whether they are the next triple-A blockbuster or the small independent games that have become increasingly popular lately. But there is one trend that plagues the game industry: yearly sequels. Luckily for us, one man named Suda 51 and his team at Grasshopper Manufacture have been delivering quirky new intellectual property for us gamers to play such as No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned, and most recently Lollipop Chainsaw.
Just looking at the title is enough for the average person to know that this isn’t your average Call of Duty or Halo. No, Lollipop Chainsaw basks itself in the charm that Suda consistently laces his games with, along with some heavy sexualisation and retro funk. Of course, one of the defining features in a Suda game is a completely over-the-top, and insane story. Lollipop Chainsaw is the story of Juliet Starling, a cheerleader for San Romero High that is just happening to turn 18 on the day the story takes place. As the story starts, Juliet is on her way to meet her boyfriend Nick at school when she arrives to find that zombies have infested the school and she must fight her way through the crowd to find her boyfriend. Oh did I mention that Juliet along with her two sisters and parents are all zombie slayers? Yes, just 2 minutes into the game and Suda has already made his mark on the story. Anyways, by the time that Juliet reaches Nick, he has gotten bitten by a zombie, and to save him she decapitates him, and places the head on a stand that she can hang from the back of her skirt. Right up against her butt. The rest of the game focuses on the couple slaughtering their way through zombies to stop Swan (the main antagonist) from destroying the world. Lollipop Chainsaw is unfortunately another Suda game that gets too wrapped up in style and presentation to bother making a decent plot.
One of the shining things about the style though is the vivid characters that are included in the plot. As I previously mentioned, the Starling family is a group of zombie slayers, and their personalities are equally appropriate for the nature of their “job.” Juliet is a peppy cheerleader that absolutely loves Nick, her older sister is a muted version of Juliet that loves rifles, and their younger sister is an amplified version of them that makes you hate every sixteen-year-old that was ever born. The plot also includes their father, a man that embodies Elvis in almost every way, Juliet’s sensei, a perverted man that is Juliet’s zombie slaying teacher, and of course Nick, the bodiless boyfriend who isn’t in on the zombie slaying traditions of the family. These eccentric characters bring the tepid plot to life with their crazy antics and their shouty dialogue. If I had to complain about anything, it’s that the younger sister starts to chafe after a while and would be better off having her voice pitched a few octaves down.
There is also a retro feel to the style as well. The game is plastered with neon and pastels, making your zombie hunting feel as though you were in 1980s Miami. The main aesthetic though is lollipops. Everything from the collectibles, which are lollipops, to the health kits, which are lollipops, to the health bar, which are lollipops, is focused on lollipops. Even the UI design has lollipop striping, which I guess we should applaud Suda for his consistency. And my favorite stylistic touch is the music selection. Using Toni Basil’s Mickey every time you go into your special mode, and Ronald & Ruby’s Lollipop for all of the menus is a great touch that surprisingly never gets old. Some of the other music sucks, but it at least falls in line with the puck, rock’n’roll and metal theme associated with the zombies in the game.
As with every Suda game though, some elements of the style bog down the game and Lollipop Chainsaw is no different. One of the major problems that I have with the game is the blatant sexualisation that everything assumes in the game. As Juliet delivers the opening monologue to the game she is introducing the player to her room, but tells us not to try any funny stuff just because we’re there, even though she “doesn’t mind doing any funny stuff.” And as I previously stated earlier, the decapitated head of her boyfriend Nick is resting directly on her ass, which he goes on to comment about at least two dozen times in the game. Even the character of Juliet herself is heavily sexualized with her breasts and butt hanging out from the outfit she wears. While I’m not one to complain about sexuality in games, the blatancy of Lollipop Chainsaw rubs me the wrong way. I don’t mind busty, curvy characters, or the fact that new outfits that contain less clothing are purchasable rewards. But when you have an old sensei insisting that the young, hot cheerleader wear white panties with little teddy bears on them because “they help her fight,” you have to question at what point it becomes too much. As you save one of the school children from the zombies, he exclaims “I’m going to masturbate to you tonight Juliet!” There is a point when raunchy teen sex comedy becomes a little too eager and on-the-nose and Lollipop crosses that line within the first half-an-hour and continues to run throughout the 7 or 8 hours of story. Hell, there’s even an achievement for looking up her skirt. And the way that the bosses and antagonist always call you a “filthy cocksucker” or a “dirty whore” also made me uncomfortable and had me checking every so often to make sure I hadn’t become a misogynist. I’ll cede that not everything is bad: when Nick asks if he can ask Juliet something personal and she becomes excited just to be asked if she could remove his face from her butt, I gave a light laugh. Or even when Juliet’s father asks how Nick is going to help the family business and Juliet replies that he can use his “nimble” tongue leading to an awkward 30 seconds: those moments aren’t particularly bad, but when that’s the “clean” end of the scale, there’s something wrong with the game.
The graphics are another thing that I feel could have been a lot better about the game. For a game that uses the Unreal 3 engine, it sure does look grimy. The game uses a cell-shaded style that is very similar to Borderlands, although Borderlands didn’t look as mucky as this. If you catch the game at an awkward angle, then be prepared: it ain’t pretty. The actual animations on the characters aren’t bad, although the lip syncing is atrocious. When it comes down to actual gameplay, the graphics aren’t nearly as bad as I depict them here, but the cutscenes was the in-game engine and they look really bad.
But I must digress, as there are good parts to the game as well. And lucky for us, one of them is the gameplay. By this point you.ve probably figured out that Lollipop Chainsaw is about killing – or rather slaughtering – zombies. The type of game is a third-person hack’n’slash similar to God of War except you’re killing zombies and instead of swords you have a chainsaw. There are 3 main attacks, a low chainsaw slash, a normal chainsaw slash, and your pom-poms. The low chainsaw slash takes out ground enemies and cuts off legs of standing zombies, and the normal slash is just used for your main attack. On top of the chainsaw attacks, Juliet can also use her pom-poms to beat up enemies which can cause them to become dazed after a few hits which allows her to decapitate them with one swing. Juliet can also use all three of these attacks in conjunction with her dodge/jump to create new attacks such as the dropkick (jump then pom-poms). The game also allows you to purchase new combo from predetermined locations which are unlocked as you progress through the game. Rather than string together huge combos like a typical God of War, the main point of the combat is to do “Sparkle Hunting” which is when Juliet kills three or more zombies with a single attack. This earns Juliet bronze zombie medals, which in turn can be used to purchase things, and they also earn her much rarer silver zombie medals depending on how many she kills at once. The combat in the game feels good, although one caveat is that sometimes too many animations get cued up and you lose precise control and you’ll have to wait through a few more animations until you can attack again. It’s an annoying thing to have happen, but it’ll only get in your way a few times during the story mode.
And the combat goes deeper than that. Juliet also has a meter that, when full, allows her to go on a killing spree where every zombie – not including bosses – only take one hit to kill. This meter doesn’t take long to fill and can come in handy when tough zombies come in or when you really want to rack up the Sparkle Hunting. Juliet also gets upgrades for her chainsaw periodically trough the story that allow her to use it in new ways. These upgrades include a sprint mode – where Juliet digs her chainsaw into the ground and speeds around – and a launcher that launches small grenades. Finally, Juliet can also bring nick into the combat by using a purchasable item called a “Nick Ticket” that spins a roulette that determines how she uses him. The attacks are different but they all for a short time and act as a way for Juliet to dizzy zombies so she can kill them more easily. These attacks all help the combat feel more varied, but sometimes you’ll forget to use them because you’ll be too focused on killing what’s in front of you.
Of course, how fun the killing is depends on what you’re killing. As I said earlier, all the enemies are zombies. There are your typical zombies, that only take a few hits to fell, but then there are also special zombies that have health bars meaning that they are tougher. Of course, they still only take a few special combos to kill but they usually have a more powerful attack or even special weapons in some cases (such as cop zombies having a gun). There are also special zombies that have names above their health bars that are logged as collected once you defeat them. Then once you’ve cleaned out all the fodder from the stage, you are left to fight a boss. I feel conflicted about the boss battles, because even though they are inventive, they almost feel just a tad too easy. All of the boss fights – with the exception of the last one – follow the same rule of three that Japanese games have been following for ages. Empty the health bar, go through a sawing animation, empty another health bar, another sawing animation, another health bar, then the final kill shot. While the bosses might be a tad easy, the real fun in them is the design. For example, the first boss you fight is a punk rock zombie named Zed, and one of his attacks is throwing giant letters that spell out things like “dirty slut” and “filthy whore” that you then have to dodge. I don’t appreciate the misogyny of it, but the concept is cool nonetheless. All of the boss battles are varied and different and broke up the zombie fighting nicely just before it became monotonous.
As with any video game that came out in the past five years, Lollipop Chainsaw comes with an upgrade system that allows you to upgrade Juliet how you’d like. The upgrading is done at specific locations in the game where you can stop to shop at shop2chop.zom. Here you can use the bronze zombie medals to purchase physical upgrades for Juliet such as health, strength, and recovery speed, or you can buy new combos for Juliet to use in fighting. You can also buy artificial things at the store with the rarer silver zombie medals. These things include new costumes for Juliet, new MP3s and concept art. The one problem that I have with the upgrade system is that until you’ve unlocked a few certain combos, the combat gets bland after a while.
Finally we arrive at the stats. This game has an unhealthy addiction to stats and I love it. Everything that you do is recorded somewhere. The game records all the types of zombies you killed, all the special named zombies that you’ve killed, and even all of the little telephone calls that you receive that give you advice. There is also a leaderboard system in place that ranks you amongst the world, but also within your own in-game family. If you beat the top score – who is always your father – then you unlock new stuff at the store. After even stage you beat you get a score card ranking you own zombie medals, Sparkle Hunting, completion time, the score for that level, and then it tallies it up for you and puts it on the leaderboards. This was a smart move by the developers because it gives the game replayability since there is no online multiplayer.
Some odds and ends to the gameplay are saving students from zombies – whom you must save all of to get the good ending --, racing around using the sprint upgrade to the chainsaw, collecting special lollipops, and plopping Nick’s head onto random zombie bodies to have him break down a wall to progress. These are all fine, but there is nothing spectacular about them. I should also mention that this game loves its quick time events and will make you do them often, although they at least give you enough time that I very rarely ever messed up.
To conclude, Lollipop Chainsaw is a game that I could easily recommend to someone. While the sexual overtones become a bit unbearable sometimes, the hack’n’slash action of this game is spot on and the eccentric style was a breath of fresh air. If you can overlook the muddy graphics and the sexual overtones, then this game is at least worth a rent if not just to play something different that is also coincidentally fun to play.