Once in a while, a game comes along with such clarity of vision, such an idea of what it wants to achieve, that my job as a reviewer becomes meaningless. The 500-750 words practically write themselves, positive or negative, and I can push the “publish” button whilst leaning back in my chair and puffing on my metaphorical cigarette.
Lollipop Chainsaw is not one of those games.
I have a complicated past with Suda51 games. Site veterans might remember the very first posted game review, of Shadows of the Damned. I found myself not quite as enamored with it as many other critics, but still lauded its music and art direction. That was an easy game to review. The gameplay was clunky, and the humor uniformly juvenile. Not to sound like a broken record, but Lollipop Chainsaw is a much different case.
You play as Juliet Starling, a normal 18-year-old high school cheerleader who also happens to be a zombie hunter (take note, zombie hunter; there’re no vampires, and no slaying to be found here). When a portal to hell opens at her school on her birthday, it’s up to Juliet, her boyfriend Nick’s magically revived decapitated head, and her chainsaw to save the day.
The game’s combat can feel a bit sluggish, but it never throws enough enemies at you at once for that to be an issue. There are two main attacks; Juliet’s pom-poms and the eponymous chainsaw. In theory, the pom-poms should be used for crowd control. This attack will turn zombies “groggy,” which stuns them and allows for their heads to be cut off with one clean swing. The only problem is that is that it takes far to long to turn zombies into this groggy state. I found myself relying solely on the deliberate attacks of the chainsaw. It’s an issue of tedium, rather than difficulty.
At the same time, though, I’d be lying if I said the combat wasn’t fun. Throughout the meager 5-6 hour play time, the game manages to keep this aspect relatively fresh, introducing new gameplay wrinkles and weapons around once every chapter. The boss battles, too, are exquisite. I wasn’t expecting to come away from this game as high on the the actual meat and potatoes of playing it as it seems like I have.
The visuals are noticeably dated, though the comic-book aesthetic does wonders to make it seem more pleasing. Constant loading screens are simply inexcusable, given the perpetually linear nature of the game and the obviously inferior graphics. On a plus note, the game’s mix of original and licensed music on the soundtrack works fantastically. Rarely was there a time I felt I’d be having more fun with the sound off.
The problem with Lollipop Chainsaw, the reason I don’t feel good about leaning too heavily into liking it, lies in the script. Presumably written by Suda51 (though Slither director James Gunn is listed as a creative consultant and adaptor), it toes a fine line of genuinely funny, witty dialogue with crass, comically bankrupt shit. For example, when Juliet said that if her and Nick kill the zombies who are currently playing an arcade machine, it’ll be “totally meta,” I chuckled. When upon saving a student, he remarks, “I never thought I’d be saved by someone with such big tits,” or when a zombie erupts from the ground and says he wants to fist himself with Juliet’s head, my face was in my hands. Most of the best dialogue comes from the banter between Juliet and Nick, though those jokes only hit about a third of the time. It’s just a baffling combination.
Also troubling is the aggressively mean-spirited undercurrent of… and here’s the tricky part.
I don’t know how I feel about calling Lollipop Chainsaw misogynist, exactly. After all, Juliet is an empowered, generally independent female protagonist. But it’s hard to ignore when boss characters and random zombies alike hurtle shouts of “bitch” and “whore” and worse, at near breakneck speeds. It would be one thing if Juliet ever fired back, but she seems largely oblivious. Juliet fights with her fists while the enemies fight with their words and their fists. This is leaving aside the excessive focus on Juliet’s body (there’s an achievement in the game for successfully looking under her skirt).
This is a game of extreme ups and downs. I don’t think I’ve ever had my opinion of a game change so rapidly. The first chapter is good fun, while I found parts of the second and third to be intolerable. The fourth is the best the game has to offer in terms of ingenuity and humor, while the fifth is solid. It should also be mentioned that the game seems designed for playing again and again, with persistent upgrades and leaderboard challenges. Though I guess I enjoyed my time with the game, I had absolutely no desire to go back through it after my first playthrough. Once again, that playthrough will last you 5-6 hours.
There’s a lot of good here, from the pretty satisfying gameplay to the bursts of truly funny dialogue. But all the goodwill in the world couldn’t wash away the feeling of muck, obscenity, and yes, dare I say it, misogyny, that persists through the game in its darker moments. Lollipop Chainsaw can feel like a long, sufficiently entertaining episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though I don’t remember quite as many people calling Sarah Michelle Gellar a slut on that show, while she coquettishly stops the camera from glancing up her skirt.