Recent years have seen a shift of the view of videogames in the media for the better. Once upon a time, gamers were labelled as chauvinistic violent dangers to society. Now we are seeing the benefits of a more mature way of creating the games we play. We are even seeing some achieve the status of “interactive works of art”. This is real progress that has been hard-fought for. So here comes Suda 51’s Lollipop Chainsaw to represent a nose dive back into the dark days, with overtly sexual protagonists such as Juliet, sporting the skimpiest cheerleader outfit in existence. Is this exploiting our Chainsaw wielding heroine or a clever ruse into the criticism of sexism in gaming?
It’s fairly obvious that Lollipop Chainsaw has two influences: The classic B-Movie trope of basic plot setups and bizarre outcomes; as when Juliet is wakes up on her 18th birthday, a zombie apocalypse has savaged her school campus. We also see the cult classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Juliet has destiny thrust upon her as a result, due to her family being Zombie Hunters. These are things that her boyfriend Nick doesn’t know about. When he gets bitten by a zombie, she saves him by cutting off his head, keeping it alive using magic, and strapping it to her short skirt. If that isn’t eccentric enough for you, a high school acquaintance raising the dead because of a personal vendetta confounds to the point of giving up entirely on the plot. It is typical Suda 51 madness as expected and full of explicit language to home in on the B-Movie concept.
Let’s get the rather skimpy elephant in the room out-of-the-way; Juliet is sexualised to the point where the boundaries of being a parody and being serious are frequently broken. When she’s in combat and moving around (for the most part), having a high school cheerleader as the protagonist of choice is unconventional enough to work. The banter between Juliet and Nick is some of the best the industry has to offer, as Nick is the long-suffering beau to our naive bimbo of a protagonist, giving us entertaining backchat and retorts. Where it all becomes unstuck is when you look at Juliet during the cut-scenes. The camera certainly doesn’t help as it frequently tries to peep up her skirt, but it is the dumb blonde spunkiness stereotype of cheerleaders in general that frustrates. Perhaps that is the point, to enrage to the point where we question the more subtle traits of other female characters; but Buffy the Vampire Slayer did the high school monster hunter act a lot more convincingly in the first episode than Lollipop Chainsaw tries for more than half the game. When things wrap up it is a little too neat if you get the preferred ending, with the “Bad” ending being as bizarre as the rest of this haphazard plot.
Each of the six stages are broken down into segments that involve the mass slaughter of zombies, some kind of sport themed mini-games, dodging sections and one or two unique events. These will take roughly an hour or so per play-through, with time shortened with each upgrade you obtain. As you behead the undead, you will receive medals for brutality and style which you can spend on upgrades, music, costumes and other doodads, in the computerised shop. Combat is a simple button mashing affair that after the umpteenth horde of zombies quickly becomes stale. Enemy variation is vast in design and attacks, but rarely challenge as individuals due to the simple methods you obtain to put them to rest. Purchased attacks and upgrades do give Juliet a sense of progression, but they only vary the inevitable decimation of the zombie hordes. While the mini-games do give players a break from the constant slaughter, they don’t really have much part in the overall process of the game. Lollipop Chainsaw does have probably the world’s first and last Combine Harvester simulator, but even this feels half-hearted.
Boss encounters that round off the end of each stage are inspired; though taking Suda 51’s pedigree from No More Heroes into account, this is to be expected. They are most certainly outlandish; such as the Punk Rocker whose shouts form letters that hurt you or the Viking Metal zombie with his own flying pirate ship and crew. Unfortunately though, the later encounters descend into the sea of frustrating Quick Time Events, which involve more than just the severing of their immortal ties. The final boss in particular looks stunning with the scale, but the final act of this boss is essentially timed button presses.
Once you complete the game, you do get the chance to try for the better endings by going back into stages to save your fellow classmates. Thankfully you never need to save all required classmates at the same time as the game remembers which poor souls you have saved along the way. Juliet can also unlock new costumes as she progresses by spending Platinum Coins gained by butchering zombies in flashy ways, which range from altered cheer-leading uniforms and civilian clothes to parody outfits from Japanese anime High School of the Dead. Players can also challenge other users in Ranking Modes to get the best score in the levels, while trying to beat “Dad’s High Score” in each level unlocks more stuff to buy in the shop. If you like collecting stuff like the hoarder you are, then this will keep you enticed for a good few hours.
Lollipop Chainsaw nearly gets its presentation right however. Each of the cell shaded environment is striking and unique and while the frame-rate is too jittery at times the visuals hold up well. To make an overtly sexual character this convincing takes a disturbing amount of passion, especially as the zombies themselves are mostly lumbering meat-sacks. Each of the voice work is commendable to an extent, though it is Michael Rosenbaum as Nick (Lex Luthor in Smallville) who shines as much as his awe-inspiring hairless scalp, due to snappy delivery and getting the best lines in the game (when he is just a head). Tara Strong may have impressed us as Harley Quinn in Batman: Arkham City last year, but here she really hams up the ditzy schoolgirl motif that quickly becomes bothersome.
The music is probably the best thing about the game as it conveys not only the pop classics fitting of the protagonist such as The Chordette’s “Lollipop” and Toni Basil’s “Mickey”, but also some of the best from the various music scenes portrayed in the stages and original scores by Akira Yamaoka that suit the environments completely. Shops grant you more access to the soundtrack, but the best part is the ability to select tracks to be your backing music. With a wide variety open to you, ranging from Punk Rock, Viking Metal, Psychedelic 60’s Music and 70’s Funk, as well as the Cheerleading pop songs from various eras, you can customise your soundtrack to the zombie genocide.
Is Lollipop Chainsaw sexist? Not entirely. Is she a little misguided? Most certainly! There is plenty to dislike about Suda 51’s latest retail endeavour when it comes to looking further up her skirt as you realise that the gameplay is just an exasperating dull romp through a school. She rarely challenges to the point where you feel actively engaged in the proceedings. You also don’t have a lot to talk about after the conclusion that comes all too soon, as there is only so far that beatings scores on leaderboard will take you before you move on from this relationship. Sure Lollipop Chainsaw looks great when its protagonist is fighting the zombies and she has a great taste in music; but oddly enough the beauty is only skin deep.