Ladies, perhaps you can help me:
Is Lollipop Chainsaw a smart, funny commentary of the sexist treatment of women in video games? Or is it a stupid, offensive piece of sexual exploitation? I honestly can't tell, and based on the lack of maturity in the humor and visual styles of both Shadows of the Damned and Lollipop Chainsaw, I'm leaning more towards "stupid". I can say, however, that if you are a 13-year-old boy, then you shouldn't bother reading any more of this review, because this game has a hot, blonde cheerleader in it that kills zombies with a chainsaw, and you will love it! But don't get too excited: despite the notice for "partial nudity" in the ESRB ratings label on the box, you won't see anything that you couldn't see on a pixelated beach.
As for me, a ditzy, busty, blonde cheerleader isn't going to be able to overrule my discriminating tastes and single-handedly carry the game alone on her well-endowed chest. If the gameplay doesn't hold up, then even the best character design and cleverest wit won't save the game from a mediocre review.
Table of Contents
"Plot": Blonde Cheerleader kills zombies with "sparkle power" chainsaw
The core concept of the game is that Juliet Starling is a high school cheerleader who happens to secretly be a professional monster-hunter (along with her whole family). They keep referring to the family as a family of "zombie hunters", but they also (according to dialogue) battle vampires, yetis, and other monsters, so I'll call them "monster hunters". On her 18th birthday (barely legal, indeed), a bullied, emo-goth classmate decides to unleash a zombie Armageddon via black magic on the school and town.
And on her eighteenth birthday, too!!! :`(
Juliet Starling is bound to become a popular Rule 34 subject
The centerpiece of the game is the tongue-in-cheek protagonist, Juliet Starling. She is designed to be an adolescent boy's wet dream, and to make an older gamer feel like a dirty old man. She wears a two-piece cheerleading outfit with short skirt and pig tailed blonde hair, loves to suck on lollipops, and wields pink, heart-themed chainsaw complete with its own phone and rocket launcher. Her personality is ditzy and bubbly, and the writers seemed to have tried to make her feel innocently-naive sometimes, but other times, she throws innuendo out left and right. Sometimes, it's hard to tell if the writers were trying to go for a naively-dirty style of humor (like the oblivious kids in the first season or two of South Park), but most of the time, it seems pretty obvious that Juliet knows what she is talking about, which makes her come off as kind of slutty.
This is definitely the feeling that this game is trying to invoke in its male players.
Now, I don't know how women would react to this character, and I'm actually kind of curious to hear what some women have to say (So ladies, please comment!). On the one hand, Juliet is overly sexualized, and the game does everything it can to showcase her cartoon-perfect physique without going out of its way to include upskirt and cleavage shots (not that there aren't plenty of opportunities for upskirt and cleavage shots). Her character is dumb and stereotypically blonde without going all-out Kelly Bundy, but she's competent and good at what she does.
On the other hand, she's a strong, loyal, dutiful, and kicks major ass. The game takes plenty of opportunity to poke fun at the superficial image of "sexy" women in pop culture. Juliet will drop everything to take a few minutes to shop online for pretty new stuff (combat moves, costumes, etc), and she repeatedly comments on her own negative body image and how her lollipops are going to make her fat. The thing that stood out to me most though, is that Juliet seems to have a very healthy and positive family life. Her family works like as a unit, and everybody seems to love, trust, and respect each other. She's not the prototypical rebellious teenager running off with the delinquent bad-boy boyfriend.
Manually rotating the camera at the start of the game: she covers herself with her hand.
Literally two minutes later ...
Juliet will play coy when you try to do it manually, but you'll get plenty of opportunities to look up her skirt.
So the game seems to be simultaneously making fun of, and exploiting the superficial sex appeal of its protagonist. At the same time, Juliet could actually be seen as a positive role model for young girls. Yes, she's hot and dumb and too obsessive about her looks. But she's also capable and compassionate, and she has a full and believable character arch, becoming more independent and confident in herself and her abilities over the course of the game.
It's an interesting dichotomy that the writers and designers balanced very well.
Other characters are uninspired and annoying
So much attention seems to have been payed to Juliet's character that the secondary characters in the game all come off as being uninteresting and mostly annoying. Juliet's boyfriend, Nick, is bitten by zombies and decapitated by Juliet early in the game in order to save him from going full-zombie. She carries his still-living head around with her the rest of the game, and he grants her a set of superpowers. He throws out plenty of one-liners over the course of the game, repeating many of them over and over again, and all the gameplay mechanics that are based around him are poorly-implemented. He's also less-funny and delivers many of his lines much flatter than his Shadows of the Damned counterpart, Johnson (who was probably the most entertaining part of that game).
Juliet's family is also pretty annoying. Juliet's older sister (she has no brothers) is a sassy sniper with a little bit of a rebellious streak. She has very little personality, and ends up being a very forgettable character in the game. Juliet's younger sister is almost the exact opposite, being an even more ditzy and bubbly version of Juliet without any of the redeeming qualities (and is still jail-bait). This younger sister is a character that you want to forget, but can't.
Juliet's father is a flashy, motorcycle-riding, rhinestone Elvis-type character who might have been funny as a father who disapproves of his daughter's choice in boyfriends, if not for the fact that he's just so obscenely silly. Juliet's mother has virtually no presence in the game other than a few worthless phone calls and an appearance at the end of the game.
The villain characters are also a boring, forgettable bunch.
Hack and slash zombie action with girly "sparkle" power
And what are those medals good for? Skimpy costumes, of course!
The primary focus of the gameplay is on its hack-and-slash zombie-slaying action with medal-collecting for purchasing moves and power-ups. The standard controls are a pretty basic action game fair: a light attack button useful for quick combos and stunning enemies, heavy and light attacks with the main weapon, and a dodge/jump command. The primary gimmick of the combat mechanics is that if you simultaneously decapitate three or more stunned zombies, you get a "sparkle hunter" bonus to the medals earned. There are two types of medals: gold and platinum. The gold medals are used at the shops located in various levels to unlock new combat moves, permanent attribute boosts, and consumeable power-ups. The platinum medals are used for "rare" items such as new (skimpier) costumes, concept art, music tracks, and so on. Lollipops can be collected and eaten to recover your health.
Basic combat is sound, but conflicted
The basic combat mechanics are pretty sound, offering a wide variety of moves and combos. The problem is that too many of the moves need to be unlocked, and if you pick the wrong moves, then you'll have trouble earning medals and unlocking the rest of the moves. If you really like the game, then this is a great thing, since you can go through the game again in order to use the new moves you've acquired, and to gain access to the higher-level moves as well. But if you're only going to give the game one playthrough, then the combat may come off as simplistic and tedious, since you'll be stuck using the same moves over and over again. A few combos that you'll get fairly early end up being too powerful and get repeated too often.
I have a few issues with the basic combat mechanics though. For one thing, it was annoying that the majority of your combos and pom pom light attacks do considerable knockback, which serves to push zombies away and spreads them apart from each other. Once separated, the slow, shambling nature of zombies makes it hard to get them clumped back together again; and it's impossible to do once they are stunned and immobile. So getting the sparkle hunting rewards is a bit harder and more frustrating than it needs to be. Adding to that is the fact that even when you do get a bunch of stunned zombies in a clump or line, there is no guarantee that you'll actually hit all of them. There are moves that let you leapfrog over zombies in order to push them back into the group, but in order to make this work you need to be very good at judging how many hits it will take to stun a particular zombie. And with up to a dozen zombies on screen at once, keeping track of which ones are damaged can be problematic.
Get multiple zombies lined up in a row to decapitate them as a group for bonus points! Unless your melee attacks pushed them all apart...
Since the game rewards the player for decapitating multiple stunned zombies while they are grouped together, the basic combat mechanics (not to mention general rules of zombie-killing) seems to conflict with the sparkle hunting system. Ever attack you make spreads the zombies out, but you need to attack them to stun them, and they need to be stunned in order to be decapitated, but you only get the sparkle bonus if the stunned zombies are clumped together. See the circular paradox yet?
Advanced moves are also clumsy and tedious
There are also a few "advanced" mechanics, such as the "Nick Ticket" and sparkle overdrive modes. As is common in action games, as you kill enemies and take damage, you'll charge an overdrive meter that, when full, allows you to trigger overdrive mode. While in overdrive mode, you can instantly kill all non-boss enemies - including unique, named mini-bosses! This is great for collecting some extra sparkle hunting rewards if you deploy overdrive in a large group of enemies, but is overall too easy. The "Nick Ticket" moves are superpowers that employ Nick's decapitated head. One ability lets you shake his head and prance around as he spills out medals and lollipops. You can typically get about 100 medals from this move, and buying replacement Nick Tickets only costs around 40 medals, so you might as well save up one Nick Ticket for when you get to a shop, do the Nick Shake for free medals, and then use them to buy more tickets. You come out with a net positive. In order to prevent you from exploiting this mechanic, the designers had the foresight to limit how often you can use the Nick Shake ability. Good catch, devs!
The overdrive mode makes the game a bit too easy, but gives the player a touch decision: should I use it to get automatic sparkle hunting rewards when I come across large hordes of enemies? Or should I save it for the powerful, named zombies? At the end of each level, you are ranked for your performance based on several criteria. One of which is "medals collected", another is "continues used", and another is "level completion time". So if you use your overdrive for hordes of minion zombies, you can rack up medals and save a lot of time that would otherwise be spent stunning, then killing the zombies. But then you're on your own for the hard, named zombies, which can easily kill an unprepared player, and which can easily drag out to be several minutes long.
It would be nice if context-sensitive moves like this required some thought or strategy, but they are all scripted events of no gameplay significance.
Another severe problem that I had was with the controls for the "Nick Ticket". It is activated by clicking the left stick. Being such a frantic game, it is very easy to accidentally click the stick during combat, causing a premature activation of a Nick Ticket. This wouldn't be so bad if not for two things:
- The Nick Ticket allows several abilities which are activated by a random roulette wheel, so if you're already mashing buttons when you accidentally trigger it, you're not likely to trigger a useful move,
- There is a lengthy cutscene that preceedes every Nick Ticket move, which is unskippable. Remember the summoning cutscenes from old Final Fantasy games? Yeah, it's almost that bad.
It was not uncommon for me to be in the middle of a combo, accidentally click the left stick (activating a Nick Ticket), and then prematurely stopping the roulette wheel with what was supposed to be the next attack in the combo. In such situations, I'm stuck watching an annoying cutscene, performing a possibly useless move (the Nick Shake leaves you defenseless), and a wasted Nick Ticket.
And it's a "quarter-eater"
The most annoying thing about the game, though, is that there is just so much going on at once that it's sometimes hard to tell exactly what is happening. I like that enemies don't telegraph their attacks, or that the game doesn't point them out to us as if we were stupid (Arkham Asylum is forgiven because the combat engine was so good); but there are just so many enemies on-screen at once, that it is almost impossible to see when any one of them attacks. This leads to Juliet taking a lot of unnoticed attacks, which quietly drains her health. If you're not paying attention, it can be very easy to get lost in the action and suddenly realize that you are dead - even if you had a handful of healing lollipops just sitting in your pocket. It reminds me of those old arcade beat-em-ups that would always get those cheap hits on you, forcing you to burn through quarters in order to keep the game going.
Zombies come in hordes, and will eat away at your health.
The game just eats away at your health little by little by little, and maybe that's exactly how a zombie game should be, but it's hard to feel like a real badass and keep your groove going when you have to stop the game dead every few minutes to eat a lollipop. Which reminds me: why do we have to pause the game to eat a lollipop? Do we really need a confirmation screen for that? Why couldn't they have given us that for the Nick Tickets, which stop the game for a stupid cutscene anyway?
Gameplay problems aside, production values are pretty high
Although the gameplay may be a bit rough around the edges, the production values are actually pretty high.
Boring villains, but interesting themed levels
The villian's ritual summons a handful of powerful, unique zombies (kind of the zombie-horsemen of the Apocalypse) that spread out around the town, and Juliet must make her way through the town to destroy each of these special zombies in order to clear the town and rid it of evil. Each zombie has a unique theme that is applied to their respective levels and inevitable, multi-phased boss fights, and each one gives the level a unique flavor and style. The levels are generally well-designed around a main visual and musical theme. A punk-metal themed zombie has his level in a junk yard; a hippie zombie has her level take place in a farm complete with hallucinogenic mushrooms; a synth-pop keyboarder zombie has his level take place in a neon-infused arcade; and there's even a Viking zombie that you have to fight on a flying Norse Longboat with a heavy-metal backing track.
Each of these levels is pretty well-designed, and they offer a little bit of gameplay variety with each level having its own gameplay gimmicks. Some levels are based around specific game mechanics (such as the farm level requiring you to constantly use the chainsaw's rocket launcher to blow up obstacles), but some throw in very poorly-designed mini-games. The mini-games were bad in Shadows of the Damned too, but these might be worse. Two early examples are "Zombie Basketball" and "Zombie Baseball". Basketball isn't terrible, but the baseball mini-game is very annoying since it's basically a stationary escort level (think of the sniper segments of Resident Evil 4 in which you have to protect Ashley, except in this case, the NPC ally is running around a baseball diamond for no other reason than to score points. If you turn off the aim-assist, then this mini-game becomes a bit more tolerable, since the gun won't auto-lock onto the wrong enemies, but it's still annoying to play.
The regular levels are mostly well-designed, but mini-games go from bad to worse.
Even worse, are the later-stage video game-themed levels in the arcades. Not only do these play poorly, but they also look like ass (and not in the good way, like Juliet's ass). Mostly, they're just boring and not fun, the instructions are unclear, and the design is less-than-intuitive.
Probably the game's strongest feature is its excellent voice casting. It all starts with lead actress Tara Strong (a prolific voice actress probably best known as Bubbles from Powerpuff Girls), who manages to get just about every line of dialogue exactly right. She gives Juliet that pitch-perfect, bubbly teenage girl voice that you would expect to go along with the picture-perfect physique. Unlike the piss-poor casting for Heather Morris in Silent Hill HD Collection, Tara actually sounds like a squeaky teenage girl, and not an adult trying to sound like a squeaky teenage girl.
The rest of the cast is pretty solid too. Nick, who I thought for sure was the same guy who voiced the zombie character in Comedy Central's Ugly Americans, is the only real weak spot. And even then, he's still just hit-or-miss. Some of his lines are very flat and get repeated too often. Every now and then, he actually has a funny one-liner though. The rest of Juliet's family and the bosses are all very well-voiced. All the voices fit well with the characters - even if the overall design of the character happens to be lame.
Even the zombie minions have some amusing one-liners!
If you're not a 13-year-old boy, try it first, and make sure it's a game for you
I definitely can't recommend this game for everyone. I also can't not recommend it to anyone. It's a solid hack-n-slash action game that's a little rough around the edges. If you're easily offended and can't stand dirty jokes or innuendo, then stay as far away as you can (and keep your kid away). But even if you have a sense of humor, you should be warned that this isn't exactly the most sophisticated or highbrow humor. It has its clever moments, but so much of its humor is predictable and even tame. It doesn't go far enough to really shock (but it has plenty of opportunity to do so), but it definitely goes far enough to not be for the Disney crowd. It's definitely no Flying Circus. Maybe it would be fair to compare it to a middle-of-the-road South Park episode?
In the end, I have to say that Lollipop Chainsaw ended up being a very forgettable game. Within a week of playing it, I had already forgotten most of what happened, who the characters (except Juliet) were, what bosses I fought, what the levels looked like, and whether the combat felt broken or brilliant. The only thing that stood out to me were:
- Juliet is a very interesting character design
- Why are there so many long load screens? and
- Please, no more Grasshopper Manufacture mini-games!
If you need some high-octane hack-n-slash action, then my recommendation is for the original Devil May Cry or God of War. If that hack-n-slash action absolutely must have "girl power", then I would actually recommend Bayonetta and maybe even Heavenly Sword over Lollipop Chainsaw...
...Unless you get your jollies from zombie-killing cheerleaders...