This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Lollipop Chainsaw.
As regular viewers will know, Suda51 is a quirky Japanese game director whose career I've been following for the same reason you'd follow a friend who's just taken brown acid and sprinted into the forest flinging their clothes aside: because he might hurt himself or do something really funny. But what concerns me is that his games have been getting increasingly easy to summarize.
I mean, Killer7: "A hitman with eight distinct personalities is tasked to defend America from some Japanese conspiracy involving an army of invisible giggling naked suicide bombers with suspiciously absent sexual characteristics", and even that's not doing it justice. No More Heroes: "Massive nerd kills his way through ten colorful assassins to in some way convince himself that his new laser sword wasn't a waste of money." Yeah, I was like that when I bought a sandwich toaster. Shadows of the Damned: "Man with bad accent rescues sexy girlfriend from Hell." That's getting pretty concise. And now Lollipop Chainsaw's got it down to three words: "Cheerleader fights zombies." Wanna try to beat that record and make a game with a two-word summary, Suda? I've got one for you: "Dead horse."
But with his two most recent games, Suda has had to share his toys with the other kids somewhat. With Damned it was Shinji Mikami and in this case it's open-quotes "acclaimed filmmaker" James Gunn, so acclaimed I had to look him up. But apparently he wrote the screenplay for the live-action Scooby-Doo movie, so that clears that up. (And all right, yes, he made Super as well before you all pounce for the comments section.)
The game is set in small town America in some nebulous time period where online shopping is available but everyone listens to 80s pop music and dresses like it's the 50s. You play Juliet Starling, a blond high school cheerleader alongside whom even the cold vacuum of space seems complex and busy, who also happens to belong to a family of monster hunters. So when a dark ritual summons the undead legions to her school, she has to has to pull out a massive rainbow-patterned chainsaw and sort shit out one neck stump at a time, assisted by the decapitated head of her boyfriend, Nick, who serves as a convenient portable straight man and part-time ballistic missile. This is the part where we display our palms and wobble them back and forth shrieking, "Quirkyyyyyyyyyyyy!"
What with Juliet being built like a collection of sofa cushions strategically nailed to a lamppost and her fondness for skirts the length of an information pamphlet on feminist theory, one could reasonably take this as yet more proof of the rampant objectification of females in the media. But the more I considered it, the more I regarded Lollipop Chainsaw as comparatively progressive, and isn't that a depressing thought. Juliet is always in control of the situation, has a healthy, devoted family life, and the developers would never suggest that the player should feel motivated to protect her from rapists - seriously, that's pretty fucked. But importantly, at the same time, it's never suggested that she is something women should aspire to be, either. Her bubble-headed obliviousness is constantly played for laughs, and there's a strong undercurrent of psychological damage as she chainsaws up her former schoolmates while remaining as innocently upbeat as a cruise ship entertainer teaching pensioners how to line dance. It's almost a parody of the standard improbably-skilled, impractically-dressed pouting hotties of video gaming. But then again, I'll say the same thing I said about Bayonetta: just because you're being ironically fetishistic doesn't mean people aren't gonna jerk off to it.
So I emerged from the confusing labyrinth of determining how offended I should be actually kind of liking the characters. The unrelenting sparkling rainbow joy managed to get through my usual bitterness and momentarily drowned out the voices telling me to mail out more anthrax packages.
But what about the gameplay? What about the gameplay? Good question. It's about as substantial as a biscuit steering wheel. The format is virtually identical to Shadows of the Damned, a chapter-based monster-killing game in which a demon hunter is partnered with a talking decapitated head. Except unlike Johnson, Nick thankfully never takes the role of substitute sexual characteristic (hypothetically by holding a fish sandwich in his mouth). And like Daddies of the Shammed, Lollipop Chainsaw just loves breaking things up with set piece minigames, in which I tended to die several times because they were throwing a whole new set of rules at me like a fridge on a railroad track, and then I get a low rank for the whole level because I continued more than once, and then I'd start hearing the voices again. Which was your least favorite? Mine was Zombie Baseball, 'cause you have to defend a bloke running the bases as slowly as possible who can take hits about as well as a stained-glass tennis racket.
As for the combat that forms the sticky white trail connecting all of this, it's not great. My reading of a good combat system is one in which every available move is useful in somewhat equal measure. Here it's Triangle for high chainsaw attack, X for low chainsaw attack, and Square for light non-chainsaw attack, which I never, ever used. Because I don't know about you, but when I'm handed a rainbow-patterned chainsaw, my first thought is not, "Gonna limit my usage of this!". You're supposed to use light attacks to make enemies dizzy so you can one-shot three or more of them simultaneously for big bonuses, but I found I got similar results just spamming the X-X-Square combo, which ruined shit like a sweetcorn landmine, and is the only reason my Square button didn't turn black and drop off from disuse.
I sincerely recommend playing the first level or two on normal difficulty and then bumping up to hard, because by then, you'll have found your personal favorite utterly-broken attack, and the zombies never really evolve their tactics beyond, "let's all run up into convenient dismemberment range and figure it out from there." Even the bosses can offer little more than impotent bluster as I merrily X-X-Square my way through their quaint little defenses like a honey badger strapped to a Catherine wheel. But there are certainly games with worse combat and games with more offensive depictions of women, cough Metroid: Other M, unconvincing cough.
I think my main problem with it is that it's quirky, yes. But it's a very standard sort of quirkiness, if that makes sense. Predictable, almost. I mean, zombies! Come on! Even zombies in a comedic setting were done (appropriately enough) to death about half-past the Renaissance. Where's the imagination? I have a horrible feeling that Suda51 has gotten too into his reputation as that bloke who makes those quirky games that reference retro pop music and video games all the time for no adequately explored reason, and now he might feel pressured to try too hard.
So all in all, Lollipop Chainsaw leaves me with the ever lazy critical statement, "could be better, could be worse." It's all very wacky and hilarious while it's there, but you kind of stop thinking about it the moment you put it down. Has its charm, but somewhat insubstantial, like a cheesy wotsit - a puff of dusty orange fun that doesn't quite satisfy and leaves you needing to wash your hands before you touch anything that stains.
- Bubble gum hedgetrimmer: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Honestly there can't be much profit in a family zombie hunting business unless you're all playing Minecraft and really, really need rotting meat for some reason
- With small-town America it's always either zombies or communists isn't it
Extra: Escapist Expo
So me and a bunch of my Escapist chums are attending a bit of a get-together this year we're calling "the first Escapist Expo". September 14 to 16 in Durham, North Carolina, Check the website for more details. Hope to see you there! Yes, you! No, not you, the pretty one.