You could pick Suda51’s work — like Killer7 or the more recent No More Heroes and Shadows of the Damned — out of a line-up. The art style is cartoonish, as are the characters. Memorable protagonists like the vulgar-mouthed tough guy Garcia “F**king” Hotspur or the lascivious Travis Touchdown turned juvenile humour into compelling, tongue-in-cheek delight. And the combat in said games was always fun.
So when a seemingly typical vapid, valley girl cheerleader entered the ring of Suda’s portfolio to beat up zombies and comical zombie bosses, it felt like the next best Suda game was upon us. Juliet Starling, who is basically the Buffy the Vampire Slayer of her world, was the next Travis Touchdown.
But it’s not the protagonist this time that turns a stupid plotline and sophomoric jokes into an endearing experience. It’s not the squeaky and unfalteringly chipper Juliet, with her supposed innocence towards the sexualised jokes thrown left and right at her expense, that makes me snort with laughter at the over-the-top, sometimes random humour I’ve come to be familiar with in Suda’s games. It’s the boss battles, and the mini-games, and the flavour of personality you see from some of the zombies.
Lollipop Chainsaw is set in a ridiculous enough plotline to fit the stupid-but-endearing style. Juliet Starling, a zombie hunter and high school cheerleader, finds San Romero High overrun by a zombie infestation.
Juliet’s entire family is made up of zombie hunters. Her two sisters — the older a sniper expert and the youngest crazed and more obnoxiously “girly” than her middle sister — and father will sometimes show up in the game to help her out. They appear at odd intervals, and not nearly often enough for me to care about them. The best role they play in the game is to drop off gifts that upgrade Juliet’s chainsaw. It is her birthday today, after all.
Juliet is skilled with a chainsaw. And after she picks up a new birthday gift from a new zone, she can shoot faraway enemies with a blaster and dash to speed through the map. Though the gifts unlock these chainsaw abilities, you can purchase combo moves and permanent stat boosts at shops scattered throughout San Romero.
As skilled as Juliet is with a chainsaw, she’s also quite the adept cheerleader. So it’s only natural to combine the two skills in combos that you purchase, incorporating slicing chainsaw swings with leapfrogs, spins and twirls. They’re as fun to carry out as they are deadly. Juliet’s boyfriend’s decapitated head swings at her hip and can be used in battle too. If Juliet activates a Nick card, the game enters “Nick roulette”, where you can choose from Nick’s available decapitated head abilities. These include swinging Nick’s head around for an attack or shooting him out at enemies. Upgrades for his moves can be found at the shops, as well. Fighting zombies is never dull, because there’s always a new combination of attacks that you haven’t tried out, or a new particularly fickle zombie that needs a different attack approach.
There are five main zones in Lollipop Chainsaw. In the midst of hunting and murdering cheerleaders and basketball players that have turned into vicious flesh-eating beings, Juliet will occasionally run into different mini-game challenges. Some are small distractions from the rest of the combat, like placing her boyfriend’s decapitated head onto a headless zombie body to control him with button commands. Others are longer and more laborious, like decapitating zombies to score points in a twisted version of basketball. And others are hilarious and satisfying, like running over a horde of zombies on a tractor. After each zone is completed, you can redo it in Ranking mode to run the zone at your best time.
Some of developer Grasshopper Manufacture’s humour feels right, in that random and quirky way it’s supposed to feel. You’ll chainsaw-rip into a zombie right after he oddly proclaims that his favourite president is Warren G. Harding. What? OK. Teacher zombies yell for apples and tell you to do your homework. It’s so misplaced, and yet appropriate, and it tickles me.
I have two favourite zones in Lollipop Chainsaw. I’ll only mention one so I don’t spoil too much. When you reach the farm zone you’ll mow down hillbilly farmer zombies that have an unhealthy obsession with chickens. Heck, they even toss the chickens at you as a weapon. If Garcia Hotspur were here, he’d know exactly how to respond, guaranteed to be dropping a few F bombs. But Juliet never has anything funny or interesting to say. She acts like a bimbo, and I’ve never found the humour in laughing at the dumb hot chick. Her boyfriend Nick is more likeable than she is. He jokes around about space cake, and his commentary usually resonates with me more than hers. Nick is a body-less belt accessory, but he has more depth than Juliet.
Some of the humour is a swing and a miss. Lollipop Chainsaw feels like it wants to take cracks at overly sexualised male characters like No More Heroes did, but can’t properly emulate it in a way that isn’t totally tacky. Travis, a stereotypical otaku, drooled all over himself in front of Sylvia. It was so exaggerated and tongue-in-cheek that it was funny.
But take, for example, Juliet’s creepy sensei, who has convinced her that wearing panties with teddy bears on them helps her fight zombies. In one scene he accidentally flops onto her chest, jiggle physics in full swing. It was apparently considered so funny that they ran the joke twice, just two seconds after. The jokes don’t touch on the subtle innuendos of No More Heroes like how Travis charged up his beam katana, or the overt innuendos in the same game that are so over-the-top that you wouldn’t feel like a sleaze laughing at them.
I was expecting Lollipop Chainsaw‘s ditzy protagonist and decidedly dumb zombies to carry my way through the game. Grasshopper Manufacture’s particular brand of humour has always struck a chord with my funny bone. But Juliet was more annoying than funny. She held a good grip on her chainsaw, but was at best cute. Garcia and Travis are terribly flawed characters, but it’s what makes them great central figures. But Juliet’s naive and dimwitted personality isn’t as interesting as Garcia’s excessive drinking or Travis’s… passions for women.
What actually pulled me through Lollipop Chainsaw was the combat, and the boss battles in particular. Juliet moves fast and swift against her enemies. She can attack from the air, and gets good range on swinging attacks once you upgrade them. If she doesn’t get hit in the process, Juliet can chain slash lots of zombies, and it’s incredibly satisfying to land combos. Most games that excel in combat sometimes struggle with challenging and fun boss battles to match. But in Lollipop Chainsaw, it’s an opportunity for even more exaggerated, random humour.
I first met Zed the Punk Rock Zombie — the first boss you’ll encounter in Lollipop Chainsaw — during a preview demonstration. I could tell that Grasshopper Manufacture had some interesting ideas in store for boss rounds. I battled Zed by avoiding visualised insults — literally visualised, meaning each insult is spelled out and you have to dodge the oncoming letters — as well as smashing the speakers he stood on. It’s both silly and thematic.
The dark purveyors — as the bosses are called in the game — are one of the few times that the Grasshopper Manufacture/Suda51 flavour actually comes through. They’re crazy characters with a penchant for insults and violence. However, as fair warning, if you were squeamish about video game dialogue that tosses the term “bitch” around, Lollipop Chainsaw is not for you. Lollipop Chainsaw likes to call Juliet lots of names, and the intent for a fun-sexy tone gets lost in an overuse of them.
Though the vulgar choice of humour and language sometimes works in moments like sequences with tongue-in-cheek characters like the viking dark purveyor or hippie zombie boss, it doesn’t always work. Lollipop Chainsaw tries so hard to be like Shadows of the Damned with its humour. Garcia is tough and he speaks his mind. He’s charming, but not in a way that you would want home around your parents.
But when I rescue a fellow classmate from turning into a zombie in Lollipop Chainsaw and he says something like, “I never thought I’d be saved by someone with such great tits”, I just can’t bring myself to laugh. Some people will be bothered by the message it sends, and offended by how juvenile it is. I’m bothered that it’s not funny. I can see what it’s trying to do. I know that the game and its developers don’t want me to take it seriously, and I sure don’t. But it misses the mark of humour that it’s also trying to go for.
Other jokes feel outdated. I’m pretty sure autotune was out even back when it made an appearance in Saints Row: The Third, but I still accepted it. There was lots of missed potential for nonsensical humour that you don’t need a wit-receptor to enjoy. The result during most of the game fits this description, just without the enjoyment.
My biggest gripe with Lollipop Chainsaw could have been solved with smart playtesting and more considerate design decisions. There are certain leniencies that Lollipop Chainsaw doesn’t give you. You can’t always pause the game, only a few cutscenes are skippable, and you can’t save the game mid-zone. You have to finish each in one sitting. I can’t imagine what the value of limiting a player’s control on their own game like that could be, but it’s one you will experience in Lollipop Chainsaw regardless.
Lollipop Chainsaw is pretty stupid. It’s not a game we will use to convince the naysayers that there is indeed educational, artistic or otherwise meaningful value in playing video games. This is one you might want to hide from your accusing significant other or parent, because they will undoubtedly not understand the sophomoric humour and base desire for swift and fun combat needed to enjoy the game. And I’m OK with those kind of games.
But you may even want to hide the game from the most loving of Suda51 fans. Because while there are jokes and characters that resemble the style of games like No More Heroes or Shadows of the Damned, the quality and direction can’t compare.
Lollipop Chainsaw effectively exchanges the charm of following around a character that can both be loved and laughed at for charm that resides in its enemies instead. You get more Garcia Hotspur style enjoyment in the wacky, crazed and cocky bosses than you do in the lead character. I don’t want another Garcia or another Travis. I want a character that is funny for the same reasons those two are funny. Because as dumb, or as hot headed, or as flawed as they may be, they’re still enjoyable. Like a class clown that’s fun to have around, or someone you’d want to invite over for your backyard barbecue party.
Juliet isn’t the star here. That particular style of humour that’s so often misinterpreted and dismissed as juvenile still spills through, though not as often or as effectively. Lollipop Chainsaw feels less like a Suda51 game than Grasshopper Manufacture’s other titles. Unfortunately, sometimes its humour suffers for that. And yet, I still get a great kick out of professionally sweeping through hordes of my zombified classmates, breakdancing zombies and quirky boss purveyors.