++Review: Lollipop Chainsaw

Goichi Suda is a man of intent. Not a single one of his games contains an accidental element. From  the pacing, setting, dialogue, music, humor, art direction, call backs, references, and control schemes, everything is deliberately chosen to fit his purpose, and Lollipop Chainsaw does not deviate. It is possessed of the same soul as Shadows of the Damned and No More Heroes, and each detail is applied with an exacting, painstaking, firm creative hand.

I’ll first make mention that I have, in fact, been floating around the internet, reading one review or another of Suda’s most recent effort (which is totally why this review is as late as it is… *cricket* *cricket*), and I can state that among the reviews I’ve read (which certainly doesn’t include everything out there), all of them are entirely inadequate, or downright misrepresent the game with a simple, sophomoric understanding of what’s actually going on. For example, a common turn of phrase that’s unfortunately been associated with this game is “It’s stupid, but it’s awesome,” or some variation thereof. Beyond telling you nothing whatsoever (what does “stupid” mean, contextually? I don’t know, because none of the authors ever say so…), it fails to expose all of the wonderful components that make up the game, preferring to simply refer to the particularly vulgar dialogue and crass situational punchlines. There’s a lot here, and though I’ve often been (rightly) accused of over analysis and being pedantic, you’ll find this particular review does Lollipop Chainsaw justice.

I’ll start with the aesthetic. The game is set in the 1950’s, as can be gleaned from the dialogue and visual queues. All of Juliet’s male classmates are wearing letter jackets, the hairstyles are indicative of the time period (from Nick’s greaser twist, to her father’s pompadour, and her mother’s Donna Reed), as well as the dialogue — though the profanity is errant for the era, the actual slang is all period perfect. None of this seems too special, until I call your attention to the news print loading screens, and the Ben-Day dots, and news paper edging motif used throughout the game from the menus, to the loading screens, to the in-game environments. These elements are hallmarks of 1950’s pulp comics, which when juxtaposed with the look and feel of the game, make it not only apparent that that’s exactly what Suda was aiming at, but puts on display just how perfect a match it is. And the pulp doesn’t stop there — with nods to both George A. Romero and Joss Whedon, as well as Silence of the Lambs, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the 1992 film starring Kristy Swanson and featuring Paul Reubens and Donald Sutherland [among others], not the aforementioned Joss’ TV show) and others I’m surely missing (all of the apparent ones reference zombies or cannibalism)– pulpy, exploitative grindhouse homages abound from nearly every era.

It is exactly this observation that endorses the over-the-top dialogue. Is it ridiculous? You bet your sweet bippy! But considering that aforementioned pulpy, grindhouse feel the game goes for (and achieves), it’s a perfect fit, and beyond that, essential. Anyone who says otherwise missed the point entirely.

The last thing I’ll mention about the look of the game is the color palette. Everything appears to be candy coated, with a HUGE dose of pink and purple everywhere, rainbows, happy chickens, hearts and stylized skulls. It clashes with the rest of the aesthetic, but for this very reason it works, as it is clearly a visual extension of Juliet’s personality, who stands out against the backdrop of chauvinism as a strong, powerful female lead.

The plot is just as silly as any of Suda’s other games. On her 18th birthday, Juliet wakes up late to a meeting with her darling Nick, while the goth kid from school, Swan, conducts a ritual that allows the dead to once again walk the Earth. Coming from a family of zombie hunters, it’s her job to take care of the undead uprising, shouldering the burden of Nick’s now headlessness, while also saving her imperilled class mates. It’s the simple “SUDDENLY FIGHT!” convention that all of Suda’s games typically stick to, but it’s this simplicity that allowed him to, I’m sure, devote far more time and effort into the things this game will undoubtedly be remembered for. Like the dialogue…

The dialogue, specifically, is absolutely ridiculous, over the top, and chauvinistic, but so much so as to completely lampoon and dull the edge of chauvinism; especially considering the singular male lead is an emasculated (by way of decapitation, no less… a poignant innuendo if ever there was one) boyfriend who is literally powerless to do anything. Nick is at Juliet’s mercy the entire time. The only other man (Swan totally doesn’t count) in the game is the Starling patriarch, and not only is he out of the picture most of the game, diminishing the male presence even further, but he’s supportive of his empowered daughters. The behavior of the family is one of true kinship and togetherness, betraying the idea that chauvinism is as prevalent as the dialogue would have you believe… which is no small feat, because GOOD LORD the dialogue is as daffy as it can be.

Juliet, herself, is the best example of this contradiction, because she behaves as your “typical” blonde high school student: constantly commenting on her own huge butt (“lard ass bait!”), leading the squad of San Romero High cheerleaders, perpetually enthusiastic… but also more than physically capable, bilingual, intelligent, confident, and a lady of action. This game embodies the “never judge a book by it’s cover” axiom, and though it’s really easy to do so, with the loud characters and flashy, colorful visuals, I would press you to drive deeper and observe more critically.

The gameplay, however unlikely, isn’t anything innovative. What’s there is serviceable, but it exists only as a tired retread of every other third person action game that’s come before. X, X, Y; X, X, X, Y; ad infinitum. The game records your score, and you get bonus points for killing multiple zombies all at once, but it’s all been done before; however, Suda 51’s knack for minigames abounds, as you find yourself participating in zombie baseball (which I hated), zombie basketball, an Elevator Action clone (!!!), a Pac-Man homage (double !!!), and boss battles employing a wide variety of gimmicky gameplay (I mean this in the best possible way).

The soundtrack is glorious. it starts with Toni Basil’s Hey, Mickey, takes a trip through the timeless Chrodettes classic Lollipop, but also includes the likes of Skrillex (?!), Joan Jett (!!!), Children of Bodom, and many, many more. Mr. 51 always delivers a solid soundtrack, and this is, by far, his best selection to date.

If video game developers have analogous music genres, Suda 51 is the punk rock of gaming. I can’t wait to see what’s on deck.

Verdict: ++Good (9.5 out of 10) – The been-there-done-that combat only nominally detracts from the experience; though it isn’t anything new, it -IS- implemented tightly, with smooth and intuitive controls/combos, and an unobtrusive camera. The game is simply stunning with regard to aesthetics, not only being Suda’s most crisp game, graphically, but all of the (largely overlooked) pop culture inclusions come together to make it artistically appealing, and the ridiculous disregard for decorum and hilarious dialogue that don’t quit will entertain for its duration. Oh, and the soundtrack is killer. Get off your ginormous ass and go buy Lollipop Chainsaw!

-James Bacon