Lollipop Chainsaw is all attitude. And depending, of course, on how you feel about that attitude is going to tell you a lot about how you will feel about that game.
That attitude can be located in the seemingly contradictory dichotomy present in the game’s title itself. Lollipop Chainsaw is one part peppy, provocative sexuality in the form of the fetishized image of the American cheerleader. Its other part is found in the grisly violence promised by the iconic chainsaw featured in many American horror films.
So, yes, in a nutshell this game is all sex and violence, served up “American style”—at least according to the vision of Japanese game developer Suda51.
This game seems almost a companion piece to Suda51’s underrated and undersold, Shadows of the Damned. If Shadow of the Damned was a send up of the typical male American badass action hero (in the form of that game’s protagonist, demon hunter Garcia “Fucking” Hotspur). Lollipop Chainsaw is a send up of the ditzy, yet seductive, female victims of horror. In this case, though, she isn’t a victim, as Juliet Starling seems to be kind of what Buffy of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer was conceived to be—a stereotypical airheaded cheerleader who “should be helpless” but who also happens to actually be a rather capable monster hunter.
On her birthday, Juliet is going to meet her boyfriend Nick before school when (you guessed it) the zombie’s attack. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that Nick soon finds himself without a body, and Juliet drags his animated head along with her as she fights the forces of evil. Again, like Garcia Hotspur’s phallic companion Johnson, Nick serves as a comedic foil for Juliet’s adventures and as an unlikely and unwilling form of weaponry for Juliet at times. Suda51 seems to recognize the need for another voice to keep the plot and characterization flowing during action sequences, and he also seems fond of creating awkward and disturbing tensions between characters and putting similarly unusual sexual expression on display via those companions. As noted, Johnson, as Hotspur’s “weapon” comes to represent the macho attitude of the Latino gunslinger, while Nick with his lack of a body (and thus his emasculation) comes to represent the kind of adolescent uncertainty of putting sexuality into action. You know, it’s high school.
Juliet herself is very much on display here, both as sexual object (in her cheerleading skirt and crop top) and as the catalyst for spectacles of grisly violence. While she eats lollipops as her dominant diet (and to keep up her health), the chainsaw is her weapon of choice, and she uses it mercilessly on the bodies of the undead. Again, like Shadows of the Damned, Suda 51 seems still enamored with putting the ability to play out familiar images from exploitation cinema into players hands and allowing the absurdity of their actions to mount to a crescendo of absurd violence and sentimentality.
The play itself is vaguely reminiscent of Devil May Cry-style action, with its focus largely on acrobatic melee combat that is enacted through mastery of slowly unlocked combos based on button combinations. However, building combo chains is not the key to performance. Instead, the focus here is on learning combos that allow one to kill large numbers of zombies all at once, a practice called “Sparkle Hunting.” Sparkle Hunting is the key to the game, as it produces the zombie medals that are the currency of the game, which allows one to level up Juliet’s base attributes and also new and better combos.
The early game will find the player struggling to perform well. But the late game (and repeated play) becomes more and more rewarding, as a Juliet empowered by her zombie killing sprees becomes a zombie slaughtering machine. However, the game rewards skill, not button mashing. Patience with getting to the point where Juliet has all of her combos available and when the player has actually learned how to use them is rather crucial to enjoying the experience of play.
Repeat play is likely if the game’s combo mechanism is appealing and, again, if the overall attitude is appealing to you to begin with. The game is not especially long (maybe 10-12 hours), but playing through levels over again to beat previous scores and to unlock new skills (and costumes, artwork, etc.) is a pleasure if you vibe on the humor (sometimes rude, sometimes dark, sometimes merely giggle inducing) and the late game intricacies of combat.
For those who already are fans of Suda51’s previous quirky and parodic send ups of games, both modern and retro, this is a likely outcome. For those scared off by his somewhat clunkier gameplay mechanics, again, like Shadows of the Damned, this game is much more polished In its play-style than, say, Killer7 or No More Heroes. Additionally, though, the game really seems to benefit from having an American writer, James Gunn, with a similalyr indecent and “punk-inspired” sensibility on board to help transition the game from Japanese to English. While still filled with completely bizarre and outrageous moments, the absurdist humor here connects more often than Suda51’s previous efforts have in the past. Language seems less of a barrier, though, as the jokes come in a more clear and a more deliberate manner.
I have to say that I love seeing American culture through Suda51’s eyes. When he wants to create an idealized image of an American hero (in this game, that would be Juliet’s father), he makes him look like Elvis. When he wants to create the most horrific boss the player has ever faced, he makes him look like Elvis. His tweaking the nose of American culture via the images of American media that he himself grew up on is both fun and good humored.
Indeed, much criticism is heaped against the supposed “weirdness” of Japanese culture through its fetishization of the Japanese school girl, then Suda just turns it around and points out our same fetishization of the American cheerleader, a similar glamorization of youth and burgeoning sexuality—equally creepy, perhaps. And, of course, our insatiable hunger for violence, which he is always willing to feed back to us, though laced with images that remind of the irony that we always try to make believe that it is just kid stuff—all army men and lollipops.