Lollipop Chainsaw plays out as the videogame equivalent of an exploitation film. It’s grindhouse, bubblegum pop. This comes as a collaboration between Grasshopper Manufacture’s Suda 51 and filmmaker James Gunn. The title blends together the developer’s punk rock ethos with Gunn’s satirical approach to comedy horror. It works out in an interesting, if not uneven way.
At face value, Lollipop Chainsaw is fluff pulled from adolescent male fantasies. The title’s protagonist, Juliet, is a nubile cheerleader born into a family of zombie hunters. She’s feverishly drawn from our collective unconscious of ditzy feminine clichés. Her character begs for a reaction and effectively addresses the over sexualized themes upfront by overstating them to the point of satire.
It’s her 18th birthday, so Juliet goes to meet her jock boyfriend at the San Romero high school when a zombie outbreak happens. He gets infected, so she takes her decorated chainsaw to his head and does some witchcraft to keep his disembodied head alive. She then ties him off and leaves him dangling around her skirt. He provides the main source of conversation throughout, mostly making quips about his life without a body and providing flavor to what should be a dire situation. But he’s rendered powerless and limbless, allowing Juliet to develop as a strong female lead. Really, Lollipop Chainsaw is female empowerment in a short skirt.
They set out to investigate the zombie outbreak and fight through a handful of segments constructed around specific sub-sets of rock music, with the embodiment of each form capping off stages in boss battles. The musical layer carries through with Akira Yamoka’s expert compositions. Feminine anthems are mixed in with varied punk rock. While the newly composed stuff is an exception, little of the licensed stuff is meaningful on its own, but like Killer 7’s Rave On, they are tied to moments that are interesting in the context of the game.
Actually playing the game is less interesting. It’s given a basic action-heavy structure. Juliet can attack with her chainsaw, stun with her pom-poms, and combine them for the best effect. With progress, she becomes more versatile with combos and attribute bonuses found in shopping kiosks, and weapon upgrades gifted by her eccentric family. The combat is simplistic and serviceable, with some absurd abilities opening up further on, like weaponizing her disembodied boyfriend.
It’s all about chasing high scores. This makes sense on the second time through. Zombie types and locations change. There’s a good and bad ending. Getting all the unlocks will probably take multiple playthroughs. Whether it’s worth that energy is another thing.
While the mechanics are reminiscent of No More Heroes, they’re more familiar than the unwieldy motion controls but also less special. There are moments where the content is demade into fragments of retro arcade games where it feels more abstract and in-line with the content but it could’ve been more elegant. All is forgiven when a segment pumps Pac-Man Fever in the background, while you’re dropped into a maze puzzle. Other side objectives don’t always fare as well. Another puts Juliet behind the wheel of unwieldy farm equipment to run over zombies, and then once again, to run over zombies and avoid barrels.
There’s the same divide in the presentation. It goes half-in on inspired comic book influences while the actual in-game visuals look more archaic. Compounding the aged look is the problem of an inefficient camera system that’s more often in the way than it is beneficial. That something so linear would be offset by the camera is a shame and it could have used some tweaking.
There’s little about Lollipop Chainsaw that’s outright bad. Most of the writing’s cleverly done. The soundtrack is pitch perfect. It successfully executes on the concept of an exploitation film in videogame form. The creativity’s somewhat marginalized beneath commonplace mechanics but it’s still there, itching to get out. This time you’ll just have to dig for it.