Lollipop Chainsaw has the best personality of any game I’ve played this year. It is everything it wants to be – absurd, colorful, over-the-top. Visually and acoustically, Lollipop Chainsaw is without obvious weakness. It delivers a laugh-out-loud experience through a cast of diverse and memorable characters brought to life by excellent voice actors totally committed to their roles. The writing and presentation are some of the finest I’ve seen this generation and I will definitely remember my time with this game.
But, that stuff isn’t all that counts. While the Juliet Starling character will go down as one of the most memorable heroines in gaming, endlessly cosplayed at a convention near you, the game she occupies is not of the same caliber. Where the presentation is unique, the action is weak compared to other hack-and-slash titles on the market. Lollipop Chainsaw plays out more as a series of repeated mini-games than a fully tied together adventure, and each level is formulaically designed. The same level of ingenuity and creativity found in the game’s aesthetic elements aren’t on display in the mechanics.
Lollipop Chainsaw opens in Juliet’s bedroom, with the teenager stretching out on her bed under the morning light. The scene is designed to make the player uncomfortable, lasting long enough to trigger thoughts about the sexuality of the scene and Juliet’s age right before she mentions she’s just turned 18 that morning, as if that makes it OK. Juliet introduces us to her family through a pan over her photos, showing us her two sisters, her mom and her dad. She also introduces us to Nick, her boyfriend, when she realizes she’s late for school. In a skirt barely long enough to hide her underwear and a sports bra, Juliet takes off. The game is full of innuendo, and though some may call it immature, the narrative is satirical and at times extremely clever.
Juliet rides her bike to school and discovers that hordes of zombies are, like, totally ruining everything! We’re finally given control and swing her chainsaw into our first zombie and … it just doesn’t feel quite right. You have to thwack, thwack, thwack at them, as if your chainsaw weren’t a saw but a wooden sword. Even the most basic zombie seems to take more punishment than it ought to. The chainsaw feels awkward and lacking power, as if the enemies are wearing a Kevlar coating that keeps your chainsaw from having the limb-removing impact that it really should.
Combat grows old fairly quickly because it’s rarely satisfying to kill enemies. The only time the chainsaw is the satisfying weapon that the player wants it to be is when Juliet enters a special mode triggered by collecting stars after kills. When the chainsaw one-hit kills five enemies at once, then and only then do you feel like you’re wielding a chainsaw. I longed to slaughter more zombies faster than Lollipop Chainsaw was ever willing to allow. Juliet can perform combos that help earn her more coins and take down foes faster, but finding the rhythm to master them is difficult, contributing to the combat’s lack of fluidity.
I never felt like I was powerful when I was Juliet, and that made it difficult on some levels to stay as engaged with the story. Some cognitive dissonance occurs when Juliet has to bash a zombie ten times before it finally dies but then slices a car in half in a QTE moments later. As Juliet moves through levels, she’ll fight a wave of zombies, and then perform some sort of QTE to move the action forward. Then she’ll do this again. And again. And again. Nearly everything else that happens outside of combat and a minor racing segment takes place via QTE, including opening doors and many segments during boss battles, which takes away from the experience. You never feel in control during combat, and the rest of the time you’re merely watching things happen, waiting for the next dialogue exchange.
It’s a shame. There are parts of a wonderful video game here on display, but the pieces weren’t put together very well. The gameplay at times feels regressive and uninspired, just things that you have to do to get to the next hilarious dialogue exchange. The story very effectively pushes you along through it, and I can’t say that the gameplay is terrible by any stretch. It just never tries to be as innovative as the rest of the package and comes across as underwhelming by the end of its five hour campaign. Lollipop Chainsaw has a brilliant soundtrack, hilarious characters and an awesome presentation, and it is worth experiencing for these things alone, and you will always remember it … as a game that could have been better.