This has been one hell of a year for movies, and a few exceptions aside, we’ve had one great movie after another, with the end nowhere in sight. The same could not be said of gaming, which in direct contrast with last year, has seen one disappointment after another. Mass Effect 3 ruined an entire franchise with an ending so bad it set ablaze the Internet in ways not seen since the net discovered knee-injured town guardsmen. The offerings at E3 were dismal, with no real show stealers, and a string of disappointments from the Big Three. The game this year I was looking forward to playing most, Bioshock Infinite, was delayed until next year, and might be pushed back further. Were it not for ridding Tamriel of the dragon Alduin never getting old, my Xbox 360 would be collecting as much dust as my Wii. So as you can understand, I was looking forward to Lollipop Chainsaw to break that dry spell.
While it may seem odd that a game about a chainsaw-wielding cheerleader killing zombies would be a game I have been anticipating for months, you just don’t know Goichi Suda, better known as Suda51. As I mentioned in my look back at Killer7 when they delayed this game back in April, few game developers are more revered and feared for acid-tripping levels of brilliant insanity than he is, and his hand in making three of my favorite games (Killer7, No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned) had me reserving Lollipop Chainsaw before the trailers had even been released. The very name of the game has that sort of absurdity Suda51 has become famous for. Top it off with a script by veteran horror movie screenwriter James Gunn and a soundtrack done by Akira Yamaoka and Jimmy Urine of Mindless Self Indulgence, to say nothing of the guilty pleasure vibe of the game that would make Quinton Tarrantino proud, I couldn’t wait to take this chainsaw for a spin.
The story follows bubbly and busty high school cheerleader Juliet Starling as she gets what may be the worst birthday suprise ever: a zombie outbreak in her high school caused by the Gothic druid Swan as he summoned the five Hard Rock Zombie Lords to the mortal realm so he can have his vengeance on his classmates and the world at large. Luckily, Juliet is not just your typical cheerleader – she comes from a long line of zombie slayers, and immediately sets about mowing down the waves of her undead classmates. With her trusty chainsaw and the still-living severed head of her boyfriend Nick at her side, you lead Juliet as she slaughters the undead, defeats the five Hard Rock Zombie Lords, and salvages what’s left of her birthday – and her relationship with her now torso-less boyfriend.
If you couldn’t tell by the title, the plot never really takes itself seriously, though thanks to its execution and style of humor, the result is it plays out like an classic B-movie (and as the game was made by Warner Bros, I would not rule out a movie someday), and it is gloriously cheesy to behold, a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bayonetta and Shawn of the Dead. The script by James Gunn is brimming with wit and humor, relying on a mix of camp, cheese, meta-humor, references and a few notable instances where they break the fourth wall, and the result was a game with a great many moments that had me laughing to the point of hysterics, and had me smiling from start to finish. Though the game does play into the old videogame cliché of the sexualized heroine – let’s not kid ourselves, there’s an achievement for looking up Juliet’s skirt – it takes a backseat to a game that is far more focused on paying homage to cheesy zombie movies, and surprisingly, rock and roll, with each of the games levels designed around a particular genre in every detail from the boss to the soundtrack, but more of them both in a minute. The result is a game that is far wittier and more genre savvy than you’d think any game about a cheerleader killing zombies with a chainsaw would be.
If you’ve ever played No More Heroes, you know just what insane and likeable characters Suda 51 can craft, and he doesn’t disappoint here. Though Juliet might be the latest in a long line of sexually-exploitive women in video games, she’s surprisingly a very likeable and well developed character, whose bubbly attitude and naiveté are only matched by her foul mouth and skill at dispatching zombies. Nick on the other hand, plays the straight man, or as much as he can being a severed head and all, and his deadpan snark is just as endearing as Juliet’s cheerful innocence. The relationship between the two forms the spine of the story and you genuinely care for them and their fate – certainly helped by the fact the many conversations between Juliet and Nick make up much of both the game’s heart and humor, with topics ranging from the zombie apocalypse (“You know, the fun part about the zombie outbreak is I get to do stuff like this now!”“Yeah, this totally makes up for the fact almost everyone I know is dead.”) to relationships (“Do you want kids one day Nick?”“I really think that’s irrelevant now, given my situation!”), given my love of cheesey humor and slapstick (cheese-stick?), their Laurel and Hardy routine often left me in stitches.
Of course, the two of them are not the only characters, and the rest of the cast is just as likeable, including Juliet’s family, especially her father, who is what you get if you crossed Johnny Cash and Bruce Campbell, and the relationships between them all are when the game shines. When it shines brightest however, are the bosses, something that should come as no surprise to the people who played No More Heroes. These five so called Hard Rock Zombie Lords, each are the personification of a different music genre, ranging from the melodic metal Viking Vikka, who looks and acts like a hybrid of Thor to Lobo, to the funkadelic lord of Disco Josey, clad in pimp regalia with a voice like T-Pain, and all are a riot to watch in action, and a joy to dismember and destroy in some intense boss battles.
The gameplay is very similar to Suda51’s last hack-and-slash game series, No More Heroes, in that you cut through hordes of chumps in an ultraviolent fashion, unleashing combos and super-attacks when possible, and you have a blast doing it. On top of the standard issue zombie dismemberment, the game is interspersed with various modes and minigames that range in quality from ‘far more fun that they have any right to be’ (driving a combine in a drug-fueled haze through a cornfield packed with zombies) to ‘the only thing more frustrating than this is that I’ve died seven times doing it’ (zombie baseball – enough said), before returning to the delightful monotony of undead genocide. Here, the game manages to break away from the legion of zombie games on the market by utter absurdity – there is just something strangely satisfying about beheading hordes of zombies in a mix of blood and glitter with Toni Basil’s “Mickey” playing in the background.
Which is another thing about Lollipop Chainsaw: the soundtrack for the game is absolutely incredible. The licensed songs are all great and used perfectly, ranging from “Cherry Bomb” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts playing over the main menu to the final boss fight with “Heroes Of Our Time” by DragonForce playing in what may be the best ever usage of that song. The real highlight however are the original songs, which like the bosses and stages, styles range from punk rock to Viking metal, and a number of them are better than many songs on the Billboard 100, though that’s not saying much these days. Put all of that together, and you have a soundtrack almost worth buying the game for on its own – as it stands, if they ever put together a complete soundtrack, consider me sold already.
If there is one thing that holds back Lollipop Chainsaw more than anything else, it would be the length of the game itself. I played at a relatively leisurely pace, and I still beat the game in around seven to eight hours, and I’m sure a more dedicated gamer could blitz through in far less. The volume of unlockable bonus goodies, alternate ending and modes and challenges and leader boards gives the game a relatively high replay value, but like No More Heroes, brevity holds back a very enjoyable game from being a must own.
Overall, Lollipop Chainsaw has a lot to enjoy – the story is a hybrid between a B-movie zombie flik and rock and roll tribute concert, the characters are a riot and are all enjoyable, the gameplay is smooth, though rough at times, and between the humor, themes and that typical Suda51 touch of brilliant insanity, the game is a riot. However, the short length of the game holds the game back from being a must buy for most people, though I recommend highly checking it out as a rental or when the price starts falling. That said, fans of Suda51’s signature style, anyone who enjoys over-the-top violence and humor, loves the feel of a good/bad B-movie, or people looking for a hack-and-slash or zombie game that manages to stand out from the pack in both style in substance will all have a blast, and will find Lollipop Chainsaw quite sweet indeed.