Review in Brief
Game: A scantily-clad chainsaw-wielding cheerleader must defend her high school from a zombie apocalypse.
Good: Classic Suda51; a brilliant combination of atmosphere, graphics, plot, motifs, and characters into a cohesive game world; very humorous tone and banter.
Bad: Extremely prototypical, and sometimes frustrating, gameplay; boring minigames; more potty humor than adult humor; a missed opportunity for parody.
Play Time: 6 hours for the main plot on one difficulty.
Verdict: A brilliant Suda51 creation completely sabotaged by the incredible lack of entertaining or interesting gameplay.
Recommendation: Still a nice change of pace compared to most games released today, but decidedly average on its own. Great for Suda51 fans, though.
“Classic Suda51, right down to the lacking gameplay.”
Among individual game designers in the video game industry, Suda51 is likely one of the more individually recognizable ones. Suda51 is famous for a wide variety of reused themes, motifs, settings, and styles throughout his several video game creations. He is famous for often having a hyper-violent overall graphical style to the game, oftentimes including bloody decapitations and dismemberment in a visual style so over-the-top that it almost becomes comical rather than shocking. He’s also famous for the quirky and somewhat unusual settings and plot lines in many of his games. These games often revolve around extremely flawed anti-heroes who deal with seemingly shocking subject matter with equally shocking dismissiveness and sarcasm. School environments are a favorite of Suda51, and his trademark sports-themed minigames have made their way into various different creations of his. Among all video game designers active today, perhaps none is so recognizable simply from viewing his work as Suda51. If you were somehow unaware that Lollipop Chainsaw was one of his creations, you would likely be able to identify it as such after only a few minutes of play time.
However, one thing that Suda51 is not famous for is a strong gameplay of his creations, largely because the gameplay is very rarely actually that strong. With few exceptions, one of the hallmarks of Suda51′s creations is the highly prototypical and somewhat lacking gameplay elements. The vast majority of games created by Suda51 –— most notably his No More Heroes franchise — revolve around a set of tried and true gameplay functions that rarely if ever vary much from the standard underlying form. Lollipop Chainsaw is no different: the game is strong in exhibiting some of Suda51′s typical strong command of motif, tone, dialogue, and atmosphere, but it is also a clear example of the lack of attention paid to gameplay elements when creating many of these games.
The result is a game that is entertaining at times, especially to those who are fans of Suda51′s work, but certainly does not present a very compelling gameplay experience. None of the gameplay elements available in Lollipop Chainsaw are anything that we haven’t seen for a minimum of the past 10 years, with many as old as 3D gaming itself. It’s certainly not a bad game, but the prototypical gameplay certainly leaves a lot to be desired and prevents the game from being a wholly enjoyable experience, despite the excellent motif and interesting dialogue. It won’t bore you, but at the same time, you won’t find yourself on the edge of your seat anticipating the next sequence.
Lollipop Chainsaw takes place in the fictional high school of San Romero, where the protagonist, Juliet, is a student and cheerleader. Juliet is the middle sister of three and is currently dating a boy at school named Nick. All that changes, however, when zombies start turning up at San Romero high school. Juliet is also a member of a family of zombie hunters, and as such, when she sees zombies turning up, she pulled out her trusty chainsaw and starts ripping them to pieces. As told through the early scenes in the game (in other words, stop reading here if you don’t want any spoilers even for the game’s first 15 minutes), it seems that a disgruntled student of San Romero high school has taken exception with some of the treatment he has received and, thus, has chosen to open a portal to a dark world and let the zombie virus invade, turning all of Juliet’s classmates into bloodthirsty zombies. In order to stop them, Juliet and her family have to embark on a quest to defeat the five bosses that are terrorizing different areas of the school and city. Thus, the game plays as a sequence of seven stages: an introductory stage, the five individual bosses’ stages, and the final stage. Within each stage, Juliet must navigate an area and eliminate enemies en route to a confrontation with the final area boss.
In terms of gameplay, Lollipop Chainsaw is a classic example of hack-and-slash-style gaming. Juliet is equipped with a chainsaw, and each button is mapped to an overall general attack style: circle for dodge/jump, X for low attack, triangle for high attack, and square for a stun attack. There are also various combos that are obtained normally or bought with the game’s currency that chain together certain sequences of these buttons into larger attacks. Juliet receives currency for defeating the zombies in the game, with more currency being given out when she manages to destroy more zombies with a single attack. She is also equipped with a rifle for projectile attacks and the roulette wheel for more flexible and interesting attacks. Each area is structured as a sequence of battles against some number of some different type of zombies, followed by a boss battle at the end. At the end of each stage, the player is rated on how quickly they completed the stage, how much currency they collected, how many continues they used, and a couple other factors in order to arrive at a final grade. Higher grades earned more items in the in-game shop. There is also a ranking mode in which an individual scores can be compared to others’ scores online.
At a surface level, Lollipop Chainsaw is a classic example of the type of game for which Suda51 is famous. It has hyper violence, the interesting motif and setting, and a humorous, irreverent tone to all of its design elements and dialogue bits.
Strong Union of Plot, Dialog, and Tone
As is Suda51′s trademark, the most positive feature about the game is the incredibly strong way in which the plot, dialogue, tone, music, graphical designs, structure, and details fit together to create an incredibly cohesive game environment. The irreverent nature with which Suda51 approaches the game’s plot and structure is clear from the very opening scene, where the game’s protagonist does not even bat an eyelash at the sudden invasion of hundreds of zombies into her otherwise-normal school. That in and of itself sets the stage for the type of world that Suda51 is creating in Lollipop Chainsaw. The player’s thrown directly into a zombie apocalypse, controlling a hilariously underdressed ditzy cheerleader wielding a chainsaw who does not seem to regard the transformation of all of her classmates into zombies as the slightest bit sad or unusual.
The overall irreverence started by that plot set up is further emphasized by the graphical tone of the entire game. In many ways, the game’s graphical style is reminiscent of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. It heavily leverages comic book style and motif in both telling its story and in constructing its interface. That comic book styling blends perfectly in with the subject matter that Suda51 introduces, creating the kind of protagonist-focused story the one might expect from such a comic book. That graphical style is reused throughout the entire game in a profoundly consistent way, forming the visual style behind every element of the game’s interface as well as several of the intermeeting cut scenes in the game’s main map hub world.
One of the strongest elements of this cohesive game world is the use of music throughout; Lollipop Chainsaw has one of the best and most fitting scores of any game I’ve played in the past several years, and I was tempted to give the music its own section in this review solely to talk about how strong it is. In the end, however, the strength of the music is in how it emphasizes the rest of the game world; the soundtrack could be transplanted to another game and be completely absurd and downright obnoxious. It’s strength is in how it complements the game world of Lollipop Chainsaw. For much of the game, the musical stylings err on the heavy metal end of the spectrum, and in fact, the game’s bosses all have a heavy metal theme to them. What makes the game interesting, however, are the lighthearted injections of entirely different music into certain portions of the game. For example, after defeating enough zombies in a row, Juliet is able to trigger a powered-up mode in which every zombie falls in only one strike. During this powered-up mode, the music in the background is “Mickey” by Toni Basil, a song you will surely recognize from its famous chorus line, “Oh Mickey, you so fine, you so fine you blow my mind, oh Mickey.” Similarly, while shopping, the song “Lollipop” by the Chordettes plays. This juxtaposition of heavy metal with lighthearted bubblegum pop (or should I say lollipop pop) is actually a great demonstration of the inner motif of the game as a whole. The game billed itself on being simultaneously gruesome and cheerful, violent and comical, and the musical selections used in the game demonstrate this perfectly.
I’m not sure why it surprised me, but I also must comment that the game had a surprisingly good plot and characters. In retrospect, No More Heroes had a strong cast and an interesting plot line as well, but that isn’t exactly what you’re prone to remember about that game franchise, and so entering Lollipop Chainsaw, I expected a fairly throwaway plot that serves only to send the player around the environments that Suda51 had chosen. In actuality, the characters and plot of Lollipop Chainsaw are deeper than one might expect. They aren’t going to win any Pulitzer Prizes, but the characters themselves do turn out to be internally memorable. Of special note is the relationship between Juliet and Nick, which forms the foundation of much of the game’s more interesting and humorous dialogue. There are plot twists and unexpected events as well, so the plot does more than just drive the player through a preselected set of gameplay settings.
Overall, the greatest achievement of Lollipop Chainsaw is the incredibly cohesive and strong motif that the game portrays. Every element of the game’s design, from the graphics to the music to the plot to the characters, serves perfectly to create this kind of robust and unified world. Nothing seems out of place in the world of Lollipop Chainsaw, which, considering some of the content, is a remarkable achievement. The game lives up to Suda51′s reputation for creating interesting and engaging game worlds. Personally, I hope the game gets a sequel on the basis of this cohesion alone: in a gaming industry increasingly dominated by gray first-person shooters or indulgent RPGs, games like Lollipop Chainsaw provide a refreshing change of pace, despite the gameplay complaints later in this review.
Humorous Banter and Details
I’m going to complain a bit about the humor used in Lollipop Chainsaw a bit later in this review; however, the humor used does add something to the game experience as well. I wrote above about the strong cohesion among the various different game elements, and the humor of the dialogue and some of the events are part of this. By making some of the more horrifying events of the game humorous, Suda51 emphasizes that union of the various elements as mentioned above.
The game is full of humorous touches, ranging from throwaway little lines to significant game scenes to ongoing game mechanics. For a simple example, Juliet, in a breaking-the-fourth-wall manner, occasionally addresses the player, especially to specifically request they resist the clearly overwhelming urge to look up the protagonists barely-there skirt. If you respond by trying to pivot the camera to a low perspective on Juliet, she’ll reply by changing her position to cover herself and glaring at the camera. It’s a silly touch, but those silly touches are what embody some of the humor of Lollipop Chainsaw. Unlike some games, where individual lines are humorous in otherwise serious environments, Lollipop Chainsaw attempts to structure its entire game experience as humorous, and little details like these help make that successful rather than contrived.
The dialogue throughout the game remains humorous as well. With the exception of a few dramatic scenes, nearly everything that any character says at any point is meant to be taken humorously. Although this is not always successful, as I will describe in detail later in this review, it does help retain that atmosphere that the game attempts to create with its other design decisions. Zombies never come across particularly threatening in large part because of the humorous nature of their dialogue; in that way, the game is very different from any other zombie-themed the game I have ever played where inducing fear is one of the game’s chief objectives. The lines themselves are not even always all that funny; sometimes they are just somewhat random, like the Fireman-themed zombies repeating standard Fireman lines like, “We’re here to rescue you, ma’am” as they try to chow down on Juliet’s throat. The effect is less of a game built around funny individual moments and more of the game built around a funny overall atmosphere.
The most impressive element of the game’s humor, however, is the banter between Juliet and her sidekick Nick. I can’t give away the nature of that banter without spoiling an early plot development, but there is one notable detail that makes the very basis of their banter and their relationship somewhat inherently hilarious and lends itself to several great one-liners throughout the game. The closest comparison I can think of to the banter between Juliet and Nick is the banter (though one-sided) between GLaDOS and Chell in Portal. The dialogue between Juliet and Nick retains that same kind of humorous surrealism and persistent sarcasm, and really turns out to be one of the game’s most entertaining elements. Throughout the game, you actually find yourself wanting to get into certain situations solely to see how the characters interact.
Overall, however, the greatest strength of the humor in Lollipop Chainsaw is in augmenting and accentuating the features described in the above section. By its nature, the dialogue of the game will have one of the most significant impacts on the game’s overall tone and mood, and matching the dialogue to the setting can be a difficult challenge given that there is nothing inherently tying the two together. Lollipop Chainsaw, however, does a masterful job of supporting its own tone with its dialogue and humor.
So, to briefly recap the above sections, the game’s plot and style are excellent. Unfortunately for Lollipop Chainsaw, however, games are not something that you simply watch or read; games are things that you play, and in the event of Lollipop Chainsaw, the gameplay is extremely lacking in multiple ways.
Overly Prototypical Gameplay
The main way to describe the gameplay in Lollipop Chainsaw is prototypical. When you picture a standard, default, nondescript game, the gameplay you picture is likely a third-person view of the player character running around and interacting with a world in some way. Throw on top of that some standard hack-and-slash gameplay elements, and voilà, you’ve got essentially exactly the gameplay from Lollipop Chainsaw.
Juliet controls relatively simply. One joystick moves her while another moves the camera around her. The four buttons on the right are used to execute normal attacks, and certain sequences of button presses result in combo attacks. When you defeat an enemy, they spill currency that you can pick up and spend at the in-game shops. This currency can be used either to purchase power ups for your character (to make her attacks stronger or enable her to take more hits before dying) or to purchase new combo attacks for Juliet to use. Currency can also be spent on less relevant items, such as game music, new outfits, or concept art. Everything I’ve written here could be used to describe numerous other games out there today, and the concepts exhibited here date back to the Nintendo 64 and original PlayStation years. There simply isn’t anything innovative in the hand-to-hand combat area of the game. Not even the boss fights are that much different; every single boss fight can basically be boiled down to dodging an enemy’s attacks (literally by mashing the dodge button) and attacking when able (literally by mashing the attack button or some similar combo). There is no strategy to the boss battles, either.
The game is broken up into seven stages, and each stage is played in completion from start to finish. If you stop the stage halfway through, you lose any currency or achievements you accomplished during that stage, as well as any items you might have purchased. Within the stage, you’re scored according to how fast you complete the stage and how much currency you collect along the way, as well as how many or how few times you die. Again, there is nothing new or innovative about this gameplay structure. The idea of playing through a linearly-arranged set of pre-established stages dates back to Super Mario Bros. You complete one level at a time and then either move on to the next one or, if you’d like, replay the current one. There is also little motivation to replay a level besides getting a higher score; the game has two endings on the basis of whether or not you save every student you encounter, but you might not even realize that given how easy it is to save every student on your own. Replaying a stage to save a student is likely the only reason to replay an area besides achieving a higher score or gathering more currency.
One of the elements that struck me is just how scripted together the game is. I’m not talking about linearity as that is to be expected in a game like this; instead, what I mean is that every sequence is directly tied to the next sequence. The entire game plays like a runaway boulder, and you never have the chance or choice to slow down and make any decision about the game’s direction. Many games (and I would argue, in fact, nearly every game) are linear and simply make different levels of effort to hide their linearity; but whereas other games have world map hubs and shops they can be visited between the linearly-arranged stages, Lollipop Chainsaw has nothing of the sort. When you start a stage, you’ll run through it until the end, and then you’ll choose a different stage. There is no more decision-making than that, making the game much more similar the platformers of the mid-90s than to any game from the past decade.
In criticizing the game for not being innovative, please don’t get me wrong: I’m not meaning to suggest that every game has to completely reinvent the wheel and find all new ways of doing everything. Every game will leverage certain expected and prototypical features that have been seen in numerous other games before. RPG elements, for example, have become a wildly ubiquitous prototypical feature that managed to find their way into nearly every genre of games nowadays. My criticism of Lollipop Chainsaw is not just for its failure to innovate, but also for its failure to even really leverage new features introduced in the past decade. Combo attacks from a certain set of button presses date back to the old arcade fighting games. As mentioned, the stage structure dates back to some of the earliest platformers. Receiving money from felled enemies and using it to purchase upgrades and new abilities is such an old idea that I’m not even sure what game originated it. Yet, these are really the only gameplay features that the game constructs itself upon. Its gameplay is overly simple, overly prototypical, and as a result, barely entertaining. You play through the game to experience the atmosphere and dialogue, but you won’t play the game simply because it is fun to play the game. Without the strong driving plot or the interesting characters, let alone the engaging banter or the humorous motifs, there would be nothing to play. Every game should strive to have a plot so strong it makes up for the gameplay inadequacies as well as gameplay so engaging that the player does not rely on a plot to enjoy the game; Lollipop Chainsaw succeeds at the first of these two ideas, but doesn’t seem to even try to accomplish the second. As a result, it turns in one of the most uninspired and prototypical gameplay structures I have ever seen.
Irritating Gameplay Elements
If you’re going to make your gameplay elements completely prototypical, the least you can do is keep those elements from being aggravating. When gameplay elements are as refined as the ones on display in Lollipop Chainsaw (from several dozen games leveraging the same principles), it should be pretty obvious what not to do. And yet, Lollipop Chainsaw commits some seemingly-basic gaming faux pas.
The first of these is what is described as poor feedback. Feedback is essentially information presented to the player to let them know what is happening or what the impact of their latest action was. The most notable instance of poor feedback is with regards to damage. There are times when Juliet takes damage when it is very obvious what the cause of the damage was: for example, she got run over by a car, blindsided by a flying car (yes, seriously), chainsawed an explosive barrel, or got hit in the face with a giant flying letter A. However, the majority of damage you’ll take during the game occurs against mobs of zombies all at once. On more than one occasion, I found myself fighting a dozen or more zombies at once thinking I was doing pretty well; then, I glanced at my health gauge and discovered I was getting pummeled, and yet it never seemed on the screen like any of the attacks were hitting me. It was only once I started to keep an eye on my health gauge while battling that I started to realize that zombies could cause damage without really impacting the trajectory of Juliet’s movements. In other words, there was no real visual indicator of when I had taken damage, leading to at least one game over due not to my failure in battle or lack of healing items, but rather due to my lack of realization that I was anywhere near death.
Another instance of poor feedback comes in the form of the game’s combos. For a little background reminder, in the game, square is a stun attack while X is a low attack. There is a combo in the game executed by pressing X twice and then square once, while another combo is executed by pressing X once and square three times. Although I used these combos exceedingly often throughout the game, it never became clear to me why sometimes the game will see one combo and sometimes it will see another. The game gives very little feedback on why we’ll see one combo sometimes and another other times. It may seem as simple as looking at how many times X is pressed, but when X is pressed outside of the range of any zombies, it seems not to register as part of the attack combo. What’s more, the buttons must be pressed in extremely rapid succession (or so it seems) to have the game recognize that you are trying to execute a combo rather than the individual moves associated with those button presses. The end effect is that it becomes very difficult to reliably execute the types of combo attacks that are desirable to use at a given time, further hampering the enjoyment of the gameplay. It’s one thing to not enjoy the gameplay because it’s overly prototypical and standard, but when you can’t even reliably utilize the prototypical gameplay features that are included, something is very wrong. At one point in the game, even, I purchased supposedly the game’s most powerful attack: or, rather, I’m taking the game’s word for it that it was the most powerful attack as I was never able to actually execute it. The attack involved pressing square four times followed by triangle twice, but given that every press of square initiates a very quick stun attack, the overall combo never seemed to trigger. Maybe I’m just bad at the game, but some feedback on why a combo will execute sometimes and individual attacks will execute other times would have been beneficial nonetheless.
One of the game’s gameplay features is what is called the Nick Roulette: basically, by using a Nick card (of which you only ever have a finite number, limiting how often you can use them), you can open up a roulette wheel that lets you select one of three (or perhaps more) attacks using your partner, Nick. The attacks themselves are not overpowered, and from my experience, most revolved around stunning zombies so that they then could be easily defeated. I didn’t use the Nick Roulette very often, though, with good reason: Nick Cards are used by clicking the left joystick, and it is impossible to avoid doing so accidentally in the middle of large battles. Early in the game, I bought several Nick Cards to have on hand, but ran out of them by the end of that stage solely based on accidentally clicking the left joystick. The joysticks are just too easy to click to be mapped to such significant gameplay results. So, I stopped buying the cards. Occasionally the game would just give you one, but I found that I always ended up using it accidentally within a minute of receiving it. Meanwhile, the entire direction pad is mapped only to using the game’s one healing item. Why couldn’t Nick Cards have been mapped onto one of the other directional buttons? That would’ve made them significantly more useful.
Lastly, the game comes with one indownright stupid feature: the shops. The shops on their own are fine, but the only way to access a shop is to be inside a stage. There is no way to access the shops from the map hub screen, even though your currency carries over between stages. That means to purchase an item, you actually have to start a stage and go to the first shop you see. Usually this will only come after several zombies and sections of the level; but that doesn’t even matter because the items you buy at the shop will only stay in your inventory if you complete the level. That means if you save up enough currency to purchase a new outfit, song, or piece of concept art, you still can’t buy it without completing an entire stage. This is doubly annoying for the outfits given that you cannot change outfits except outside of the stage, meaning that even if you have enough currency to purchase a particular outfit, you still have to play through an entire stage without it in order to buy it before you can finally try it out on a subsequent stage. I have no idea what the rationale was for that; I’ll give the designers the benefit of the doubt and assume it was just an oversight, considering that if it wasn’t an intentional decision it reflects even more poorly on them.
If you’ve ever read one of my reviews before, you know that one of my soapboxes is on the need for varied gameplay. Varied gameplay basically just means that it is no longer sufficient for the player’s interaction with a big-budget game to be the same throughout. For Lollipop Chainsaw, that would mean that it would not be sufficient to have every level just be clashes against various different kinds of zombies using the same combo attacks you have been using throughout the entire rest of the game.
Fortunately, Lollipop Chainsaw attempts to avoid this through the inclusion of several minigames in the midst of the different stages. Unfortunately, these minigames are mostly very boring. The first one you encounter is a basketball minigame in which you are tasked with cutting zombies’ heads off and having them land in the basketball hoop. That might be fun if the game didn’t just boil down to cutting down as many zombies as fast as possible: their heads will automatically go in the hoop when they are defeated. After that, there is a baseball minigame, which basically just boils down to using the rifle attachment to kill zombies as quickly as possible. Those two are examples of the wrong kind of minigame to have: the gameplay is still identical even if the framing is different.
Later in the game, there is a segment that takes place inside of an arcade, and as part of it, Juliet gets thrown into several different video game-themed minigames, reflecting classic games like Pac-Man, Elevator Action, and others. It’s a fun idea, but the problem is that none of the games are particularly fun. The Pac-Man game involves running around and collecting keys while staying out of sight of the wandering ghost dogs. The elevator game involves using doors that are linked together to get around and destroy certain enemies. There are a few others that right now I can’t even remember, despite having played them only a couple hours ago, because that’s just how boring and uninteresting they were. There was one game, though, that was memorable for all the wrong reasons: another elevator game where you had to control an elevator scaling a building and avoiding falling obstacles. That game was memorable because it was easily the most infuriating part of all of Lollipop Chainsaw. The feedback problem rears its head again, making it difficult to tell what killed you when you die. Dying means starting the entire minigame over again, with absolutely no room for error. If you run into anything, you die. This is also a mismatch compared to the standard gameplay that makes it very difficult to die, but more on that later.
Generally speaking, the minigames are clearly a valiant effort to mix up the otherwise-repetitive gameplay, but they fall on their face and failed to accomplish that purpose simply by being very boring and uninspired. I can still remember several of the minigames from No More Heroes, and yet even an hour later, I’m having trouble remembering the ones in Lollipop Chainsaw.
Potty Humor, not Adult Humor
Although I’ve praised the humor of Lollipop Chainsaw in my sections above, there is one major drawback to it that needs to be stated. Games made by Suda51 are famous for having highly adult content. It’s never particularly offensive only because it’s always presented in such a comedic fashion that it’s hard to take it seriously. Heads are chopped off, bodies are cut in half, curse words are thrown around like they’re articles, and sexual references are plentiful. That’s what we’ve come to expect — and appreciate — about Suda51′s games.
The problem in Lollipop Chainsaw is that the humor often errs on the side of potty humor rather than adult humor. It’s actually somewhat ironic: whereas the game attempts to use humor that would appeal to an older audience, it often comes across as humor they would only be regarded as funny by preteens and adolescents. This is mostly prevalent in some of the NPC dialogue throughout the game. Once I started to notice it, I started to write down some of the lines in the game as examples of this type of potty humor. Some examples include: “I’m so going to masturbate to you tonight.”; “I’m dying. And I’m fat.”; “Girls in Kenya have big butts.”; “I need another tampon.”; and “I never thought I’d be saved by someone with such great boobs.”
To me, those aren’t adult humor. Those are the kinds of lines that would get laughs on the playground in seventh grade. That’s not the kind of humor that we appreciated in Suda51′s earlier games, but it seems to be highly prevalent in Lollipop Chainsaw. Although the banter between the characters and some of the sequences remain very funny, far too many of the lines throughout the game definitely fall on the childish end of the humor spectrum and as a result serve to kind of shake the player out of the game world. This is the only thing in the game that collided with the cohesive experience provided by all of the previously mentioned features.
Unbalanced Game Over Causes
Ever since Shenmue burst on the scene and introduced us to quick-time events (or “Press X to Not Die” events), it has seemed like every game needs to include them at least in a couple instances. My gripe with these events has always been that designers very rarely use them throughout the entire game; as a result, the player is shocked when such an event arises because they have not seen one previously in the game. Lollipop Chainsaw half-solves this problem by featuring these events quite frequently throughout the game; every stage has at least three or four such events, meaning that the player is more prepared to complete them. However, in the process, it creates a new problem.
Throughout the game, dying is actually surprisingly difficult. Juliet has a significant amount of health, and at any time she can eat a lollipop to restore 50% of her health. These lollipops can be purchased at any store, although you’ll never need to since they are also quite frequently found lying around the game world. As a result, except for some of the particularly difficult boss battles (and probably not even then), getting a game over is never a risk in normal combat. With the quick-time events, however, one wrong button press and it’s game over. There is no redo, there is no time given to press the right button after all, there’s nothing: one wrong button and game over. Making that worse is that at the end of the stage, you are docked points for every time you get a game over, and it is extremely frustrating to do a stage near completion, to get an A+ ranking in every category, only to have your score sabotaged by hitting triangle instead of circle one time. It just isn’t balanced to have losing be so difficult during 98% of the gameplay, only to have it become a finger-twitch away for that remaining 2%.
This isn’t just about the quick-time events, either. This also applies to several of those mini games. In the aforementioned elevator game, you are controlling an elevator as it scales up the side of the building. Enemies are throwing out what look like barbells down at you. If one of these even slightly grazes your elevator, it’s game over. If you stay on a window that is going to open for a 10th of a second too long, it’s game over. Game overs are incredibly easy to stumble into during these parts of the game, despite once again being exceedingly easily-avoided during the rest of the game.
Overall, while playing through Lollipop Chainsaw on normal difficulty, I had 24 game overs. Only two of these came from deaths while fighting zombies in the game’s normal gameplay. Seven of these came from failed quick-time events. A ridiculous 15 of these came on that one damn elevator minigame. That kind of balance is just frustrating: the player should never feel like such small portions of the game are so significantly detrimental to their summarized overall performance.
Missed Parody Opportunities
When I first heard that Suda51 was going to be working on a zombie-themed game, one of the things I was excited about was to see his keen eye for commentary brought to a genre that has been so overused and overdone. One of the most significant elements of No More Heroes was a commentary and parody of Japanese culture. I was excited to see that same kind of thing brought to the zombie genre.
Unfortunately, the game never really takes advantage of that opportunity. There are a couple little bits of parody throughout the game, but overall, it feels like the game uses zombies not as a commentary on all the other zombie-related media, but rather because it wasn’t easy gameplay mechanic that everyone would understand that would allow them to use the main character they wanted to use. The zombies are never really in the forefront of the game, if that makes any sense; they very easily could have been replaced with any other kind of enemy without changing much of the gameplay or even plot structure. The humor of the game would’ve remained intact because the humor is very rarely at the expense of the zombie genre.
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t reference other zombie-related media fairly often. There are lots of quotes that reference other zombie enterprises, such as one time early in the game when a zombie announces, “Shaun isn’t dead!”, a clear reference to the movie Shaun of the Dead. That’s generally the nature of the game’s relationship with other zombie-related media: it does not parody it, but rather simply references it. The result is a missed opportunity for some humorous commentary and parody of a clearly overused theme.
Lollipop Chainsaw is a game that suffers from the significant negligence of one of the game’s most important parts. In every visual, narrative, artistic, or otherwise experience-driven area, the game is a rousing success. It combines a lighthearted and humorous tone with savage and gruesome gameplay in a way that only Suda51 can do. The game is sexy, it’s violent, it’s rude, it’s offensive, and it’s everything we love about Suda51 as a game designer. In knitting together such a seemingly conflicted game world into something so cohesive and unified, Suda51 has turned in arguably his greatest work yet. The music, the voice acting, the characters, the plot, and every other element of Lollipop Chainsaw fit together seamlessly and effortlessly, which becomes even more impressive when you step back and realize how ridiculously varied the content can be. When we first saw previews for Lollipop Chainsaw, it was the bizarre game featuring a scantily-clad cheerleader wielding a chainsaw in decapitating zombies; and yet, Suda51 somehow found a way to make it make sense (as much as he wanted to, at least). That is incredibly impressive.
The only problem is that apparently they forgot to hire a gameplay designer. The gameplay is basically entirely lifted from games as much as 25 years old. The stage structure is no more complicated than that of the earliest Mario games. The fighting structure is exactly what you would expect from a hack-and-slash game from 15 years ago. Nothing about the game’s gameplay is in any way unique or different to what we could’ve seen several years ago. This isn’t an instance of using tried-and-true fun gameplay styles in a new context, either. The fun of the game comes entirely from the motifs and characters, not from the gameplay. The game just isn’t fun to play. It’s not frustrating (well, not usually, anyway), but it’s not fun. It’s nondescript, prototypical, and often rather boring. The only reason you play the gameplay is to see more of the atmosphere, plot, and banter.
I’m a believer that plot and gameplay are equally important in creating a good game. If we assume a hypothetical dual-spectrum in which plot and atmosphere are rated on a five-point scale while gameplay is rated on a separate five-point scale, then Lollipop Chainsaw would receive a 4.5/5 on the plot spectrum and a 1.5/5 on the gameplay spectrum, leading to a total score of 6: which is exactly what I’m giving the game. I don’t think separating out those spectrums is actually that simple, but here it illustrates just how strong the plot of the game is and how much the gameplay sabotages what could have been a Game of the Year candidate and undeniably Suda51′s greatest creation.
Despite the boring gameplay, Lollipop Chainsaw still represents a fun and interesting change of pace from what the rest of the video game industry is putting out right now. If you find yourself bored with video games and can handle the adult content of the game, Lollipop Chainsaw is certainly a good way to waste a day (and no, it won’t take much longer than that to beat the game). If you’re a fan of Suda51, then the game is definitely a must-play. Otherwise, the game is decidedly average: you could do worse, but you could also certainly do better.