So many zombie games, so little time. Even the most ardent of horror game fans could be forgiven for breaking into a yawn at the sheer amount of titles dedicated to this particular sub-genre, especially given how much promise there is in other horror areas for rich video game adaptations (especially in those which prefer psychological impact over blood-spattered gore). But despite the brain-chomping action, Lollipop Chainsaw isn’t your run of the mill zombie hack and slash.
To its eternal credit, Lollipop Chainsaw is a deliriously tongue-in-cheek delight, packed with eye-brow raising jokes and in-references and never ever rising to take itself any more seriously than playing a lollipop sucking, zombie-slaying cheerleader should be. The script is great, which is a rarity, and there is a lot of fun to be had just watching the story play out, even before the game asks anything of you.
Everything is done to excess: the violence, the humour, the sparkly visuals. It is soaked in both blood and self-consciousness and is uproariously misogynist – sexist to some, in all probability – and completely inappropriate, channeling the consciously improper spirit of cheaply made exploitation films. There’s both parodying of and celebration of exploitation, as the occasionally intellectual script makes some of the more leeringly sexualised sequences (like the first lingering introduction to star Juliet in her bedroom) feel quite post-modern.
If you’re a fan of Suda 51, you will no doubt have expected all of this: Lollipop Chainsaw very easily fits into what’s gone before from the self-styled auteur video game director. His latest story is a colourful riff on the Buffy legend, starring near-Amazonian teenage zombie-slayer Juliet Starling, who takes on hordes of the undead with the help of the disembodied – but not dead – head of her boyfriend Nick.
But somewhere along the way, the actual gameplay experience seems to have been pushed aside at times to build up a self-consciously quirky personality. Chief among the problems is the combat system, which is limited thanks to the stultifying decision to only introduce basic combos late in the game and by the poor transition out of animations that slows everything down. For a game that offered unbridled fun – and indeed delivered in terms of the animations themselves and some of the visual flourishes – the combat makes for stuttering progression and a chainsaw-wielding protagonist who isn’t as powerful as you might hope.
That doesn’t mean the gameplay is terrible, it’s just a little one-dimensional and unvaried under all the fancy make-up. Like the Dead Rising games, whose furious hack and slash gameplay became very old very quickly, despite the early appeal – that is until the narrative throws up some variation with the good boss battles. Other than those bosses, the enemies are typical walking fodder, with extremely limited AI (they’re dead, what do you want?!), and they only offer so much reward when killed.
It also doesn’t help that the game repeats the same sort of required actions for progression, with only a limited number of behaviour sets required to beat a lot of sections of play. Level and combat design is a similar story, with a distinct lack of the imagination and enthusiasm that has clearly gone into the exploitation riffs and rampant pop-culture references. The appearance of mini-games though do offer some respite.
In terms of visuals, Lollipop Chainsaw isn’t exactly a world-beater. Some impressive animations paint over some pretty noticeable visual cracks. The graphics aren’t awful, but the aesthetic decisions mean they aren’t at the same level as current gen games, even if those animations, and characterisations (particularly Juliet, whose body is almost perversely accurate) are very good.
A lot of the criticism that will be (and indeed has been) leveled at Suda 51′s latest is its gleeful and inappropriate celebration of sex and violence – seemingly ignoring the post-modern agenda – and those of delicate sensibilities might be best off swerving the game entirely. But then, if you buy it and are outraged, you have probably missed the entire point: the marketing and the developmental heritage of the title should have told you exactly what to expect. Those who were excited pre-release won’t be disappointed with the spirit of the game – there’s little wrong with a little blood, tits and glory – but the mechanical problems will disappoint some.
What definitely doesn’t disappoint on any level is the exceptional soundtrack, mixing in cheery pop like Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round” to offer an odd parallel to the violence. But that clash of outrageous and pretty is exactly what Suda 51 wanted to make.
In short, it’s a whole lot of fun, without any concerns for political correctness or appearing high-brow (in the true spirit of the zombie genre), though it’s far from unflawed, and some might seek something with a little more finesse. If you’re a fan of vulgarity though, expect to give it a five star review.
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