After a string of critically acclaimed but commercially disappointing games, we had genuine fears that Grasshopper Manufacture might choose to go a bit mainstream with its next big game. Published by Warner Bros, written by a Hollywood screenwriter and dealing with American pop-culture staples as broad as cheerleaders and zombies, Lollipop Chainsaw certainly looked like it might have lost that crucial element of madness that defines Grasshopper. Thankfully, we were dead wrong.
Lollipop Chainsaw may well be the most American game to ever be made in Japan. But it’s an America as filtered through twisted minds. Yes, Juliet Starling is a Valley Girl cheerleader with expensive clothing tastes and typical high school concerns but she also hails from a family of zombie hunters and her boyfriend, Nick, he’s just a disembodied head, cut off from his body to protect him from a zombie virus and attached to Juliet’s belt while she figures out what to do with him. It’s a bit sick, very stupid and a great antidote to a generation of console games that take themselves too seriously.
It’s not just the story either. The silliness of Lollipop Chainsaw’s premise is perfectly married to its gameplay – an old-school action romp that’s pre-Devil May Cry in its complexity and is distinctly reminiscent of Dreamcast-era design in its arcadey sense of instant gratification. Combat is ostensibly simple, with buttons for high and low chainsaw swings, a melee attack for dazing zombies, and a jump that can be combined with other attacks. So the barrier to entry is much lower than a technical brawler like Bayonetta. New moves can be bought with the coins you collect from fallen zombies, but those moves only increase the variety of attacks you can perform, not the difficulty of combinations. You won’t have to count frames, cancel attacks or perform guard breaks, and button mashing isn’t just tolerated, it’s essential.
That’s not to say Lollipop Chainsaw is without challenge. It’s easy to get overwhelmed if you let the large number of zombies get the better of you. So crowd control is important, whether that be through battering zombies into a stunned daze, leapfrogging over them into a chainsaw combo or keeping the horde at bay with a few shots of Juliet’s Chainsaw Blaster.
Zombie games are at their best when you’re completely surrounded and in Lollipop Chainsaw you practically look forward to a crowd, precisely because they’re the best opportunity to show off your moves. Especially if you have a power meter charged to the top. Activate one of these and you can cut through any enemy in a single strike. Cut through three or more at once and the screen slows into a dazzling spectacle of glitter and blood as their heads pop off and shower special coins down on Juliet. Those coins are used to buy new clothes or tunes for her MP3 player, so it’s no wonder she looks so happy as she poses victoriously, the words Sparkle Hunting proudly emblazoned above her. With the sort of pyrotechnic celebration of achievement that only videogames do so well, it’s hard not to share Juliet’s elation, making the combat oh so satisfying.
As you’d expect, new challenges are added as you go along. Flying zombies (blood pouring from their severed legs), crawling zombies, flame-throwing fire-fighter zombies, charging American footballer zombies and so many more, expand the sorts of threats Juliet must contend with, perfectly in parallel with her growing moveset. It’s a textbook example of how to escalate a core gameplay mechanic over the course of a linear action game, ensuring that monotony never sets in.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the game mechanics outside of the central zombie-slaying. This being a Goichi Suda creation, Lollipop Chainsaw is littered with mini-games that detract from the overall experience just as often as they complement it. Like No More Heroes and Shadows Of The Damned before it, the inclusion of mini-games, particularly the retro game pastiches present in the stage where Juliet visits the local arcade, feel like an indulgence of creative urges more than a necessary feature. They can be fun, of course, but they’re often sloppy in execution, lacking the polish to justify their own inclusion and dragging the excitement factor down below that of the main game. In No More Heroes 2, Suda got the balance right, making such diversions optional, but when they’re forced on you, as they are here, it’s easy to resent them.
Still, if you’re a Grasshopper fan then you know what to expect by now. Mechanically accomplished, stylistically exceptional yet littered with sloppy indulgences, Lollipop Chainsaw is another typical Suda game. You either love it or hate it. But if you fall into the former camp then there’s much more to love here than ever before. The partnership with James Gunn (writer of such wasterpieces as Slither and Tromeo And Juliet) is a much better fit to Suda’s style than we ever could have dreamed. Every grubby, obscene or just plain daft line of dialogue fits so well that we wouldn’t mind if Gunn became a permanent member of Grasshopper’s “videogame band”. Conversations shared between Juliet and Nick are among the funniest videogames have to offer, and the range of pop-culture references Gunn weaves in (including an unexpected nod to Michael Bublé of all people) make this the most western-friendly game to come out of the studio without sacrificing its brand of lunacy. Which is something definitely worth cheering about.