Watching the decline of a favorite artist isn’t something anyone enjoys, and when it happens it’s not uncommon to deny that it’s happening at all, consciously or otherwise. This was precisely the situation I found myself in while playing Grasshopper Manufacture’s latest offering, Lollipop Chainsaw, because for all the negativity aimed at this game leading up to its release – from casual observers writing it off as fanservicey pandering to experienced gamers accusing it of shallow, derivative gameplay – I wanted to believe that Suda 51 would be able to pull another rabbit out of his hat and prove the naysayers wrong.
This was one of those times when I really just should’ve listened.
Lollipop Chainsaw is a game that feels like it would be at home in the beginning of the current console generation, if not the previous. The reliance on genre trappings that have long since gone stale really gives you the impression that Suda’s just going through the motions anymore; He made his name on mechanically similar games like Killer 7 and No More Heroes, and – with the notable exception of Sine Mora – seems confident in resting on his quirky action game laurels at this point.
Calling this game “quirky” is stretching the definition, though. Unlike Grasshopper and Suda’s previous efforts there’s very little depth to the story or characters in Lollipop, and without something to ground the over-the-top action with even a hint of relatibility you end up with a whole lot of sizzle for barely any steak. Sure, in design main character Juliet would fit right in with any of Harman’s incarnations, Travis and his myriad opponents, or even Garcia and his fellow disembodied head tagalong, but without pathos the story of a high school cheerleader/lifelong zombie hunter fighting off hordes of the undead is more the story of finding out how long you can suffer through a teenage girl’s airheaded complaints over looking fat and the player looking up her skirt, even though its length (or lack thereof) combined with the frequent forced low camera angles and provocative posing outright force it on you on several occasions.
Just how much of this can be blamed on Suda is a bit dubious; Hollywood screenwriter James Gunn was hired to pen the story, and while his background with cinema schlock-masters Troma Entertainment would make him seem a natural considering the subject matter his involvement really doesn’t add anything special. Dialogue here maintains the same slightly awkward yet charming twang of Japanese-to-English translation present in all of Grasshopper’s catalog – which leads me to believe Suda still had some hand in the writing beyond the initial concept – but lacks the soul that made it charming, only adding an uncomfortable shade to the near omnipresent pubescent annoyingness.
A game can’t be judged on writing alone, but the gameplay sadly follows half-assed suit. Action games are bound to feel somewhat similar to one another by virtue of shared genre, but controls in Lollipop Chainsaw feel damn near identical to those in No More Heroes or Shadows of the Damned, albeit with an interesting caveat in the ability to stun enemies for multikills and bigger bonuses if you feel like the game’s not enough of a challenge for you spamming your combos of choice. But what really drags it down (besides the frustratingly uncooperative camera) is its heavy reliance on QTEs, a vestige of the action genre I’d thought either better integrated or eliminated at this point. In addition to their roles throughout stages and every single boss fight, decapitated head/boyfriend Nick’s segments – in which Juliet sticks his head on a glowy, game-approved headless zombie body for him to briefly control – are completely limited to lengthy QTE strings leading him from point A to point B, and in a game where the primary method of dispatching enemies is beheading them this absolutely reeks of laziness and wasted potential on multiple levels.
At very least I have to give points to the developers for presentation. We’ve seen humorous takes on the undead a few times before, but Lollipop‘s rainbows and sparkles help the ’80s pop rock sensibilities of the heavily polished graphics shine in all the right places. Foremost among these set pieces are the bosses, which should be no surprise for anyone who’s played a Suda game before; The zombie rock lords (tell me that’s not one of the most awesomely campy titles in existence) are all extremely unique in appearance and battle structure according to their associated rock genre, and short of the quickly-predictible multiple dismemberings it takes to bring any of them down their segments are the most refreshing, varied, and overall fun parts of the game. These are bosses who would do most any action game proud.
Throughout this review I’ve harped on Lollipop Chainsaw coming up short, but while I mentioned several other Grasshopper games there’s actually a completely different game I’ve been using as a standard to judge it against: Bayonetta. Both games are over-the-top action titles with a taste for both the tongue-in-cheek and the provocative and a capable female character (both with a penchant for lollipops no less!) taking the lead, so I think it’s pretty safe to say that the comparison is anything but superficial; But where Bayonetta makes the sexual farcical through intentional overexposure, portrays an extroverted and bombastic character sympathetically by slowly exposing cracks in her psychological armor, and presents it all to you in a fluid, customizable, theatrical combat system that plays as the logical evolution to Devil May Cry, Lollipop Chainsaw plays everything it has at face value, innovating and challenging nothing. Stubborn Suda fans will likely play this anyway, and it’s hardly an unplayable game, but if this concept really interests you and you haven’t played Bayonetta yet I’d highly recommend giving that a try instead.