Grasshopper Manufacture’s Lollipop Chainsawis sort of like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, only for idiots, plot-wise, and playing like a series of rejected arcade games. This is not a very good game. It manages to be fun on occasion because it’s fun to mash buttons and see sparkly things happen on your TV, but beyond that, it’s hard to recommend. Despite being self-consciously over the top, Lollipop Chainsaw doesn’t so much satirize any game cliches as wallow in them. This makes it feel something like a terrible children’s TV show, as conceived by a director whose only prior credits were Miller Lite commercials.
The obvious reason to complain about this title, if you’re Left Gamer Review, is also Lollipop Chainsaw‘s only real selling point: you play a high school cheerleader named Juliet who sucks lollipops and swings a chainsaw. I’m not going to use this review to talk about chauvinism in gaming in general. LGR already ran amore interesting essay on this question. I will say this: Juliet has a squeaky, cartoon voice that I was tired of after her first line. She sucks lollipops for “energy,” and though the prologue is quick to point out to us that the game starts on Juliet’s eighteenth birthday–she’s totally legal, bro!–it’s an obvious Lolita reference. If you waste enough hours playing, you can unlock bikinis for her to wear. Juliet is not a character, just a collection of “sexy” traits.
She’s different, though, from other famously sexualized heroines. For instance, Juliet makes Lara Croft look quite competent and sensible in comparison. The way that Juliet is infantilized, plus her total lack of self-awareness, pushes a problematic trope into new, stranger territory. She’s not just a sex object, but a fetish object. This isn’t a suggestion that game characters ought not be sexy. But there’s a world of difference between Juliet (who is, you will recall, nominally a high school student) telling her boyfriend about how she practices pole-dancing naked because of wind resistance or some other nonsense that I don’t care to look up, and, say, Mass Effect keeping the camera on Miranda Lawson’s ass. To condemn the first is not to defend the second, but just to assert that Lollipop Chainsaw is in a different category from the sort of “expected” chauvinism that infects even the medium’s best titles.
Worst of all, I think, is the winking way that the game invites gamers to objectify Juliet by telling them not to. Early on, Juliet complains about zombies looking up her skirt, and a loading screen directed at players says, “Hey, could you not look up my skirt?!” I have a hard time believing that that line was intended as anything but an invitation, particularly when the game encourages you to get extra points so you can unlock additional costumes for Juliet. “No” means “yes” in Lollipop Chainsaw, which is perhaps the most troubling bit of misogyny in the game.
Believe it or not, sexism is not the thing that bothered me most in this game. I put it first in this review to maintain LGR’s political cred, but the story and gameplay both give gamers plenty of reason to pass on this one.
Let’s start with the story, such as it is. I have never encountered a game that grew so bored so quickly with its own premise. I’m not a zombie expert, because zombies are fictional, but there are certain commonalities throughout every zombie story that anyone cares about. Whether you insist that your zombies be slow and lumbering; or allow for fast, predatory zombies; we can all agree that zombies are not talking, rock-and-roll aliens from another dimension. All of us can agree, that is, besides the makers of Lollipop Chainsaw. In this game, the zombies are from some other planet, and there’s some magic thing that happens to bring that planet over to ours, and the “boss” zombies all sing and play some different kind of music. For instance, an early stage ends on a viking ship steered by a death metal “zombie,” for reasons unclear.
The monsters–I’m going to use “zombie” and “monster” interchangeably because who cares?–are quite chatty, but it’s all nonsense. At one point on the farm level, a farm-monster says “Plow them crops,” suggesting that these monsters are not only evil, but bad farmers, too. (To be fair, the humans in the game are no better. You rescue a classmate early on, and he says, “My favorite president is Warren G. Harding.” Another classmate: “I never thought I’d be rescued by someone with such great tits.” Hmm. What kind of tits did you think your rescuer would have?) The story only gets more inane as it goes.
The gameplay is equally arbitrary. Rather than spend the whole game fighting zombies with a chainsaw (which is actually quite satisfying) Lollipop Chainsaw insists on throwing you a barrage of mini-games, most of which are terrible. The worst is the one used the most often: you temporarily attach your boyfriend’s severed head onto the body of a zombie so that he can do something. Usually he just stands somewhere so you can vault over him. While his head is atop a zombie, the game instructs you to press different buttons on your controller. I have no idea what these buttons are supposed to correspond to. All I know is that if you don’t push them, you die, and have to restart. Lollipop Chainsaw often simply tells you what button to push at a particular moment to keep from being dead. Exciting! Every time I found myself enjoying slashing a bunch of zombies with a chainsaw, it was time for another mini-game. I particularly hated one on a baseball field, in which a voice–God’s?–instructs you to shoot monsters (did I mention your chainsaw is also a gun?) while your boyfriend runs around the bases three times to keep the stadium from blowing up. (Did I mention that many of the monsters are suicide bombers? For some reason? Well, they are.)
This unpredictable gameplay may intrigue some gamers, but to me it feels like I’m not even playing a current generation title, since many of the mini-games ape the feel of old cabinet arcade games. Lollipop Chainsawfeels dated even in its regular moments, too. I know nothing about programming, but I did note that this game is based on the Unreal Engine, and players may find that Lollipop Chainsaw looks and feels a lot like lots of earlier games using the same technology. Although everything looks crisp and detailed, other games released this year simply look much better. For instance, it’s rarely clear how objects in the game are lit. I find the colors over-saturated and cartoony in an unappealing way, though I suppose that’s my fault: I’m supposed to be paying more attention to looking up Juliet’s skirt.
Full disclosure: I did not finish this game. The final boss fight is brutally, unpleasantly difficult. After lowering the last boss’s health bar twice, you run into one of my least favorite things about this game: an on-screen indicator, with a timer, instructing you to push one button, than another. If you don’t press the right button fast enough, you die, and have to start the fight over. I never timed it, but it feels like a twenty minute undertaking. I tried to replay some earlier levels in order to unlock some extra health bonuses and fighting combos, but just grew weary of it, and ended up watching the final moments on YouTube.
I am generally a completist. I don’t like leaving games unfinished, whether I’m reviewing them or not, and nothing is more likely to keep me playing than the knowledge that there’s some dumb thing to unlock that I’ve yet to unlock. But even after familiarizing myself with the mini-games, I find them too arbitrary to be fun, and the regular chainsaw combat is not compelling enough to me to make up for the taxing, difficult mini-games.
Lest I seem to be simply determined to hate this game on account of its obvious sexism, let me mention that I think Lollipop Chainsaw compares quite unfavorably to Dead or Alive, a series that I expect targets the same sorry audience. For those unfamiliar, Dead or Alive is a one-on-one fighting game franchise, big on dumb humor and famous for supplying gamers with busty fighters and unlockable costumes. But DOA games have the good sense to keep plotting to a bare minimum and not really try to explain anything. Plus, if you’re going to memorize combos the way Lollipop Chainsaw and DOA expect you to, it only seems fair that you should be able to use them throughout the game, and not have to continually figure out new, irritating ways of playing.
LGR thinks it’s important to check out the occasional game that’s popular but not really our style, so that we don’t get stuck only reviewing games that we expect to enjoy. Lollipop Chainsaw, then, is a reminder that even though gaming is an increasingly sophisticated art form, the medium’s low points can still be awfully low. Unfortunately, it’s still a safe bet for game studios to appeal to gamers’ worst instincts.