Comedy might be an established genre in cinema, but you rarely see the label applied to games, where systems, not tone, dictate classification. Lollipop Chainsaw, the latest creation from eccentric Japanese creator Goichi Suda, is a pure action game built upon martial arts foundations – particle-spewing combo strikes and set-piece spectacle aside – but it’s a comedy, too. Indeed, the game is as focused on generating laughs and amusement as it is on creating challenge or excitement through design.
Humour is an element of all of Suda’s work, from the absurdist dark comedy of Killer7, with its tutorials delivered by severed horse heads and silhouetted gimps, through to the relentless toilet humour of his recent schlock horror collaboration with Shinji Mikami, Shadows Of The Damned. But in these games, humour was the seasoning, not the purpose. Lollipop Chainsaw, by contrast, is a game staged for laughs, each input hoping to elicit mirth, each line of dialogue gunning for a joke.
It’s in the game’s lead character, a ditzy cheerleader called Juliet Starling, who has been killing zombies since she bludgeoned her first with a rattle as a baby – a narrative juxtaposition that may be worn but is nevertheless effective. It’s in the fine detail of her interactions, too: zombies knocked senseless by pom-pom swipes, or decapitated by a pair of shapely legs as they helicopter around an exotic dancer’s pole.
It’s in the props: the way the titular chainsaw doubles as the world’s largest mobile phone case, Juliet regularly pausing to pick up voicemail from her mother, who is seemingly oblivious to the zombie horde her daughter faces. It’s in the scenery: the game drawing situational comedy from the diverse locations of its six Americana-themed stages, asking you to mow down zombies in a combine harvester on a pastoral farm one moment, and then bat the heads off them in a baseball stadium the next.
It’s in San Romero High, a Hollywood approximation of an American school with a name that pays homage to Suda’s horror movie inspirations. And it’s in the monsters, which include giant undead chickens that peck at your toes, and obese zombies who complain of haemorrhoids before lunging in for a deadly kiss.
At times, Lollipop Chainsaw even dips into romantic comedy. Juliet carries her boyfriend’s decapitated-yet-fully-cogent head – having sawn it off to prevent him from turning into a zombie after an infectious arm bite – on the belt strap of her cheerleading skirt. The two chatter incessantly as you play, discussing their absurd hopes and dreams for the future (“Do you think we’ll ever have a family together, Nick?” “I think, under the circumstances, that question is quite irrelevant, Juliet.”). Nick also makes warm wisecracks and provides commentary as Juliet progresses.
Despite the farcical circumstances, theirs is a fond, likeable connection that’s aided no end by Michael Rosenbaum’s understated turn as Nick. One scene late in the game sees Juliet introduce her boyfriend to her father, who eyes the boy with keen suspicion, despite his lack of fondling hands – a silly but endearing exchange. Family, curiously enough, is a strong theme for the game, and despite the routine objectification of Juliet at Suda’s hands, her close-knit (if dysfunctional) kin offer humanising context.
Suda’s reaching for laughs continues in the visual gags, some of which are entwined with simple gameplay systems. Take, for instance, the moment when Juliet screws Nick’s head onto a zombie’s twitching torso, control switching to the boyfriend via a string of near-forgivable timed button prompts as you rhythm-action shuffle your way towards a goal.
Indeed, Lollipop Chainsaw’s commitment to comedy is sustained and diverse, even if it does lack a core focus, instead happy to try anything for laughs. As with all of Suda’s work, gags miss as often as they hit, but the sheer number of ideas, and the developer’s easygoing willingness to try different approaches, succeeds in bludgeoning you into amusement one way or another, even if it has the side effect of leaving you feeling exhausted by all of the snark and silliness.
The gameplay underneath all of the dressing is more straightforward. Juliet has two basic attacks, one of which uses her pom-poms to knock zombies senseless, the other employing her chainsaw to carve them in two, and these are augmented by a small jump. You chain the basic inputs together to create combos, and ever more complex and spectacular moves may be purchased from the game’s regular shop stops using coins collected from downed foes. Later in the game you gain access to a dash move and a blaster attachment for your chainsaw, the latter being used to pick off zombies from range, but constrained by limited ammunition.
As you massacre zombies, you fill a gauge, which, when complete, can trigger a special attack phase, giving Juliet the power to one-hit kill most zombies. Thoughtful timing is crucial when aiming for high-scores. Kill three or more zombies in a single hit and time slows to a crawl, streamers firing off on a rainbow backdrop as you earn bonus coins for your efforts, the game encouraging thoughtful management of the zombie horde. Earning these desirable chain kills is far easier in Juliet’s special attack state, so learning the layout and rhythms of your enemy’s advance is crucial to climbing the leaderboards.
In many areas, you must dispense of a set number of enemies before the invisible walls will drop and you’re allowed to progress, a Devil May Cry anachronism that feels out of place here. At the standard difficulty level the game is easygoing, while higher levels scale up the challenge and lower the maximum number of health-restoring lollipops you can carry at once.
Where the combat lacks weight and precision, Grasshopper Manufacture prevents boredom with an incessant parade of interactive vignettes. These range from the sublime to the ridiculous, contrasting somewhat mundane sections in which you must shoot boulders before they strike a school bus with a scene in which you play a giant game of Pac-Man across an entire floor of a skyscraper. These ideas are dropped into the flow of play with such regularity and generosity that it’s easy to forgive the weaker examples, since you know each will be soon replaced by another.
Scoring is straightforward, with a standard number of points awarded for each kill, regardless of how stylishly or simply it was won. Granularity derives instead from the time taken to complete a level, the number of continues used and other measures of success that aggregate into a final ranking. Leaderboards for the main campaign are offline only, at least until you switch to ‘Ranking mode’, whereby you can reattempt completed stages under stricter rules as you compete against zombie hunters around the world. However, since the most effective moves cost the greatest amount of coins, it’s not worth attempting a high-score run till you have fully developed Juliet’s move list.
The game’s six stages are lengthy, filled with ideas and miniboss encounters, and punctuated with a longer boss fights, which offer some of the game’s standout moments of creativity. In particular, Zed, a punk-rocker zombie voiced by Jimmy Urine from electro-punk band Mindless Self Indulgence, is a highlight. His screams are rendered as comic book speech bubbles that must be dodged as they fly from his mouth towards you. It’s these moments of riotous creativity that elevate Lollipop Chainsaw from B-game status, flashes of brilliance that are not sustained consistently across the experience, but make enough appearances to push you on to see what lies around the next corner.
Suda is an undisciplined designer. As with his comedy, he throws every idea at his game design, hoping something will stick. He’s an artistic, if idiosyncratic, thinker, so invariably some ideas do succeed, but the assault of jokes, ideas and vignettes ends up as unwieldy as it is characterful. The result is a game in which there’s as much to celebrate as to berate, as much to admire as there is to admonish.