Review: Lollipop Chainsaw

Mixed messages
By MADDY MYERS  |  June 29, 2012
1.5 1.5 Stars

Lollipop Chainsaw
dawns on the morning of Juliet Starling's 18th birthday, and thank goodness for that, because the game will soon force you to look up her skirt in several unskippable cutscenes. At least this high-kicking, somersaulting, zombie-fighting, magical school girl protagonist is of legal ogling age!

Those who can manage not to empathize with Juliet will be able to sit back and enjoy the game's simplistic but fun hack-and-slash combat. But the story's sprinkled with small and unsettling reminders of Juliet's humanity, youth, and innocence. Juliet has been blessed— or perhaps cursed — with magical zombie-fighting powers since infancy, along with the rest of her family. But she's also a high school student, which means she craves acceptance. Every time she reveals her zombie-fighting skills to someone, she pleads, "Please don't hate me," her voice edged with heart-wrenching desperation. Throughout the game, Juliet calls herself "fat," worries that other people don't like her, and does not speak up to defend herself when zombies hurl misogynistic insults at her ("slut," "slag," "bitch" — the list goes on).

We learn early on that the high school's zombie infestation is due in part to an outcast kid who summoned dark spirits in an effort to get back at bullies. It doesn't occur to him that he might have more in common than he realizes with our insecure cheerleader heroine— and with other equally insecure high school students around him. Like many zombie stories, the theme here is conformity: the zombies of high school hallways will bully you, insult you, and force you to assimilate, but never let them take your brain!

Sometimes the game spells this out. The first real boss you fight hurls insults at Juliet that appear in the air as block letters that do physical damage. The experience of somersaulting over the words "FUCKING BITCH" and then slicing the guy who said them clean in half with a chainsaw does stir up feelings of bittersweet satisfaction.

Moments like that grapple with bigger themes like high school bullying and gender conformity, but this ain't no Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Instead of Buffy's Giles, Juliet's teacher is Sensei Morikawa, who keeps "accidentally" tripping face-first into his student's double-Ds. (Remember, Juliet's only been 18 for one day — Sensei has been "teaching" her for years. Gross.) The bulk of the game's jokes happen at the expense of Juliet's naïveté. But what, exactly, is funny about a high school girl so innocent that her karate teacher can take sexual advantage of her?

Lollipop Chainsaw's primal "girl power" remix juxtaposes feminine cheerleading moves and Sailor Moon-inspired sparkle attacks with blood spatters and a punk-rock soundtrack, which all adds up to a slapdash faux-feminist tone that comes frustratingly close to hitting the right buttons. A slick rewrite could transform Lollipop Chainsaw into a smart satire about social politics, conformity, and gender representation in games. But the game's head writer, James Gunn (screenwriter for the live-action Scooby Doo movies and Slither), seems too scared to mock the people who deserve it: entitled assholes who get turned on by seeing a physically strong heroine get insulted and humiliated. Instead, it's Juliet herself who we're invited to laugh at, as she looks over her shoulder with shame-filled eyes and tries to yank a too-short cheerleading skirt down to cover her underwear.

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