Blood and gore with a satirical message
REVIEW: Lollipop Chainsaw. (Xbox360, PS3) Grasshopper Manufacture. $99.
What's in a name? Well, when it comes to games, quite a lot, actually. Sometimes it takes an eyecatching title to stand out from the crowd of generic sequels and spin-offs cluttering the shelves, and it's difficult to scan past something called Lollipop Chainsaw without giving it at least a cursory second glance; especially when such a catchy title is accompanied by a covershot of a buxom, pigtailed cheerleader wielding a pink powertool.
To the uninitiated, this probably seems like the latest in a long line of obscene video games that will be gleefully seized upon by conservative commentators and held up as another example of society's decline into the gutter. It certainly ticks all the usual moral outcry boxes – scantily clad teenagers, extreme violence from start to finish, language so bad it actually runs out of swear words and has to invent new ones, and huge points awarded for the gruesome dismemberment of hordes of zombies.
With that in mind, you might be surprised to discover that far from being an exploitative piece of trash, Lollipop Chainsaw is actually a snappy, satirical take on the cynical sexualisation of modern media – not just in games but in every aspect of pop culture. The cartoonish violence is so over-the-top, the characters so raunchily ridiculous and the dialogue so sarcastic it's impossible to take seriously.
The game itself is also deceptively dumb at first glance – you play as Juliet Starling, a cheerleading bimbo with a penchant for lollipops who is the youngest member of a family of zombie hunters. When a dimensional portal opens up and her high school is over-run with flesh-eating monsters, she fires up her chainsaw and gets stuck in.
Once you get to grips with the basic controls and simple set-up though, the game again surprises you with what's beneath the surface. Careful use of creative combos and patient play are required to get top marks for each level, and although the challenge soon ramps up, it rarely strays the wrong side of frustrating.
It's refreshing to play something that's so unpretentious and proud of what it is – a video game. In an age where most big-budget titles try every trick in the book to be as cinematic as possible, obsessing over immersive atmospheres and coherent narrative, Lollipop Chainsaw is an old school arcade score-chaser in the mould of Pac-Man or Space Invaders.
As fun as it is to play, it's the humour and satire at the heart of the game that make it such a memorable experience. Very few cultural icons escape without being spoofed, and it's difficult to keep up with the constant stream of in-jokes, head-nods and references.
Of course Lollipop Chainsaw isn't the first to use the zombie genre for a spot of subversive fun. The film that effectively spawned the phenomenon, George Romero's 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, was on the surface a movie about hordes of undead monsters terrorising a shopping mall, but a barely concealed subtext was crammed with obvious satirical jabs at modern consumerism.
The problem with satire and parody is that those who are being mocked are all too often the ones who miss the joke entirely and take the send-up at face value. Just as there were plenty of racists, homophobes and anti-Semites who were completely oblivious to the idea that Sacha Baron Cohen was laughing at them rather than with them with his Ali G, Bruno and Borat characters, and those who are convinced South Park is simply a puerile cartoon about foul-mouthed eight-year-olds, it's likely that there will be a minority of gamers (and a majority of the media, no doubt) who think Lollipop Chainsaw is nothing more than a hormonal teenager's dream come true.
In some ways they would be right; it's hard to argue with the fact that there is a lot of titillation and lowbrow content on the surface.
However, below the dumbed-down exterior lies a deceptively deep challenge and sharp, surreal satire that might just be the cleverest game of the year so far.
- © Fairfax NZ News