Friday, June 22, 2012

Lollipop Chainsaw - Juliet dances.

Yeah, I'm gonna' use semsei's art every time I talk about this game.
And I am
not done talking about it.
This week, I was out back at work (while news of Ōkami's HD release was happening), smoking a cigarette and a fellow government stooge came out.  We've had rich discussions on Dark Souls and similarly meaty RPGs in the past, and we began talking about E3.  To me, the most exciting thing to come out of the show was The Last of Us's mind-popping gameplay.  To him, TLoU was merely a very well-presented version of a game he's seen a thousand times, and the most exciting part of the conference were the possibilities for emergent gameplay in Ubisoft's Watch Dogs.

I countered that Ubisoft do not, perhaps, deserve such benefit of the doubt.  That we - the public - thought Assassin's Creed would have similarly open and reactive design, and look how that turned out?

Then I told him I've been playing a ton of Lollipop Chainsaw lately, and he looked like I'd slapped him in the face.

"Why?" he almost spat the word.  

"'Cause it's fun, man."

It'd be fair to assume the opposite, looking at that cover, but Lollipop Chainsaw is actually a very well-designed game.  In the review I said it "smacks of old score attack arcade challenges while comfortably speaking the language of a modern gamer" - but let me explain that.

Around the turn of the century, gaming largely adhered to classic principles of communication with the player.  Specifically, there wasn't much unless a new gameplay mechanic was introduced (if then).  Levels were separated by load times, and the only in-game story progression came from brief tableaus in which an enemy would appear in like, a floating clown head to taunt our hero.

Those days are gone, and nowadays we expect - and demand - that games consistently remind us why we're here, where we're going and what the context is for our actions as player.  Some of the best examples of this are God of War, Dead Space, Max Payne 3 and Uncharted.

Context is constantly warbling on the periphery of the experience as, say, a bus stuffed to the gills with enemies crashes through a wall ahead of you.  As a ceiling collapses, changing the layout of the fighting space.  As a column or log blocks your path.  As an AI character barks instructions when the player needs to react quickly.

Now, it may seem strange to compare those shining stars of triple-A development to what Grasshopper Manufacture has put forward, but man, I can't help it.  They're speaking the exact same language, right down to the sentence structure. 

Nick is your Elena Fisher, your Sully, your Raul Passos, your Dom and Marcus.

It's not just that identical events occur here as there - Kratos must mash triangle to throw open a massive door as Juliet must mash triangle to chainsaw a path forward - it's that the pacing, purpose and design of the language is so similar that one could reasonably presume they've been separated from birth.

When a new enemy type appears for the first time, they are nearly always accompanied by a small - perhaps five second - cutscene of introduction, as in God of War.  Here as there, the player-character's minor interactions with the environment - scaling a wall, opening a door, destroying an obstacle - are leveraged to showcase character.

Instead of Kratos flexing to the limits of his manly power to throw open a door, Juliet - somehow daintily - slams the end of her chainsaw into a wall to cut herself a path, guided by the analog stick as you cut the shape.  Instead of Nathan Drake taking a flying leap to grab on to a zipline, Juliet will hop on to a broken beam side-saddle - as if she were riding a horse as a proper lady should - to slide down to the next area.   Instead of Dom and Marcus trading witty banter, Juliet is accompanied by the disembodied and still-living head of her boyfriend, Nick.

The list of comparisons go on and on, and Lollipop pulls it off phenomenally well when taking its limited budget into account - to the point that I can't understand why critics aren't raving about how sagely the production is broken into palatable chunks of brawling, peppered with brief environmental interactions a'la God of War and gameplay switch-ups like Gears' diversions into rail shooting.

Y'know why?  'Cause it's not triple-A, that's why.  Because when a truck explodes in Lollipop Chainsaw, it doesn't look like this:

Running on Unreal Engine 3 and helped along by a major dose of style, Lollipop can't gloss over the fact that while its presentation is thoughtful, creative and artistically sound, it's no Uncharted or God of War.

It leverages all the tools and tricks those games do, but it can't present them as well as Dead Space 2 - so there is absolutely no suspension of disbelief on the part of the player.  We are still unconsciously being given a little break from the main entree - it serves the same purpose of design - but it can't be as thrilling here as it is there.

Ironically, while the game's graphics and effects - presentation - are sub-par, it pulls off all these small moments with writing and creativity that actually outpaces the games it apes.  If Kratos straining against his limits to throw a chest open or Marcus Fenix kicking a door down are reflections and explorations of their character (which they are), Lollipop Chainsaw goes much further down that road, ensuring that every such moment is brightly colored and informed by Juliet's irrepressible personality, self-consciousness and optimism.

The game's structural design and pacing are in lock-step with the best in the business - and I refuse to hold the fact that it was defiantly achieved without the stratospheric budget of blockbuster titles against it.

That's structural design.  Let's talk gameplay.

In the review, I told you that LP's combat doesn't approach the depth of brawlers like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry - but that may have done a disservice to you, and the game.  I've seen comparisons to brawlers of old like Streets of Rage, and while that may be a bit closer, it still doesn't quite hit it on the head.

Pulling off combos feels like something akin to Ninja Gaiden, in which you need a complete understanding of your button presses and their result before the action happens onscreen - but that doesn't nail it, either. In comparisons to the triple-A brawlers, we concern ourselves more with what Lollipop Chainsaw isn't, when one will draw much greater reserves of joy from the game if concerned with what it is.

While its structure is modern, its system of rewards is classic and its gameplay ends up feeling like no other brawler I've ever played.

Instead of a repertoire of thirty-plus moves and combos, Juliet has a relatively lean arsenal of attacks - but each one is a necessary addition, and if the player wants to really wreck some zombies as God intended, they'd better master it.

It does feel somewhat analog - but it also feels very deliberate.  Weighty.  Impactful - and the method to its madness is not apparent, at first blush.

For example, remember the last move Juliet uses in the debut trailer?

Press circle (frog hop) then triangle (high chainsaw).

It's called the Lollipop Split.  Juliet frog-hops an individual zombie, and if you tap triangle, she lands in the splits with the titular chainsaw between her target's feet. She draws the 'saw vertically up its torso (mashing triangle), annnd... pop!  Bisected!

This is a finisher.  I told my brother this, and he scoffed.

"It doesn't finish anything," he said.  "It just hurts them like, a little bit!"

"Well yeah, if it's the first thing you do to them."

It's un-dodgeable and enemies can't interrupt the attack, but the Lollipop Split finisher isn't actually meant to inflict major damage.  I know that's counter-intuitive, but let me explain.

This is Juliet's bread and butter.  You press square, then square, then square, and when you press triangle she will execute the Chainsaw Full Swing:

"Hup, hup, ha -" brrrrumWHAM!

The Full Swing is a very deliberate attack - a massive dose of heavy damage with no secondary effects that could kill an unintended zombie.  It's a little atom bomb you drop on the dudes that are directly in front of/closely surrounding Juliet, and if its major damage output finishes three or more zombies in a single blow (I think the max is seven - or at least, that's my record), you get a bunch of medallions and a gorgeous splash of inspired visual design. 

The rewards start off small - killing three stock zombies with one blow will net you nine gold medallions and one cherished platinum (used for purchasing music for your custom soundtrack, concept art and new outfits for Juliet), which gently shower her after the Sparkle Hunting animation ends.  It's a nice little treat - but it's so unlike the feedback any other brawler provides, we don't initially pursue only Sparkle Hunting kills. 

This is a brawler, so the purpose is to kill enemies - not necessarily to always kill them in such a glorious way.

When you start mastering Sparkle Hunting - exercising knowledge of mechanics, enemy behavior, potential reward and the precise properties of your murderous repertoire - the rewards turn from a crappy Canadian fireworks display into a full-on New Year's Rockin' Eve spectacle.

The difference that experience and Juliet's full repertoire offers casts the entire game in a very different light.  So pronounced is the expanse between the initial playthrough and those that follow, I'm prepared to suggest that if you played through Lollipop Chainsaw a single time, you were merely successful in defeating the game's tutorial.

Everything changes when you return to it and concern yourself first and foremost with collecting those precious platinums - and one discovers this isn't so much a game about killing zombies as it is about not killing zombies until it's most profitable.

This has a profound effect on the player's strategy, when compared to any other brawler.  While the enemy type you're facing is still a concern to be taken into account, the most important thing is now the spatial relationship between Juliet and every evil dead in the room.  Enemy placement - and your ability to move them - is more important here than it is in Grand Knights History.

See?  Juliet used the chainsaw without killing a half-dozen zombies in a single blow.
She's doing it wrong.

When you return to LP armed with Juliet's full arsenal and your understanding of how to maximize rewards, you stop playing it like it's any other brawler and start enjoying what it actually is.

When you first play through the prologue, for example, and meet the first super-tough named zombie and his two super-tough associates, you're desperately fighting for survival.  You'll restart that checkpoint over and over just trying to live through the encounter.

When you come back to it, it's an entirely new game.  You don't just want to kill George and his associates - you want to beat the holy crap out of them with your pom poms and only kill them with one gorgeous, definitive stroke of your 'saw.  And it's hard.  It's not easy to do - but Lollipop Chainsaw doesn't want anything less of you.

It merely offers less to those who don't actually invest more than a single playthrough.

Going back through the game, you discover that - a handful of examples aside - every combat scenario  (including those where you wield the third-person-shooter Chainsaw Blaster) is set up to permit you Sparkle Hunting kills.  It expects you to work for it.  It expects you to have mastered Juliet's crowd controlling pom pom attacks, and then to wield them as a weapon of tactical beauty.

With Juliet's style clearly understood and her strategies mastered, she no longer feels like a sluggish, not-quite-Dante.  She is, as it turns out, perfectly suited to her objective.

Juliet doesn't just kill the crap out of zombies - she dances with them.

In a room of five minor zeds and one named badass, she'll lock on to the leader and start strafing around.  She'll line up one or three of the smaller guys and bop bop bop them towards the bigg'un.  When an enemy comes in for a swipe, she elegantly flips out of the way, tumbling to the side to sweep up behind them to bop bop bop bop them into place, knocking them silly.

She flips and twirls, her eye constantly on the ball, and when half the enemies are dumbly staggering from her onslaught - when every zombie is perfectly placed for maximum punishment, like in some murderously dense strategy RPG - she rushes in to stun the leader.

This is a crucial moment.  Too many pom-bashes will spread your carefully-cultivated, tightly-grouped clutch of staggered zombies about to the point that your planned attack may not properly connect - and given that most of your major chainsaw attacks are tied to a string that begins with pom pom bashes, you don't just need to be thinking about where the zombies are now, you need to be anticipating where they'll be once you execute your combo and break out the final attack.

Bop bop bop.  The revving roar of the chainsaw makes its first - and only - appearance, and the game world explodes with color.

In the shimmering glow of cosmic starlight, electric neon hearts gush from the evil dead like psychedelic arterial spray. Juliet's joyful, heartfelt smile is the brightest star in the sky, and the coin counter skyrockets to 99.  Silver and gold pour, and pour, and pour,

and Kayla, sitting next to me, says "holy shit."

In its way of constantly, repeatedly rewarding the player for perfect execution, Lollipop Chainsaw separates itself from Devil May Cry, Bayonetta and God of War, and one-ups them in this one beautiful facet.  In DMC and Bayonetta - as here - the player will get to the end of the level, and be judged on their performance, but in Lollipop Chainsaw, every single room is a new opportunity for that same feedback.

So if that's what Lollipop Chainsaw's gameplay is really about, what was that "finisher" even for?

The Lollipop Split is called a finisher because it's what do to that one mis-placed zombie who's left standing after you obliterated his seven buddies in one blow.

There's a bunch of other ways to deal with him, of course, but if you're gonna' go for style, why not go all the way?

So - to recap - excellent pacing, taking cues from the best in the business and classic brawling gameplay mixed up with arcadey score-attack sensibilities.  The icing on the cake - which some may take as a bitter pill - are major gameplay switch-ups which appear in each and every level.

Often in brawlers, I feel such switch-ups are an affront to all that is good and holy.  In Bayonetta, for example, they felt like weak homages to past SEGA titles that cast in stark relief how un-fun they were, when compared to the brawling entree.

Here, as there, they're still not as much fun as the main course, but I feel they serve a somewhat different purpose.

Thanks to their inclusion in every single level - and introduced at first as mere variations on the core gameplay as you lop off zombie heads on a basketball court to hit 100 points within 3 minutes - they feel more like a crucial part of the formula, here.  Like a near-impossible leap in an 8-bit platformer, like a sudden difficulty spike in a 16-bit brawler (I'm looking at you, Whip Girls in Double Dragon), you'll most likely fail at these play sequences - which are often quite separate from the core mechanics - the first time you see them.

You'll probably fail the second time you meet Zombie Basketball (when they introduce zombies in defensive positions), the first time you try Zombie Baseball (turn off auto-aim - it's a big help), or when you find yourself in a maze fleeing from giant Pac Man dog heads wearing little fezzes - but each of these sequences are designed to be mastered.

Just like the Whip Girls, these deviations from the norm are designed not just as a coffee break from the main event, but a test of the player's knowledge - and not just of the game's core mechanics, but of the game as a whole.  You'll never hit the top ten on the leaderboards if, for example, you might fail at the gondola game even once. 

Fortunately, each little diversion is well-realized to the point that they can be mastered.  The (incredibly frustrating, at first) gondola game even has a trophy for completing it without ever firing your defensive attack to take out the pixelated bombs your enemies drop - which seems like an insane request, at first.

Within these diversions, Lollipop Chainsaw both pays homage to its arcade, score-attack roots and builds their classic mid-level difficulty spikes into its DNA.  It is, I'm almost sorry to say, pretty damn clever and successful.

Lollipop Chainsaw is - obviously, clearly - long on style, but also rich with substance.  Its design and pacing successfully apes the best developers in the world, it celebrates its arcade-attack heritage while cleverly mixing the emotional highs and lows of that design into its structure and its tactical gameplay - so obsessed with situational awareness, AI and the precise properties of your attacks - feels like nothing else, while constantly rewarding the player for dashing after perfection.

It's a glorious exercise - and that's why I've been playing Lollipop Chainsaw.  Lollipop Chainsaw provides a lovely new spin on standard brawling mechanics and riffs on the classic addiction of one-upping yourself a'la arcade score challenges while speaking modern gamerese.

You're damned right I've been playing Lollipop Chainsaw. Proudly.


  1. This reminds me of what drew me DEEPLY into Peggle for several weeks. It was fun gameplay that just OOZED style. I worked hard to get the most rainbow-laden, sparkle and music-filled finishes to each level so that I could revel in the amazing Care Bear Stare + Beethoven effects of it all.

    This would seem to scratch a similar itch.

  2. I also came back to say that you did a solid job on those GIFs. Well done.

  3. ^.^ Thanks! But only the Chainsaw Full Swing one is mine - the other two I found 'round the net.