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Lollipop Chainsaw: Exploitation or Empowerment?

One of the “Controversies” that happened at PAX East this year was that Warner Brothers enlisted a scantily-clad cosplayer to promote their upcoming game Lollipop Chainsaw.  That episode somewhat obscured the fact that Warner Brothers was giving people a chance to actually try the game, which turns out to have much more going for it that just sex appeal.  In a booth set up inside a school bus, players got to slaughter zombies with a chainsaw… while dressed as a sexy high-school cheerleader.  

Made by Suda51, the odd fellow behind strange cult hits like Killer 7 and No More Heroes, this game takes Suda’s bizarre style and runs with it. Down the sidelines of a football field.  While waving a magical chainsaw.

The game’s heroine, Juliet Starling, is visually appealing to say the least, but there’s more to Lollipop Chainsaw than a hot Lolita running around in a series of sexy costumes (Although it does have a sufficient amount of that too). It plays like a third person action game; players have buttons for Heavy Attack and Light Attack which use Juliet’s chainsaw and can be combined together to pull off fancy special moves.  Because Juliet is a cheerleader, she can also perform acrobatic maneuvers to dodge enemy attacks, and she can attack with her pom-poms.  These pom-poms aren’t particularly useful against the horde of undead, but Juliet can activate a “Sparkle Mode” that drastically enhances their effectiveness.

Aside from the melee combat, there is also shooting.  Like any quality brand-name chainsaw, Juliet’s chainsaw can also fire missiles.  Ammo is limited, to make sure that Juliet mostly uses the chainsaw to slice zombies (As God intended), but the shooting sequences added variety to the levels that were playable at PAX East.  Juliet could target exploding items on the levels to soften up large groups of enemies, and one extended sequence had her picking off zombies from a distance, with ammo power-ups being readily available for this particular mission. 
One of the recurring themes seen in games by Suda51is severed heads that can talk.  Juliet’s boyfriend, Nick, has been zombified, so she (Of course) saws his noggin off, and ties it to her waist.  However, when she finds a suitable body, she can re-capitate him.

A rhythm mini game pops up any time Juliet puts Nick’s head onto a new body.  This uses Juliet’s cheering ability to encourage Nick to perform specific tasks with his new bodies.  Each body has special powers that help the duo circumvent obstacles; one might be able to help Juliet leap over a high walls, but putting Nick’s head onto a muscular brute will let him smash through barriers.

Cheerleading mingames, “Sparkle mode”, shopping for new outfits, and pom-poms are just a few of the over-the-top examples of girlishness that Lollipop Chainsaw exudes.  This does raise the question about who the target audience is.  Are the rainbows and glitter that spew alongside the blood and gore intended to draw in a player base of young women?  Or is this girly-girl aesthetic sense there to mock the real teen cheerleaders of the world?  

Bayonetta used a similar combination of Blood & Butterflies back in 2010, and received praise from both men and women for having a sexy, tough female hero, who subverted the action genre with a flowery feminine aesthetic (Complete with lollipops too).  Juliet certainly has the attention of the male fanbase, but the question remains as to whether or not the game can generate the sort of post-feminist empowerment seen in Buffy The Vampire Slayer which is a clear influence on the project.

Still, Lollipop Chainsaw seems like a notable game regardless of the Player’s gender, thanks to its action-comedy gameplay, and Player Affinity will keep an eye on it in the months ahead.  Lollipop Chainsaw comes out for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on June 12th 2012.


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