Lollipop Chainsaw review: Missing the sweet center

Reviews of mediocre games are generally the hardest to write. While it's as effortless to dole out shining praise as it is to spew acrid condemnation, elucidating the merits of something that is neither great nor awful is considerably more difficult. Normally, that would be the case for Lollipop Chainsaw, which neither truly excels or completely fails in any particular area.

As I said, that would be the case – if only developer Grasshopper Manufacture hadn't already delivered excellent examples in the character action genre, giving us the perfect lens with which to suss out Lollipop Chainsaw's faults.%Gallery-149593% Lollipop Chainsaw stars Juliet Starling, a high school cheerleader who spends her downtime hunting zombies. In fact, she comes from an entire family of zombie hunters, including her father and her younger and older sisters. Don't worry about background info – just accept it. Accept the fact that an 18-year-old cheerleader with a heart-decorated chainsaw is the only thing that can stand against an impending zombie apocalypse.

Lollipop Chainsaw bears more than a few similarities to Grasshopper's 2011 shooter, Shadows of the Damned. Where Garcia (Fucking) Hotspur preferred guns, Juliet throws down with her pom poms and a massive chainsaw. Where Garcia had a talking skull-on-a-stick for a sidekick, Juliet has the dismembered, talking head of her boyfriend, Nick. Instead of demons, we have zombies.

Like Shadows of the Damned – and most of Grasshopper's games, really – Lollipop Chainsaw takes a puerile approach to dialogue and presentation. Unfortunately, while the dick joke-infused writing really worked for Shadows, the Clueless-style camp in Lollipop Chainsaw fails more often than it succeeds. My genuine laughs were rare enough that each one came as a surprise, not a good sign for a story about a zombie-slaying cheerleader. The actors deliver good performances, but they could only work with what they were given, which isn't great. If nothing else, Juliet's sister, Rosalind, has given me the word "shitmuffins," and that has to count for something. There are good moments: a boss that speaks in auto-tune, some of the repartee between Nick and Juliet; but by and large the shtick falls flat.

The zombies are the worst offenders, spouting offensive or nonsensical one-liners at every opportunity. Before the end, I heard gems such as "swallow my fist like tuna, bitch," and "let me fuck your father." Let's not forget classics like "nuclear testes in my pants" and "now I hate you more than Carrot Top." It's puerility for puerility's sake. Say what you will about the immaturity of Shadows of the Damned, but at least it made sense. It's also worth noting that nearly every insult hurled at Juliet involves some variation of "whore" or "slut," which is bound to rub some players the wrong way.

Juliet herself, at least, is generally portrayed as a strong character. Sexuality is certainly part of her character, though it's not as overt as it is with, say, Bayonetta. That said, Lollipop Chainsaw takes every opportunity to give players a nice, clear view up her skirt. In fact, Juliet will coquettishly (and ineffectively) cover her naughty parts should you swing the camera too low on either side.

All of Lollipop Chainsaw's faults could be forgiven if it weren't for one significant problem: the combat. Put plainly, fighting in Lollipop Chainsaw is a chore. Mechanically, everything works fine, with combos easy to input and satisfying to watch, but the overall system has one grating issue. In theory, the combat system is based around decapitating zombies. Once Juliet deals enough damage to a zombie, it will become dazed and "groggy," leaving it open for an instant decapitation with the chainsaw. The problem is that zombies take a tremendous amount of damage before becoming groggy. On top of this, zombies can (and will) frequently interrupt Juliet's attacks, making the difficult task of dazing them even harder.

Lollipop Chainsaw rewards Juliet for decapitating several zombies in a single swing – bizarrely referred to as "Sparkle Hunting" – but actually getting a group of zombies groggy and close enough together to do so requires monumental effort. Thus, Sparkle Hunting is more often the result of chance than what it should be: a show of skill. The problem is exacerbated in later levels, when zombies start soaking up more damage and become even more difficult to stun – even after upgrading Juliet's strength to maximum.

While there are numerous unlockable combos, many of them don't seem particularly useful. Longer combos can easily be interrupted and shorter ones don't make much of an impact on the ever-stalwart zombies. All the combos in the world don't mean anything if they don't make you feel more powerful, and Lollipop Chainsaw's rarely do.

The only truly great aspect of combat is the Star Soul mode, which Juliet can initiate after killing enough zombies to fill a special meter. In Star Soul mode, Juliet glitters with rainbow colors as every single chainsaw swing becomes an instant kill, and all of it is set to Toni Basil's "Mickey." Zombies fall left and right, Sparkle Hunting bonuses abound and the music brings it all home. It's the one time that every element of Lollipop Chainsaw really comes together, and it's illustrative of how one simple change can make the entire experience more enjoyable. Unfortunately, you won't be slaughtering the undead to the tune of "Mickey" nearly often enough.

In addition to "Mickey," Lollipop Chainsaw sports an impressive collection of licensed music, including artists as varied as MSTRKRFT, Joan Jett, Dead or Alive and DragonForce. Surprisingly, the tracks by music director (and former Silent Hill composer) Akira Yamaoka lack the character and originality we've come to expect, with some sounding more like Sonic Adventure than Shadows of the Damned.

Lollipop Chainsaw certainly isn't terrible. Despite its flaws, the combat is still mechanically sound. Most of the characters are genuinely likable, and I found them endearing by the end, even if the dialogue often misses the mark. What's heart-breaking about it all is that Grasshopper can do better. With a few tweaks to the combat – weaker zombies, and perhaps more of them – the experience could be much more entertaining. As is, Lollipop Chainsaw is a serviceable confection, though something of a bitter one.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Lollipop Chainsaw, provided by Warner Bros.

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