I never quite know what to expect when loading up a game with Suda51′s name on it. While my relationship with the creative genius got off to a rocky start with Killer 7, I warmed up quite a lot after playing last year’s fantastic Shadows of the Damned (aside: if you haven’t played Shadows of the Damned yet, you should do that right now).The game was challenging, comical, satirical and, at the same time, heartfelt and sincere.

When Lollipop Chainsaw was first announced, I had huge hopes that it would be a repeat performance, knowing that with a different team wouldn’t be quite the same game. My expectations have largely been met, and while the game is pure Suda51 through and through, it is most certainly a different adventure than we took last year.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Lollipop Chainsaw isn’t a terribly long game (I spent about eight hours on my first time through, and I’m hearing that is on the long side). Rather, it’s designed for those players that milk multiple play throughs out of every purchase. I advise playing the game on progressive difficulties, starting with Easy for a couple of reasons.

First, there are different collectibles in each of the difficulty levels. Second, the game allows you to cary over upgrades (strength, pom-pom bash homing, health and recovery time) and combos purchased from the in-game store across play throughs. Racking up zombie medals and buying new moves will make harder difficulties more manageable. This game is no cakewalk even on Normal.

The Gore:Cutesy ratio is weighted heavily toward the latter.

The story and characters are as quirky as you’d expect from Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture. The heroine, Juliet Starling (voiced by Tara Strong) is a member of a family of zombie hunters and is having the worst birthday ever. A Marilyn Manson wannabe named Swan has opened a portal to another dimension, allowing zombies to invade and consume her school. To make matters worse, her boyfriend, Nick (Michael Rosenbaum) has been bitten.

Only through a magical ritual is he saved… if you can call being a decapitated head a form of salvation. Once “rescued,” Nick is along for the ride (quite literally) attached to Juliet’s belt. The dialogue between the two ranges from full-on complaining about being disembodied to nonchalant quips. It definitely keeps things fresh, even if some of the one-liners are repeated a bit too often.

The game play is reminiscent of old-school beat ‘em ups. Juliet has three attacks: a stun-inducing pom-pom bash, a high chainsaw swipe and a low one. These can be combined into a variety of combos that can be purchased from the infrequent stores. There, you can also purchase lollipops (curative items – though without a manual or instruction prompt in the game, there is no way you would know to press the D-pad to use one), permanent stat boosters for strength, health, pom-pom homing distance and recovery from being knocked down. These are all available by exchange the standard zombie medals. By killing more powerful foes or “Sparkle Hunting” (decapitating at least three zombies at a time), you’ll also earn platinum medals. These can be used to unlock MP3s (for background music), new outfits and concept art.

Double rainbow makes the zombies die.

Early on, you’ll likely have a hard time triggering a Sparkle Hunting sequence. After purchasing some new ones and upping your strength, it will happen more frequently. It’s not likely that you’ll be able to fully upgrade Juliet before the end of your first play through, so choose your purchases wisely.

In each of the six levels, you’ll have to destroy countless zombies, save students in danger and participate in a number of mini-games. Nick comes in handy for breaking down tough walls or flinging Juliet over obstacles. Placing him on a glowing blue zombie body will trigger a quicktime sequence that, while amusing, becomes a chore later on. The other quicktime events in the game fare better, as Juliet must dive out of the way of oncoming vehicles or other hazards. Additionally, there are moments in the game where a timer tick down rapidly. Should you fail to destroy the danger with the Chainsaw Blaster (a gun attachment awarded midway through the game) or safely get to the other side of the area, the game ends in crushing defeat. I mean that literally, as buildings collapsing on Juliet are all too frequent.

Chainsaw Dash!

Other mini-games keep things fresh along the way. You’ll have to compete in a couple of games of basketball, scoring points by landing decapitated zombie heads in the basket. This is facilitated by triggering a powered-up state fueled by collecting stars from re-deceased undead. This mode typically takes a zombie down in one hit, which makes huge crowds, or moments when speed matters, a bit easier to swallow. Baseball, has you protecting Nick with the Chainsaw Blaster as he runs bases. Zombies will dig their way out of the ground and try to hit him with bats or peg him with baseballs. Neither of these were terribly difficult, but a good strategy was useful. Especially when the game throws zombies in that defend the hoop, you want to make sure you’re prioritizing the right targets. The best mini-games occur in the game’s fourth level. I won’t ruin them for you, except to say that they don’t make arcade games like they used to.