Review / Bayonetta (Xbox 360)

During the transition from 2D to 3D gaming, the beat ‘em up genre had one of the toughest roads to relevance. It wasn’t until 2001 when Capcom released the first Devil May Cry that somebody was finally able to achieve the violent bliss found in games like Streets Of Rage 2 and Final Fight. Hideki Kamiya’s recipe for success was an elegant one: amp up the complexity, make your controls air tight, have the game ooze style, and the main character has to reek of awesomeness.

If you’re going to play as the same guy for eight hours fighting the same style of enemies over and over, your best bet is to make it look as cool as feasibly possible, and for its time, Devil May Cry certainly did that. Nine years later, after Ninja GaidenGod of War, and the Kamiya-free Devil May Cry sequels notched up expectations, the guy who started it all is back to rule the subgenre he created, and the queen he brought with him is something special.

If Bayonetta will be remembered for one thing, it will be the sheer lunacy it has on display. I’ve played some weird games in my time, but Platinum Games has put together one of the most balls-to-the-walls ridiculous games I have ever been in contact with. How ridiculous? How about a cut-scene featuring our heroine killing dozens of bad guys with a coffin full of guns while dancing and sucking on a lollypop with a techno dance remix of Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To The Moon playing in the background. Not only does that happen in Bayonetta, but that happens to be the opening cut-scene, and it only gets nuttier from there. While 75% of the cut-scenes are this type of zany eye candy, the problem lies when the game attempts to tell you a story, as the scenes involving mainly exposition are long, stilted, and generally uninteresting. I don’t care about the 1000-year struggle between the witch clans that isn’t explained very well, and I’m pretty sure you won’t either.

The game revels in its own absurdity in a way that lends itself to self-parody, almost as if it’s lampooning the very genre it comes from. Kamiya has been very critical of other entries in the genre (as well as their creators, and Bayonetta’s blissful insanity takes jabs not just at games of this ilk, but you’ll hear and see numerous clever nods to Halo, Resident Evil 4, After Burner, the now-defunct Clover Studio, and even Star Wars. Hell, it’s a Sega game where the game’s main currency is gold rings that make a very familiar sound when picked up on top of featuring a couple of levels straight out of Space Harrier.

When you’re not watching cut-scenes involving dragons from hell made out of Bayonetta’s hair eating end level bosses alive, you’ll be traversing the world in a very Devil May Cry-like manner, as most of the game’s levels involve exploring the world with some light platforming elements thrown in until some magical barriers show up and don’t go away until you make a bunch of demons who spew out of the ground dead, and once in a while you will have to solve a fairly basic puzzle for variety’s sake. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is, but this style of progression is the best way to serve the reason you should play Bayonetta: Its combat.

Bayonetta’s greatest strength is the ability to customize the game to a fighting style you see fit. You have punch, kick, and gun buttons that, as you might expect, you can chain together to perform combos. As you play the game, you collect numerous different weapons you can wield and switch on the fly to make crazier and crazier combos. So imagine having a giant axe for a melee weapon with a pistol on one foot and a shotgun on the other, then switching to a pair of claws mid combo, then after blowing away the mid boss with a giant magical boot made out of her hair, you pick up the spear he was carrying and proceed to do a spinning pole dance with the spear that kills everyone around you while racking up a combo somewhere in the hundreds. You can also dodge, and if you time your dodge just right, you’ll be allotted a small amount of “witch time” which slows everything down and increases the damage done by your moves. Getting the timing down is difficult, but witch time is the key to success, especially on the harder difficulties. All of this equates to what might be the single largest move set for any one character in videogame history.

The euphoria you get when you get into a zone is further heightened by how good the game looks. Bayonetta herself looks fantastic (if somewhat unrealistic), and the monster design in particular is as imaginative and original as it is strange. The sounds of Bayonetta hitting stuff is appropriately visceral while the upbeat J-Pop soundtrack fits the mood perfectly. When you’re not in combat, both the sound design and the architecture isn’t as enthralling as it is when in combat, but before you notice enough to care, you’ll be put right back into the ass kicking segments. The game is a blast all the way through to the end, but the final third of the game’s longer-than-average 12-14 hour campaign does away with most of the puzzle solving and exposition, leading to a almost Zen like focus on combat. It’s in these last four hours or so that Bayonetta reaches its true potential as one of the genre’s finest entries.

It’s not without its problems. My personal biggest complaint is that you have to beat the game on normal before you can play it at a harder difficulty setting, and as someone who has played these games for a long time, I would’ve liked to have been able to challenge myself from the start. Also, while I haven’t seen the PS3 version personally as I played the game on the 360, considering that every games media website on Earth has lambasted the PS3 versions technical problems, Sony-only gamers might want to be weary that they are getting a slightly inferior version of the game. With that said, anybody with even the slightest interest in beating up demons will find Bayonetta to be a total riot from start to finish. Is it the greatest action game on the planet like some people say? I can see why somebody would say so. I personally liked Devil May Cry 4 more due to its tighter controls, better story, and sharper graphics & sound, but Bayonetta is absolutely worth full price, and you won’t forget about her any time soon.

+ Some of the deepest combat you will find anywhere
+ Fantastic presentation
+ Over-the-top in a way I can’t even describe

– The game’s hyper Japanese style and sensibilities will turn off some people
– The PS3 version of the game is not up to snuff
– Why can’t I play on hard mode from the get go?