System: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 :: Rating: Mature :: Players: 1
Genre: Action :: Released: 05 January 2010
By Damien Wilkens
19 March 2010 — The hardest part about writing a review of Bayonetta? I have to stop playing Bayonetta.
The industry is changing. I understand that, and I think the next generation will be the first to fully embrace the idea of video games as an art form. As we reach this precipice, it's important to realize just how much our perception of the industry itself needs to change. We gamers have been the laughing stock of entertainment for so long that we've taken the medium we love and put a shield around it. It's to the point that some of us take things so seriously that it's easy to forget that games are supposed to be fun, that at the end of the day we're just hitting buttons so the guy on the screen jumps for us. If anything, this explains why we've been so quick to embrace the bald space marine aesthetic. We fill the screen with browns and greys so that it can't be mistaken for a child's medium. We make graphics photorealistic and optimize them for the highest quality of televisions so that only the most elite can achieve the full experience. It's completely understandable; we want to snub our nose and pretend that others are beneath us because that's how we've been treated for years. We're so worried about Sonic and Mega Man setting us back that we create a hundred games with "war" and "duty" in the title in an effort to compensate.
And maybe that's why I love Bayonetta so much. It simply doesn't care.
Bayonetta is the kind of game that could only come from a Japanese developer. The title character has guns on her heels, fights creatures the size of buildings, and often cares more about retrieving a lollipop than saving the world. When she leaps into battle, there is no hard-edged metal soundtrack to accompany her, rather an up-tempo jazz song involving a young woman proclaiming her love. It is, at its base, a game that takes your expectations and throws them back in your face. You'll often find yourself in awe of what's thrown at you, be it an epic set piece or a subtle nod to another title. It's self-aware, but never to the point where you feel like you're being laughed at. The developers put in countless references to previous Sega and Clover Studio games as an act of tribute, not parody — a lesson that games like No More Heroes could learn from.
None of this would matter if Bayonetta didn't have a strong base in its gameplay to work from. It helps that the director, Hideki Kamiya, cut his teeth on the original Devil May Cry — a title that frames what Bayonetta would become. And indeed a good number of the conventions carry over: a force field blocking a door until all enemies are dispatched, giant boss confrontations, a wise-cracking protagonist with a limitless supply of ammo and quips; all of these have been seen before, but never in an environment that so easily meshes playability with style. Our heroine has an exhaustive list of moves at her disposal, but never do you feel overwhelmed. Make no mistake, it's a challenging game, even on normal, but never does it feel unfair. Within a few hours, you get a sense that every action Bayonetta makes is completely within your control, whether it be the sword in her hand, the claws on her feet, or the various torture attacks that serve only to place an exclamation point on a particularly one-sided battle. Where Dante's forte was in his seamless transitions between gun and blade, Bayonetta focuses much more on the idea of grace and acrobatics. The point isn't so much defeating your enemies as it is embarrassing them. In her brightest moments, the title character will almost look bored with the prospect of fighting axe-wielding golems and elemental beasts. You can pull out a dodge maneuver at the very last second, and it's animated with such a supreme confidence that it will seem there was never a chance of you getting hit at all.
Pulling off these evasive moves at the right moment initiates Witch Time, a mechanic that slows everything around you for a short period. As you progress through the game, it proves to be your most valuable ability (not to mention, most often used). Aside from the obvious battle advantages, Witch Time can be enabled to walk across water, avoid quick-moving obstacles, and buy yourself time to open certain doors. Oftentimes, the game itself will trigger WT so that you can fight atop a car hanging in midair amidst a crash, jump across spinning pieces of land whilst turning into a panther, or use crates that fall from the sky so that you can re-enter a damaged aircraft. Despite its firm-held title as a beat 'em up, Bayonetta defies the repetitive nature of the genre by making sure you're almost never doing the same thing twice. Whether it's the frenetically paced motorcycle segments, or playing tennis with a missile, it's impossible to guess what the game is going to throw at you next — which makes the journey all that much more exciting. Even when you're forced to fight several of the same bosses more than once, the manner in which you have to defeat them changes with each encounter.
Just when you think you've seen and done it all, there is always more to do in Bayonetta. Not only does beating the game on each of the five difficulties yield a different reward, but an in-game shop is stocked with various accessories and weapons that often completely change the way the game is played. One such item will replace your Witch Time with an explosive blast that wipes out enemies with each successful evade, making it possible to actually finish levels without executing a single attack. Replayability is the name of the game, and when you factor in the numerous hidden items and portal challenges (many of which are devilishly well-hidden), it could very well take 100 hours of game time before you unlock everything — a figure that's simply unheard of in action games.
And that's ultimately what makes Bayonetta so unique. It's not the overtly sexual nature of the protagonist. It's not even the over-the-top story that serves little purpose other than to lead you in the direction of the next epic set piece. It's the fact that it can take the conventions of an often uninspired genre and present them in a way that's fresh and exciting. Bayonetta isn't worried about defending the medium of video games, even if the underlying statement it makes is profound; there's still a place for campy fun in a medium that's become obsessed with its place in the echelon of entertainment. It simply cares about delivering an experience that gamers will be hard-pressed to forget any time soon. Games are evolving, and will continue to do so, but as long as titles like Bayonetta continue to get made, with this level of care and polish, the industry will still have some creative legs to stand on for a long time to come.
Final Grade: 10/10