(First Published January 8th 2010 at Ace Gamez
) - If I had to pick just one word from the English language to describe Bayonetta, it would be “dizzying”. Platinum Games has pulled out every trick from the game developer’s playbook to ensure that each enemy encounter, platforming section and boss battle leaves you on the edge of your seat with white knuckles. In one stage I battled snarling angelic beasts on the side of a bridge at 90 degrees, break-danced while spewing hot lead from my stiletto-embedded shotguns and cut 30-foot monstrosities into bloody chunks with a giant axe while pole-dancing on the handle, all before battling a gigantic two-headed dragon hundreds of feet in the air inside a crumbling building. It’s the kind of game that makes God of War’s Kratos look like a soft touch and it’s not every day you hear someone saying that.
Industry legend Hideki Kamiya knows the third-person brawler genre inside and out thanks to his time spent honing the Devil May Cry series and instead of simply borrowing a lion’s share of ideas from his previous work, it refines these key features to the point that they become synonymous with Bayonetta and the screwy world she inhabits. Everything is overblown, exuding the kind of testosterone you get in a typical Cliffy B interview, yet re-calibrated with a kickass x-chromosome and painted with smatterings of style and gore from the word go.
Summarising the plot is a tad tricky considering how screwball everything feels, but it centres on the titular Bayonetta, the last surviving witch of Umbra, an ancient clan that practices the dark arts. She awakens after being confined to a deep slumber inside a coffin at the bottom of a lake for 500 years, without any recollection of who she is or what she was doing there. After being unwittingly thrust into a never-ending battle with the angelic Lumen Sage clan, Bayonetta has to figure out a way to defeat her pursuers once and for all, or risk being dragged down into the depths of the hellish Inferno realm. With a ton of unanswered questions and an itchy trigger finger, she travels to the mysterious European village of Vigrid to uncover her past and set things right once and for all.
Sure, the plot of Bayonetta is loopy, but if you really want to experience gaming at its finest, then you owe it to yourself not be put-off by how weird everything sounds. Many gamers made this very same mistake with Okami, Viewtiful Joe and God Hand, three exemplary titles all developed by the same team back when they were known as Clover Studios and to be blunt, this was entirely their loss. Don’t make it yours as well. If you aren’t one for complicated and obscure stories then perhaps a barrage of face-panelling will suffice?
The combat here is glorious, boasting a delicate balance of complexity and fluidity rarely seen in third-person beat-em-ups. The command lists are massive and the potential for racking up blinding, multi-weapon combos is great. Bayonetta’s standard load-out consists of pistols in each hand, pistols attached to each stiletto and a wide range of punches and kicks. Even at this base level, the wealth of crushing blows at your disposal lets you be creative with your attacks. In the equipment menu, new weapons can be assigned to one of two slots that can be switched between at will. For example, you could rack up a hefty combo with a katana and pistol combination, air juggle your enemy, then switch to your ‘B’ load-out consisting of shotguns and a whip for a double dose of punishment.
When I said you are left with white knuckles at the end of each run-in with the Lumen Sages, I wasn’t exaggerating as you really need to be thinking one step ahead to accumulate a healthy combo total. Halos, the currency of Bayonetta’s world, are awarded based on how varied your attacks are, how little damage you receive and the time taken to complete each sub-stage or ‘Verse’ as they are known here. You will also receive a medal at the end of each chapter based on your total verse scores. To secure the highest ‘Pure Platinum’ awards and you really need to have razor-sharp reaction times and stay focused on each fight as sloppy technique, combined with the overall toughness of the game will see you dead in no time.
Luckily Bayonetta has some extremely powerful tricks at her disposal. If you manage to evade an attack at the last moment you will enter ‘Witch Time’, which slows down enemies and allows you to get some hard-hitting combos in without any fear of being attacked for a few moments. Torture attacks can be unleashed using banked magical power and these painful looking specials really do help turn the tide of a battle. By hitting Y and B you can conjure up a guillotine, spiked casket or weirdly, a giant pair of stone hands to crush enemies into a fine claret pulp. The harder you hammer the attack button before the move connects, the more ‘Megatons’ you build up, making the move hit harder and earning you increased halos for the kill.
Another form of special involves Bayonetta’s hair which, oddly enough, makes up her slinky black cat-suit. In certain combo strings she can style giant stiletto-heeled feet to pulverize enemies and even summon screen-filling demons and crows to chow down on end of level bosses. Speaking of which, boss encounters are epic with each enemy really hitting home a ‘I have to defeat THAT’ sense of shock and awe the first time you see them. As is staple of the genre, each foe does have a glaring weak point, but battles are not as formulaic as patiently waiting for your moment to strike and repeating ad nausea. For example, when you battle against Fortitudo, a flame spewing three-headed monstrosity, an element of time manipulation is required to rebuild shattered platforms to reach his head and land more effective blows. It’s not exactly rocket science but it certainly beats incessant button spamming.
Thankfully, quick time events and similar button mashing farces are kept scarce here but do occasionally pop up in cut scenes, completely catching you off-guard and forcing you to go back to earlier in the cinematic. It’s always irritating when this happens but thankfully these moments are few and far between so it can be overlooked. The only other gripe in this otherwise accomplished package of guns and gore is that there simply isn’t enough currency to buy all of the items, techniques and power-ups in the Gates of Hell mid-level store. Run by Bayonetta’s hard as nails mate Rodin, the store offers a range of neat collectibles but at a shockingly hefty price. As there simply isn’t enough in-game currency to cover the cost, you will be forced to replay stages for more halos if you want to collect everything on offer.
This is a bit of a slog, but like Devil May Cry before it, part of the Bayonetta’s appeal is in achieving perfection, improving on your score for each stage and seeing all there is to see. If you can’t be bothered, you will still be able to finish the game, but you will miss out on some pretty awesome weapons and special attacks in the process. It’s sometimes worth going into the store just to see which Capcom-related one liners Rodin will break out next. The best so far has to be his nod to Resident Evil 4’s merchant: “Hey check this out…‘Whadaya buyin’? I heard that in a game once!”. Bayonetta even slips Viewtiful Joe’s catchphrase “Henshin a-go-go BABY!” as she surfs a river of lava on the corpse of a Lumen Sage. Even though Platinum Games no longer operate under Capcom, the developer still shares that same knack for delivering in-jokes and nods to past games and is more than appreciated.
So if this all seems like a barrage of organised chaos then that’s because it really is. Bayonetta can be utterly draining at points as you furiously battle your way through hordes of Lumen Sage, hammering together relentless combos and focusing on staying alive long enough to reach the next verse of the chapter. It is a tense and punishing experience but by the same token it delivers all of the exhilaration you might come to expect from a big budget action film only slicker and more in your face. Thankfully, if your gaming skills are lacking you can always set the game to beginner mode and pull off outrageous combos with less button presses. It’s a neat way of easing you into the otherwise hellish standard difficulty setting and removing all frustration you may have starting out. Some may say that it waters down the game to make it so simple but seriously, make no mistake this is nothing like the automatic play mode in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Bayonetta is not an easy game no matter how you slice it.
It’s not all fighting however as the narrative has some touching moments, particularly when Bayonetta and human journalist Luka cross paths. Luka’s father was killed by Bayonetta after she awoke from her long slumber and although they exist on two different planes and Luka can’t actually see her, he vows to prove her existence and expose her to the world as a murder. While you are supposed to be rooting for Bayonetta, you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy as he desperately looks for a way to get some sort of closure on his father’s passing.
It’s perhaps fitting that Bayonetta should be released on the first launch day of 2010 because not only does it raise the bar for action games for the rest of the year to come it is already, without exaggeration, a firm contender for game of the year. It’s been said before and it can’t hurt to underline the fact that Platinum Games and Clover Studios before it are some of the most talented yet unluckiest guys in the business. They consistently make top-quality games yet fail to enjoy the same sales figures as some Wii shovel ware. It’s a disgrace, but Bayonetta is evidence of a developer enjoying a confident stride and it looks as if this is the game that will finally help them break the industry.