Bayonetta (Xbox 360)
Man, I don't know what to say about Bayonetta. I'm at a loss here. Every time I sit down and try to write about it, I get a big lump in my throat and I sit for hours just staring at the blinking cursor.
So I've decided that, in the name of getting on with my life, I'm just going to rattle off some thoughts -- some cogent, some not -- in the hope that I might articulate something of what I'm feeling about the game.
The game stars one of those terrifying videogame women designed to make heterosexual men feel terrible about themselves. [Editor's note: No doubt she was created by other heterosexual men who want you to feel terrible about yourself. You think about that for a while.]
She has magic hair that covers her body. This hair-clothing can also be used as a weapon. It can take the shape of a giant hair-boot, or a hair-fist. Also: It can take the shape of a giant hair-dragon or a hair-griffon. Also: She can wield four guns at the same time; one in each hand, and one attached to each shoe.
The woman does two things: She gets into fights and she spouts bad one-liners that are intended to be "zingers." You'd think that her enemies -- these hideous angel things -- would run away when they get a load of that hair-boot or get sprayed by her foot-guns. But they don't. They keep trying to fight her. And they keep getting the hair-boot.
Whenever the woman is injured, she can eat a lollipop to restore her health. She collects floating, gold CD/LP things, which she can trade for better weapons, like shotguns or a fire-and-ice claw set.
Minor spoiler: Later in the game, she turns into a bona fide panther thing for short periods of time.
A friend IMed week or so ago and asked if I'd played much of Bayonetta yet. I asked him why he wanted to know. He wrote: "Because this is the sort of garbage I'd love to see you eviscerate."
This game has all the earmarks of the kind of thing that I would normally rail against.
Only I can't rail this time.
Maybe I deserve to be kicked with a hair-boot for saying this, but I had as much fun playing Bayonetta as I've had playing any game in my life.
Question: Do you have to fight this thing? Answer: Yes. Question: Will it hurt you? Answer: Yes. Very much.
The game opens with a brief tutorial that has you fighting those ugly angels on a flying block of stone. At first, the cut scenes and gameplay seemed to move too quickly for my eyes. I had trouble figuring out who was doing what to whom. But after a half hour or so, my eyes caught up with the game.
After being inadvertently freed from her lake-bed tomb by a scuba diver, the game's star -- that's Bayonetta -- returns to the world to ? well, I don't really know what she's here to do. Look terrific? Make even more heterosexual men feel terrible about their bald spots and hairy backs?
It's difficult to say.
The game tells me that she is here to sort out the mystery of how and why she was banished to the lake bed in the first place. But the true reason she's here, and the reason you are playing the game, is to beat up a whole bunch of crazy enemies, and more importantly, to look great doing so.
Bayonetta feels like a big, sexy version of 2001's Devil May Cry. It's paced the same way: battle, brief cut scene, battle, battle, battle, shop, battle, brief cut scene, end of level. It features the same one-versus-many dynamic.
This isn't plagiarism. Since Devil May Cry, one-versus-many has become a kind of genre unto itself. (See: God of War, Heavenly Sword, etc.) Bayonetta's director, Hideki Kamiya, also directed the original Devil May Cry. Kamiya has also had a hand in Resident Evil 2, Viewtiful Joe and Okami. That's a nice resume.
I liked Devil May Cry. It was one of the first games to close the gap between opening cinemas and actual gameplay. One thing I didn't like about PlayStation games was that the opening cinemas for games were often awesome. I would think, I want to do that in the actual game. But then I would get into the game and think, What happened to all the awesome things my character could do in the opening cut scene?
Almost everything you saw Dante do in cut scenes, he could also do -- sort of -- in Devil May Cry. Which was really groundbreaking at the time.
Bayonetta does some crazy shit during cut scenes. She flies around like a maniac ballerina, leaving piles of enemies behind her. To Kamiya's credit, most of that amazing shit -- including doing a handstand and shooting in a circular motion at the enemies surrounding you with your foot guns (half-circle with the right stick; B or Y button) -- you can pull off in the game.
Like Dante, Bayonetta gets locked in a discrete area by a glowing barrier and is challenged to defeat all enemies. The game's early enemies are small and easy to deal with. But the action ramps up quickly. Twenty minutes or so into the game, you'll encounter massive foes. I'm talking about angel-baby things with massive halberds and upside-down flying-face things with giant glass dragons attached to their chins.
Trust me, they only get bigger, and weirder, from here.
But Bayonetta is no pushover. She has foot-guns and a hair-dragon, for god's sake. She also has access to a very large sword, a whip and a pair of shotguns, among other things. Also, once she has defeated an enemy, she can pick up his/its weapon and use it on any nearby foes. This is especially fun after she defeats the large enemies. Watching Bayonetta skillfully waving a borrowed halberd 10 times her size is really entertaining.
Bayonetta can also manipulate time. Dodge at the right moment -- press the right trigger just before an enemy attacks -- and you will trigger Witch Time. This turns the screen purple and slows nearby enemies down for a few seconds, making them vulnerable to your hair-boot or whatever. If you aspire to make it through the game, you will need to become a Witch Time master.
Getting good at Bayonetta takes some practice. But you can get good at it. The combination system is deep. Yes, you can win fights by going completely ape-shit on the B and Y buttons. But the game deserves better. Do some exploring. Take it seriously. Master a couple of go-to combos, and use them.
Example: A couple of hours into the game, I got stuck on a challenging pair of enemies. These things were killing me over and over again. I experimented a little. I tried new combos. I tested out new weapons. And, eventually, I cooked up a formula for beating them.
Now, this wasn't an airtight formula; I only had a shred of health remaining after they were defeated. But the next time I encountered them, I tweaked the formula a little. At the end of our second battle-dance, I had a bit more health left.
A few hours later, I was handling multiple tiers of these enemies simultaneously. And I was looking pretty damn good doing so. The same enemies that had repeatedly banished me to the "WITCH HUNTS ARE OVER" screen only a few hours earlier were now being dispatched with ease.
It's exactly this kind of learning, this kind of evolution as a player, that really gets me going. As a gamer, these are the moments I live for.
Bayonetta is fun, and funny, and cheesy. It will test your skills, and frustrate you, and reward you. It's obscene and offensive and silly and never -- no, not once, not even for a second -- profound.
Yet, in the end, what I admire most about Bayonetta is its flawed, absurdist vision and its unapologetic embrace of playfulness. I admire its complete lack of subtext.
At a time when the holy grail for gaming is the constant press for more realism -- Madden, Modern Warfare, Far Cry 2, etc. -- Bayonetta is a much-needed departure. And it's a reminder that, in the future, we need more games that are content to simply allow themselves be nothing more -- and nothing less -- than games.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.