There are some games that are so fresh, original or innovative—Portal, or Braid, for example—that they really have no prior point of reference. There's nothing quite like them. Bayonetta, on the other hand, is positively bursting with visual cues and gameplay elements that superstar designer Hideki Kamiya consciously copped from his long and storied career. It's probably impossible to play Platinum Games' new action game without feeling like it's a souped up, sexed up, dressed up version of Devil May Cry fused with big steaming slabs of Ninja Gaiden and God of War. References aside, Bayonetta is a fluid hack-and-slash brawler that takes “visual stimulation” way over the top. In fact, there is so much color, movement, detail, music, and sound flooding in at any given moment that sensory overload can be a genuine problem.
But really, everything about Bayonetta is an exercise in the extreme, from the hyper-sexualized lead character, to the immense and often wildly inventive bosses, to the finishing moves that let you drop in a guillotine or iron maiden for the final coup de gras. These are the kind of game design choices that you'll love or loathe. Take Bayonetta herself, a geek-bondage fantasy girl, all legs and chest and covered in painted-on latex. She's absolutely the kind of character your wife or girlfriend will roll their eyes at, then sigh disgustedly, and use as further proof that video games are aimed at males stuck in perpetual adolescence.
She'd be absolutely right. But not entirely, because underneath the surface of sleaze is a character with a lot of wit, not a little bit of charm, and a whole lot of firepower. Whether you're a brainless button-masher or skilled combo-wielder, Bayonetta has something to offer. The controls are simple to grasp and as tight as the titular character's cat suit, but there is a lot of depth and refinement, too, if memorizing long combos is your thing and a challenge is what you're after. A huge—if not always easy to negotiate, organize or understand—selection of weapons and unlocks make each of game's 16 levels a ton of fun to slice, dice, and blast through. “Witch time,” a reward for timing a dodge just right, slows down the frenetic action and makes some of the tougher battles a lot less frustrating. In addition to all of her high-style weaponry, Bayonetta has a catalog of agile jumps, kicks, and spins that are beautifully animated and a real pleasure to control.
The enemies and bosses, likewise, are a strong element of Bayonetta and until the last third of the game—when bosses start making an encore (usually a sign the game has outstayed its welcome, or least the imaginations of the designers)--each new encounter is part of an escalating series of surprises.
The character may be a supple, agile wonder, but the storytelling underneath all this action is a different kind of bust. Following up a season of triple-A games with Hollywood-quality cinematic stories and top-notch dialogue, what passes for story and motivation in Bayonetta is a mess; a mixed up jumble of anime, world mythology, theology, and double entendre. Like the rest of the game, it's all giddily preposterous: Bayonetta is an Umbran Witch (ok...) who awakens in a tomb at the bottom of a lake (go on...) with amnesia (how convenient...) and must join forces with the demons of the Inferno (wait..what?) to fight the angels of Paradise (of course!). There may be a poignant tale of retribution and redemption somewhere in that pile of Joseph Campbell leftovers—or not.
Like the incoherent story, the audio and music are a bit disappointing. Compared to the detailed, inventive, and artistically rendered visuals and smooth animations, the audio effects lack character and punch. Similarly, the voice acting feels like a throwback to the days before producers started bringing in top-talent readers. The music—like the story, like the art style, like the gameplay—is a grab bag of styles: Japanime pop, synthesized orchestras, and oldies. “Fly Me to the Moon” is an ironic and amusing choice for this sky-jumping witch, but squirted through a cheeseball synth patch and looped endlessly during an extended fight it very quickly outstays its welcome and becomes as irritating as an extended bath in dentist chair Muzak.
That Bayonetta so happily and fearlessly throws together so many extreme elements is both the source of its many charms and its disappointments. Bayonetta's overt, juvenile sexuality—which, let's face it, should be an embarrassment to anyone on the far side of puberty—is rescued, if not redeemed by, its lack of seriousness and its obviously mischievous intention: let's see how far we can push this. Its crazy-quilt story is balanced by stellar gameplay and visuals that sometimes clutter the screen, but usually do so with style and beauty. Bayonetta might not be the kind of girl you bring home to meet your mother, but she's a lot of fun to hang out with, flaws and all.
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