Gaming guru Hideki Kamiya bursts onto next-gen consoles with equal amounts style and substance with his latest masterpiece -- the ultra-stylized third person action extravaganza Bayonetta.
- GamePro Score
- User Score
- Write your review!
There's an old adage about the first impression being the most important one and unfortunately, my first encounter with Bayonetta wasn't positive: it was when the game was first announced and the very first image of the titular witch was released. I glanced at the main character's sexy pose and ridiculous outfit, thought "Did they really attach guns to the back of her legs?" and wrote it off as yet another ham-fisted action title that would ultimately offer nothing more than a few moments of titillation. But as it turns out, Bayonetta is surprisingly good and it's better than I could have ever anticipated.
I just wish it didn't take two hours of actually playing the game before you are given an opportunity to fully realize that. The game's introductory levels move at such a chaotic pace that you barely have time to breathe, let alone take in the basic gameplay concepts and narrative linchpins that are thrown your way. It's a hectic and confusing primer but it's not particularly surprising: Bayonetta's director, Hideki Kamiya, knows how to build memorable worlds but he's not so great at introducing you to them. He should take a cue from the fictional Willy Wonka who didn't rush his lucky contest winners through his wondrous factory (as Kamiya does in Bayonetta) nor did he force them to stand outside the gates while he lectured them for twenty minutes on the hidden wonders that lay inside (as Kamiya did with Okami). Instead, the madcap chocolatier ushered his guests in and started them off slowly, showing them a few minor miracles so that they could acclimate themselves, and only after they started to feel comfortable did he unveil the real magic.
The titular Bayonetta may get all the attention but the inspired enemies, like this two-headed dragon, are the true stars of the game.
And there is a terrific sense of magic to Bayonetta -- it's just unfortunate that it's so completely and utterly obfuscated by the main character's overt sexuality and frantic anime-inspired shenanigans. Those two aspects may garner Bayonetta plenty of attention but it actively detracts from the game's true strengths: A refined combat system and a ridiculously inspired menagerie of enemies on which to use it. The titular witch is like a skilled magician who is terrific at sleight of hand -- a very subtle and intimate form of magic -- but rather than rely on her natural skill to wow the audience, she leans on a heavily overproduced stage show complete with burlesque dancers and a rocking soundtrack. As a character and heroine, she falls incredibly flat and it's only when she lets her fists and feet do the talking that she starts to become palatable. Many gamers will be seduced by her looks and her vampish ways but I actually would have preferred it if she had cut down on the come-hither theatrics and focused more on kicking ass.
Bayonetta is often compared to Devil May Cry, and while the two games do share a lot of similarities -- no surprise considering Kamiya directed both -- the game that serves as a better point of reference is Sony's God of War. Both have epic stories, memorable protagonists and refined combat; of course, God of War's story and hero are handled with far more expertise and skill, but I actually give the edge to Bayonetta when it comes to the controls and battle system. The combat is a mind-blowingly ludicrous affair, and while it starts off as an over-the-top mess, it eventually settles down to become a taut technical challenge. The later levels, especially, require a deep commitment to precision and timing, but you always feel like you're in command of the action. It's far more surgical and deliberate than God of War -- Bayonetta is the scalpel to Kratos' meat cleaver -- and the number of available combos is utterly ridiculous. Even better, most attacks end with an incredibly satisfying finish in the form of an earth-shattering Weave Attack: this is where Bayonetta's suit, made of her hair, natch, comes alive to form a magic fist or high-heel adorned foot and put the exclamation point on your attack. You can also build up a magic meter to activate a deviously designed Torture Attack that reminded me a lot of Mortal Kombat's Fatalities. Then there are the boss fights which get progressively weirder and better, and while they all boil down to an exercise in pattern recognition and timing, the payoff is enormous. The game also does an incredible job of never giving boredom an opportunity to set in. It's like a perfectly designed roller coaster whose peaks and valleys are perfectly meted out to deliver the best possible thrill. The sheer variety of things you do is also fantastic, with new enemies appearing just as you start getting over the awe of the ones you've already encountered, and the action is broken up by some unexpected sequences that never fail to revive your flagging interest.
Building up your magic meter allows you to activate special Torture Attacks like this guillotine maneuver.
Unfortunately, Bayonetta's incomprehensible story interjects itself every now and again to bring the momentum to a halt; the narrative is so convoluted and nonsensical that it makes the TV show 'Lost' seem tightly scripted in comparison. It's like classic Japanese anime: it's pretty to watch but the story makes absolutely no sense, the characterizations are incredibly weak -- for all the thought put into her outwardly appearance, Bayonetta is essentially nothing more than Ninja Attack Barbie -- and there are long-winded monologues where plenty of words are spoken but nothing is actually said. I played through every single mission and watched every single cutscene and I still can't tell you what the game is actually about. Bayonetta's some sort of witch and she's the key to some sort of prophecy, but the heavy-handed dialogue and disjointed exposition combine to form a dense wall of confusion that's nigh impenetrable.
There is no 'Eureka!' moment when everything starts to magically make sense and that's an absolute shame because the mythology that underpins the action is incredibly interesting, and having it explained in a coherent fashion would have done wonders for the game. This potential is especially evident in the inspired enemies: There are elements of Mayan, Greek, and Hindu mythology at play but the creature design is an utterly unique animal unto itself; as I said, the bosses are especially memorable and I marveled at their creative and deranged nature. When you face off against a gigantic two-headed stone dragon with an upside down head for a body, it tends to leave an impression. But just as they did with Bayonetta's sexuality, the designers forgot that a little can go a long way, and during the last third of the game, each defeated boss is brought back for a series of encore performances which completely dispels the sense of wonder that surrounds these awesome beasts. The game also drags on far too long and again, it's just another example of not knowing when to say "When." As the old saying goes, too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and there's just too much of Bayonetta: by the time I got to the climatic final encounter, I was suffering from a tremendous case of battle fatigue. I was also utterly dismayed when I discovered that what looked like the end wasn't the end at all but rather the beginning of the end, if that makes sense. I don't want to ruin the surprise so I'll just say this: don't ever put the controller down, even when the end credits start to roll.
But when I finally did claw my way past the finish line and took a long honest look back at my time with the game, I was shocked by how much I had truly enjoyed it. Even after suffering through the grueling battles, the repeated deaths, the campy dialogue and the head-numbingly bad plot, I still had a hell of time thanks to the immensely satisfying combat, the inspired level design and the memorable boss encounters. It really is one of the better games I've played this year, and that's particularly high praise for a title I had initially written off. It just goes to prove that while the first impression might be important, it's the lasting memory that truly matters most and Bayonetta certainly leaves an impact, even if her stage presence and sense of timing need work.
PROS: The combat system is just about perfect and the boss encounters are memorable.
CONS: It pushes the sex angle too far; the story makes absolutely no sense; and the game drags on longer than it should.