With its stylish, sexy heroine, fluid combat and homages galore, Platinum Games’ “Bayonetta” is a love letter to women and video games.
It’ll be lucky to sell half as many copies, but “Bayonetta” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3) could easily give Sony’s “God of War III,” due out in March, a run for its money as the year’s best action title. It’s got an unforgettable main character, a look all its own, fast, fun action and smooth-as-butter controls.
Though plenty of other critics have derided the game’s plot as nonsensical and overly complicated, it more or less makes sense eventually. In a nutshell, you play as Bayonetta, a powerful witch who spent five centuries sleeping in a coffin at the bottom of a lake. Bayonetta’s been awake for 20 years or so and starts the game in search of a gemstone that matches the one she wears on her chest, hoping it’ll provide clues about her past.
The complicated plot reveals itself gradually, and you’ll definitely have to have a little patience in the early going, as “Bayonetta” starts with a few insanely long movies that thankfully aren’t typical of what you’ll find later on. (You’ll be relieved to know that annoying mobster Enzo largely disappears after the first chapter.)
Gamers of a certain age will revel in allusions and minigames that recall classic gaming franchises from publisher Sega’s “Sonic the Hedgehog,” “Space Harrier” and “Out Run” to director Hideki Kamiya’s “Viewtiful Joe” and “Okami,” to name a few.
With Bayonetta allied with the forces of darkness (though she’s not really “evil”), you’ll find her pursued by a number of angelic enemies. A few folks from her past pop in, as well, but from a visual standpoint, the forces of light are a treat to behold. Made up of feathers, halos and bits of sculpture, the gold-clad foes are unlike anything I’ve encountered in gaming.
It’s a sheer joy to do battle against the forces of light. Fans of action titles such as the “God of War” or “Ninja Gaiden” games, as well as Kamiya’s “Devil May Cry,” should feel right at home with the gameplay. As with those franchises, “Bayonetta” is all about stringing together lightning-fast attacks with timed button presses that create various combo moves. The more moves you string together, the more halos you’ll collect. (Halos are used to purchase upgrades, weapons, costumes and other goodies in the game’s store.) By narrowly dodging attacks with the right trigger, you can activate “witch time,” a slo-mo mode that makes it far easier to kill off your enemies and earn more halos.
A typical combat sequence, backed by a playful, cooing soundtrack, has you surrounded by five or six lesser enemies while also tackling some divine, upper-tier boss. You’ll frantically guide Bayonetta to dive away from danger, activating witch time. Next, you’ll unleash a furious sling of sword slashes on the weaker foes, punctuated with a “wicked weave” (below), an attack in which you conjure up a boot made up of Bayonetta’s own hair. Stringing all these moves together has likely filled your magic meter, which allows you to execute a “torture attack,” literally summoning a guillotine or iron maiden to deal with the boss. If it’s an end-of-level boss, you’ll even use Bayonetta’s hair to form a gigantic demon that chews, rips or beats the enemy to bits.
Unlike those other games, “Bayonetta” doesn’t engage in much hand-holding. Nearly all of the button combos, or techniques, for Bayonetta’s initial weapons, four handguns worn on each of her limbs, are unlocked from the get-go, leaving you to earn only a dozen or so special techniques and weapons that include shotguns, a whip and ice skates.
Does all that power at your thumbtips sound overwhelming? Don’t let it. The game is kind enough on the initially available difficulty levels that you can hone three or four go-to moves and build from there. I played on the default, “normal” difficulty mode, but “Bayonetta” also features “easy” and “very easy” modes, the latter being so challenge-free you can pretty much mash on one button for the entire game.
Still, success at harder difficulty levels will require you to master a slew of different weapons and attack types. To assist in accomplishing that goal, the game displays a massive list of combos and lets you practice them during its load screens. You can even hit the back or select button to keep the game on the load screen while you practice.
And you’ll want some practice. After finishing the game on “Normal,” the hardest difficulty initially available, I restarted on “hard” and promptly got my butt kicked a few times on the game’s prologue. Considering that there’s another difficulty level above “hard” and that I’d only unlocked maybe a third of the game’s items and special techniques on my first playthrough, there’s plenty of opportunity for replayability if you’re as stricken with “Bayonetta” as I was.
As for Bayonetta, the woman, it’s hard to size her up. On the one hand, her playful personality makes a terrific counterpoint to the grunting muscleheads, mutes and nerdy smart alecs who usually serve as heroes in video games. She’s smart and confident, sexy and powerful, regarded as an equal or superior by all the men she meets. This is one woman who doesn’t need saving.
At times, however, “Bayonetta” the game plays more like a mash note than a love letter. While the game is packed with moments that shake up the medium’s treatment of gender roles, there are plenty of crotch shots, boob close-ups, skimpy outfits and other assorted imagery that’ll make mature gamers wonder whether our medium of choice will ever be able to escape mom’s basement.
These moments don’t ruin “Bayonetta” – for some gamers, they’re likely a selling point. But they turn a game that could’ve been transcendent into something that’s merely terrific, at least if you’re playing the game on the Xbox 360, as I did.
Players of the PS3 version of “Bayonetta” have reported a number of issues with choppy frame rates, long load times and other glitches. If you’re a PS3-only gamer, you might want to hold out for the inevitable software patch. (Update: A patch went live after this review went up that addresses the long load times on PS3 by letting you install the game to your console’s hard drive.)