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Release Date: January 5, 2010
Platforms: Playstation 3 (reviewed), Xbox 360
Developers: Platinum Games & Sega (Playstation 3 Port)
Kamiya’s New Game Is So Familiar That the Devil Himself May Cry
Bayonetta is the “hot” new game from Hideki Kamiya and Platinum Games starring you, essentially, as an oversexed yet misanthropic English witch with guns for high heels and hair extensions for skintight clothing who spends most of her time flagrantly dry humping everything in sight and then flamboyantly killing it. She also wears glasses, which may pass for originality these days but is thematically appropriate because Bayonetta, like most of director Hideki Kamiya’s games, is all about spectacles: Whether you’re throwing angels into a guillotine or simply murdering God, Bayonetta will certainly prove a smashing, button-mashing over-the-top distraction from your day-to-day routine… unless of course your day-to-day routine includes playing video games, in which case it offers little, if anything, new.
Bayonetta doesn’t so much have a plot as much as one great big ridiculous backstory which doesn’t get revealed until the last 1/5th of the game. In a motivation that has become more hackneyed than kidnapping a princess, our heroine suffers from amnesia, and has apparently spent the last 20 years searching for her identity and, in her off hours, performing odd jobs for Enzo, an Italian American stereotype not so much modeled after as stolen from the cinematic personas of Joe Pesci and Bruno Kirby. At the start of the game, Enzo receives some kind of “hot tip” that a precious stone is for sale in the (presumably fictional) European town of Vigrid, and that somehow this stone is the key to recovering Bayonetta’s lost memories. So Bayonetta goes to Vigrid, kills countless angels – who apparently don’t like her very much – and that’s about it. There are other details, like a journalist/grappling hook enthusiast who blames Bayonetta for the death of his father or a little girl who may or may not be Bayonetta’s lost daughter, but the game spends most of its time ignoring them in favor of chaotic action sequences and spamming the punch button.
The controls work, of course. This is Hideki Kamiya after all, the man who spawned the popular Devil May Cry series, and Bayonetta is nothing if not Devil May Cry’s bastard stepdaughter. You fight wave after wave of creatively-designed yet endlessly spawning enemies by either doling out massive damage in melee attack combos or by whittling away their health gradually with handguns, and then receive a Fourth Wall-annihilating letter grade for your trouble. There are lots of combos to be discovered and unlocked but most of them have little-to-no discernible difference in actual gameplay, meaning that the average player is going to spend their time reusing the same moves over and over again or simply button mashing because just about every possible combination of attacks causes something cool to happen, like turning Bayonetta’s hair into a giant boot and kicking with it, or turning Bayonetta’s hair into a giant fist and punching with it. (Both of which raise potent questions like, “What kind of conditioner does she use,” and “How much hairspray is too much?”)
Unfortunately, Bayonetta also carries over some of the more annoying aspects of games like Devil May Cry, such as a frustrating tendency to have all the really interesting action sequences happen in flashy cinematics, and an unforgivable number of instant-kill Quicktime Events which destroy all the forward momentum of a game built on excessive speed by stopping it (and you) dead if you don’t press X at exactly the right time. Kamiya also took a page from the troubled Devil May Cry 4 by constantly reusing the same environments over and over again, but unlike Devil May Cry 4, which at least had a flawed rationale for returning to these locations, Bayonetta keeps revisiting them without the slightest motivation. The same town square appears throughout the entire game, always in a different geographical location, and sometimes – just for fun – in Heaven, where one would think the architectural standards would be higher.
There is also a frustrating tendency in the Playstation 3 version (supposedly fixed in the Xbox 360 version, not reviewed) to bring up a “Loading…” screen whenever anything happens, like acquiring an item, pausing the game or even switching menus. The result is consistent enough that the player gets used to it – much like the camera angles, which never seem to get quite far enough away from the action to make it easy to follow – but it does lead to some laughable moments, like when Bayonetta jumps onto a motorcycle in the middle of an action sequence and yells “Time to go vroom!” (really), followed by a ten second loading screen. “Time to go vroom… eventually, I suppose. You’re going to have to give us a moment. Do you need a bathroom break?”
These criticisms aside, Bayonetta does grow on you, which is a mercy since the first half of the game is repetitive and almost joyless, despite constant efforts on the part of the designers to throw kitchen sinks at the player. Despite strong, albeit chaotic gameplay, Bayonetta herself starts out as an almost entirely unlikable protagonist: cocky, condescending and so egregiously overpowered that hardly anything feels worthy of her time. It’s only when the aforementioned little girl shows up that she becomes worthy of affection, if only because it places her in a position to be socially awkward and therefore show some personality. From that point on, Bayonetta and her supporting cast gradually earn genuine rooting interest because they start to act in a manner that could be at least vaguely described as human, making the game infinitely more engaging the further it progresses, even if does take too long to get there.
Calling Bayonetta a “Good Game” would be a lot like calling a quadruple scoop hot fudge sundae covered in gummi bears “Good Food.” Sure, there’s a time and place for it, but if that time and place were “everywhere” and “all the time,” your standard of living would plummet dramatically. Entertaining but derivative, Bayonetta should keep diehard fans of the Devil May Cry series satisfied, and mildly divert the rest of us until something more substantial comes along.