Bayonetta has simply begged attention from the gaming world since the first details were revealed. After all, it’s not every day that a game features a female protagonist with guns on her feet, living hair, and an extremely flamboyant sense of sexuality. It looks ridiculous because it is ridiculous, but as senseless as it can be, Bayonetta’s silky-smooth combat mechanics and relentless pacing make the game a must-play for fans of the action genre.
I suppose I should attempt to explain what the game’s storyline is about. I say “attempt,” because I know I’m not going to succeed – after playing the game from beginning to end, I’m still not entirely sure what happened in Bayonetta. The general premise is that Bayonetta, an Umbran Witch, has just awoken from a 500 year slumber, and is now trying to piece together her lost past. Apparently this process involves visiting a lot of strange, mystical places, and beating the crap out of a lot of celestial monsters. There’s an absurd amount of backstory as well, concerning two ancient clans that maintained the balance of the world, an illegitimate child who led to their downfall, and blah blah blah.
Bayonetta’s plot and storyline features a fairly intriguing mythos and some interesting concepts, but it’s told so poorly that you’ll never be able to make heads or tails of it. To be fair, their are some fun, and (oddly enough) touching moments, and the titular Bayonetta is undeniably charming. Sure, she’s ridiculously over-sexualized, but she’s also smooth, sexy and strong – no other female protagonists in gaming really compare to her. All in all, it’s really a bit of a disappointment that what could have been an almost Tarantino-esque epic fast devolves into a convoluted mess.
But what Bayonetta lacks in plot, it makes up for with action. The best aspects of Devil May Cry and God of War are combined in a combat system that’s incredibly easy to pick up, but almost impossible to master. Instead of opening with a tutorial, the game kicks off with a large-scale battle. After a few moments of button-mashing, I was able to get the gist of the controls, and handle myself competently. However, after playing the game for over twelve hours, I’m still no expert – the depth of Bayonetta’s combat is almost unbelievable, and in fact, it’s comparable to fighting games such as Soul Calibur. You’ll get a little better every time you play, and thanks to the game’s clever ranking system, you’ll want to get better.
You’ll soon realize that dodging and avoiding damage is key to victory in Bayonetta, for more than one reason. First and foremost, enemies are numerous, powerful, and deadly – get caught in a nasty combo attack, and you could be dead within seconds, so needless to say it’s best to avoid being hit at all. Second, if you dodge at the last possible second, you’ll activate Witch Time, which is essentially Bayonetta’s version of bullet time. Witch Time is a fantastic mechanic, and is often integral to victory – it gives Bayonetta a few precious seconds to deal some damage without fear of being hit, as well as affording an opportunity to collect herself amidst the more hectic battles. Playing on normal difficulty, I died quite a number of times in Bayonetta, and you probably will too. But the game never feels unfairly difficult or unbalanced; it just requires that players keep a level head and utilize all the skills at their disposal. Sloppy play is simply not allowed, and in truth, this is one of the main reasons that the combat is so satisfying.
Bayonetta features quite a few boss encounters, and these are always memorable experiences. Much like Devil May Cry and God of War, bosses tend to dwarf Bayonetta in size, and require a healthy mix of attacking, dodging, and quicktime events to take down. Quicktime events are occasionally annoying, particularly when failing them results in death, but this is a minor complaint. Few other games boast boss encounters as massive and epic as those found in Bayonetta – even the most seasoned action game veterans will walk away impressed.
But in addition to rock-solid mechanics, the combat in Bayonetta has a sense of style and flair that’s never really been seen anywhere else. Devil May Cry comes to mind, of course (DMC and Bayonetta share the same creator, Hideki Kamiya) but if you can believe it, Bayonetta is even more flashy and over-the-top. Magical attacks known as “torture” attacks show Bayonetta summoning guillotines, spiked coffins, and even chainsaws with which to punish her foes. Boss battles end with Bayonetta striking a ridiculously sexualized pose, and transforming her magic hair into one of several different oversized beasts, who then proceed to finish off the boss in a spectacular, gory fashion. It’s ridiculous, yes, but that’s what makes it so damned entertaining.
As you may have gathered, Bayonetta focuses pretty heavily on combat; there aren’t many other aspects of the gameplay worth mentioning. You’ll encounter a few simple puzzles to solve, generally involving the same few mechanics: turning cranks, slowing down time in order to walk on water or get through a door, and occasionally avoiding some traps. I certainly don’t mean to imply that the game feels stripped-down; the combat is really the star of the show here, and that’s perfectly fine – it’s more than enough to carry the entire game.
Bayonetta’s graphical presentation isn’t as impressive as, say, Uncharted 2, but it’s quite a pretty game nonetheless. Environments are attractive and varied, ranging from gothic castles to industrial complexes to trippy netherworld-ish zones. You may not know why the hell you’re anywhere at any given time, but chances are that you’ll enjoy the sites. The game features some fantastic animation work as well, particularly in the character of Bayonetta herself – both in-game and during the game’s many cutscenes, the witch moves with remarkable smoothness and grace, oozing sexiness all the while.
Speaking of cutscenes, it’s interesting to note that many of Bayonetta’s cutscenes are merely static scenes with voiceovers, often stylized to appear as still frames from a move reel. Clearly Sega had a smaller budget than the game’s slick production values imply. The static cutscenes are hardly an annoyance, but in this day and age, they really do seem archaic.
The music in Bayonetta ranges from obnoxious pop tunes to epic synth-orchestra tracks. It’s not that bad, actually; the pop tunes are forgivable, if only because it’s clear we’re not supposed to take them seriously, which is in-line with the game’s over-the-top style. Voice acting ranges from passable to painful. Bayonetta herself isn’t bad at all, with her sultry, ridiculously British accent and steady supply of snooty remarks. Luka, the tenacious journalist isn’t bad either – he’s voiced by Yuri Lowenthal, one of my favorite voice actors. He doesn’t exactly amaze in Bayonetta, but frankly, with such a campfest of a script I’m not sure he could have done much better. On the other hand, characters such as Enzo the lowlife informant and Rodin the demonic shopkeeper feature some of the hammiest voicework I’ve heard in a while.
As long as you aren’t looking for a rich or serious story (i.e Uncharted 2, Assassin’s Creed II) Bayonetta is a must-play. The combat system is practically flawless, channeling and improving upon what’s been done in other franchises. Sure, you may have seen many of these mechanics before – but rarely do you see them executed so smoothly, and with such a unique sense of style. Bayonetta is something you have to experience for yourself; it sets a new bar for the super-stylized action subgenre. God of War III now has a very tough act to follow.