As of right now, Bayonetta is 2010’s best action game. Not much of an accolade, perhaps, seeing that 2010 is barely two weeks old – but a true statement nonetheless.
In fact, I’ll go a bit further and say that Bayonetta may, in fact, be the best action game of its kind. By “its kind,” I’m referring the hyper-stylized, combat-oriented subgenre that is populated by franchises such as God of War and Devil May Cry.
So, let’s cut to the chase. In the last week I’ve spent time with Bayonetta, God of War II, Devil May Cry 3, and the God of War III demo. How do these well-established franchises hold up against the fancy new kid on the block? Let’s find out.
There isn’t much I can say here that I didn’t already say in the review I wrote a week ago. Bayonetta has been described by director Hideki Kamiya as an “evolution” of the Devil May Cry franchise, which he invented. And that’s almost exactly what it feels like – a faster, flashier Devil May Cry with gratuitous God of War influences. But is it as good, or better than either of its main influences?
God of War
In the last week, I played a decent chunk of God of War II, as well as the God of War III Demo. No doubt about it, these are some of the best hack ‘n slash games out there; God of War II is particularly impressive for its time, and for the hardware it was on. The action setpieces are extremely impressive, at least from what I’ve seen so far – the opening boss battle against the sentient statue is incredible, and the aerial combat sequences are a lot of fun as well.
The God of War III demo was a lot of fun, and for the most part, it felt like a next-generation God of War game should. The combat largely felt the same, but it definitely controlled smoother, and featured some subtle but appreciable upgrades – for example, “heavy attacks” are slightly faster now, making them far more useful. It will be interesting indeed to compare God of War III to Bayonetta upon its release in March.
Bayonetta clearly channels the combo based-combat of God of War, as well as the visceral, intense nature of the battles themselves. But does it improve on the formula, or simply emulate it in a Japanese environment? And, speaking of Japanese…
Devil May Cry
Bayonetta lifts its mechanics from God of War, yes, but it channels its atmosphere directly from Capcom’s Devil May Cry franchise. The hyper-stylized Japanese themes and the undeniably awesome combination of physical combat and gunplay was first introduced to us way back in 2001 by a certain Devil Hunter named Dante – and it’s important to give credit where credit is due.
However, Devil May Cry and Bayonetta share little in the way of actual gameplay mechanics. Dante is limited to a single attack button, making DMC’s battles more of a button-mashing affair. Also, while Bayonetta features long-range gun combat, it isn’t nearly as useful or prominent as it is in DMC. However, Devil May Cry does have one key aspect in common with Bayonetta, and it’s worth noting: combat in both games place heavy emphasis on avoiding damage entirely. Want to win? Don’t let yourself get hit. But again: is Bayonetta a better game than Devil May Cry, or did Hideki Kamiya simply swap out everyone’s favorite prettyboy Dante for the ridiculously sexualized witch Bayonetta, and call it something new?
Now that we’ve touched briefly on all three franchises in question, it’s time to decide who is best at what.
Best Combat System: Bayonetta
To answer the question I asked earlier, Bayonetta doesn’t just copy and paste select combat mechanics from God of War and Devil May Cry; it evolves them. God of War has plenty of combos for you to play around with, yes – but Bayonetta actually makes using combos integral to the gameplay. And at the same time, it makes them easier to use. Devil May Cry introduced “twitch-based” combat with an emphasis on avoiding damage, but Bayonetta evolves this concept with Witch Time. Assigning the dodge maneuver to the tap of a shoulder button was a nice upgrade as well.
Bayonetta really does make its two main influences feel slow and somewhat unwieldy by comparison. And that’s not because either God of War or Devil May Cry are broken – far from it. Rather, it’s because Bayonetta’s combat system is simply the fastest, smoothest, most intuitive hack ‘n slash that I’ve ever experienced.
Best Boss Battles: Bayonetta
Aaand she wins again. This is more like an extension of the “Best Combat” category, but I felt the need to honor Bayonetta’s boss encounters. Like God of War, Bayonetta features some truly massive, grandiose boss battles – the difference here is that they’re even more massive. And, uh. Grandiose. Kratos has officially been outdone.
Best Storytelling/Atmosphere: God of War
Finally, an accolade for our scowly, pale-skinned friend. Admittedly, atmosphere comes down to a matter of preference between the three, but there’s no doubt that the narrative told in God of War is by far the most sensible among our little matchup. It’s not deep, and as Ethos has stated in the past, it’s overly epic. However, unlike Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, it actually makes sense most of the time, and it’s written fairly well. That counts for something.
Best Gunslinger: Devil May Cry
Okay, so maybe I just couldn’t bear not to throw Devil May Cry a bone. It really is a fine series, even if it has been one-upped by its own spiritual successor. This award honors the one thing it does better than Bayonetta: gunplay. One of the best things about Devil May Cry’s combat is the ease and speed at which you can switch back and forth between physical and long-range attacks, oozing badassery the entire time. In Bayonetta you can do the same, but guns are disappointingly ineffective against… well, almost every enemy in the game. Ironic, seeing that she sports no fewer than four of the damn things.
Most Fun: Bayonetta
So now we get down to the nitty-gritty, and answer the question: which game is the most fun to play? For my money, it’s Bayonetta, for all the reasons I’ve listed above. The combat system is practically flawless. The boss battles are some of the best I’ve seen, and certainly the best among the three contenders here. The pacing is spot-on, without a dull moment or a rotating spike-wall to be found. (Props to those who catch the reference.) The difficulty is balanced perfectly; you’ll die a lot, but never because of unfairness on part of the game.
At the end of the day, these are all fantastic franchises in their own right, and they each have their own strengths and weaknesses. I greatly enjoyed the time I spent with all of them in the past week, and I can easily recommend them to anyone who enjoys a good action game.