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May 21, 2018

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Game reviews: Bayonetta

By Andr'e Swartley

Issue #16
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Rating: M for Mature

Bayonetta is a spectacle of a game. The title character is a witch whose power originates from her hair, which is long enough to cover her whole body in a rigid, skin-tight suit. Let me just repeat that: Bayonetta wears a magic suit made of her own hair. So right from the beginning you should understand that the developers don't mean for you to take Bayonetta too seriously. She is not so much an R-rated seductress as a female version of Austin Powers stuck in a Twilight movie.

Bayonetta was directed by Hideki Kamiya, the creative force behind the original Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, and Okami. Kamiya and his publishers at Sega promoted Bayonetta as the next evolution of Devil May Cry, which invented the "uber-stylish martial arts game genre back in 2001. Devil May Cry was absurdly difficult, and is one of the few games I've never been able to finish due to difficulty.

Before you dismiss me as some kind of casual gaming n00b it should be noted that I enjoy challenging games, some of my recent favorites being the rebooted Ninja Gaiden series, Valkyria Chronicles, and Demon's Souls. But those games, unlike Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, managed to be difficult without becoming cheap or unfair.

The most important combat mechanic in Bayonetta is called Witch Time. You activate Witch Time by dodging an enemy attack at precisely-and I do mean precisely-the right moment. The screen turns purple, and you can whale on all the enemies onscreen for a few seconds while they drift in helpless slow-motion. Successive dodges without taking damage will also fill a magic meter that allows you to perform some extremely flamboyant finishing moves.

Many enemies, especially late in the game, are nearly invincible unless you trigger Witch Time, so you end up spending most of those battles waiting for an enemy to swing at you and hoping you're quick enough to dodge at the right moment. But if you get hit, you lose those important magic points I mentioned earlier.

In this way Bayonetta shares some similarities with rhythm games like Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution. When you're in a groove you feel unstoppable. But get out of that groove for a split second and suddenly the crowd is booing you off the stage.

The rest of the combat engine is powerful in its simplicity. Two buttons-hand attacks and foot attacks-comprise hundreds of different combos. Tap the buttons for quick attacks or hold them down to extend the damage. It works very well.

There are also three main weapons: a katana sword, razor claws (like Wolverine's), and guns. Guns can be equipped to Bayonetta's hands or feet. Every weapon combination will change the pace of fighting in fun and interesting ways. The excellent animations alone must have taken the development team months to create.

The game also seems to know its hand-to-hand brawls can be taxing, because it breaks up the action with several entertaining mini-games and driving levels. For example, one level sees Bayonetta traversing an exploding bridge on a motorcycle while taking swings at pesky angels driving 1950s-era convertibles. Another stage is a beautiful homage to Sega's classic arcade shooter, Space Harrier. Even a few boss battles are complete multitiered stages on their own. As with Hideki Kamiya's previous games, variety is not a problem in Bayonetta.

Now, you may notice that I haven't talked much about Bayonetta's story...that's partly because I'm not sure what it is. Here's my best effort: Bayonetta is one of the last of an ancient clan of witches who, along with a secret society of monks, guarded the balance of light and dark in the universe. She does not actually remember any of her own past, but she knows she must fight angels every day of her life or they will drag her down to Hell, where they seem to believe she belongs.

Adding to Bayonetta's woes, a mysterious person from her past is trying to topple the balance between light and dark for some reason (motivations are not explained very well), consequently destroying the universe. It's rather generic action/fantasty fare, and the disjointed storytelling methods of flashbacks involving people who all wear masks and flashy scenes of Bayonetta talking/fighting with unfamiliar characters don't help.

When the game launched in January, the PS3 version suffered from hugely-publicized long loading times and stuttering graphics. However, Sony took it upon themselves to correct Sega's mistakes and released a patch a few weeks after launch. Having played the game before and after the patch, I am pleased to tell you Sony did the job right. Loading times are down to nil, and the framerate is vastly improved, most likely due to the option to install a portion of the game onto the PS3's hard drive. Still, there is so much happening on the screen that the newly-smooth action can become incoherent at times.

So is Bayonetta a bad game? Certainly not. It is at least as good as Ninja Gaiden II, its closest direct competitor in the genre. Despite the baffling story, the game is long and (mostly) fun. And based on Kamiya's earlier games, the uneven difficulty and occasional cheapness are pretty much par for the course. It's obvious that with another couple months of polish Bayonetta could have been more spectacular than spectacle.

Final Grade: C+