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Bayonetta: Because Kratos isn’t a hot chick

Many games out there aim for realism now a days.  Not real in setting or story, but take a look around any FPS and “dark and gritty” is going to be pretty much the norm.  Bayonetta is not such a game.  Bayonetta looks reality in its stupid face and then uses a giant bird hair demon to poke out its eyes.  It is this embrace of the insane that makes the game worth playing.  Sure, you might not know what the hell is going on but the game presents such a sexy and stylized world to play around in that the total lunacy becomes charming instead of annoying.

Let me get the obvious out of the way first:  Bayonetta’s story is all over the place.  It starts sort of normal, with a story of how the world remains balanced between light and dark due to the work of two clans, Lumen Sages and Umbran Witches.  Though the Lumens are the “angelic” side and the Umbrans the “demonic”, there is good and evil within both sides.  Bayonetta, whom you play as, is an Umbran witch, possibly the only one left, and she’s mostly as confused as you are for most of the game.  Much of the game is her quest to figure out what happened that destroyed the aforementioned balance.  The balance of the world titled almost fully into the angelic side of things, which sounds good in theory, but these angels are mean.  Almost all of the foes you meet as Bayonetta are some sort of servants of the divine, but you have never seen them like this.  Angels and other cherubic creations are the primary enemies, but they have a mean streak.  They have angel wings and feathers fly, but a healthy amount of them seems to be sort of super advanced steam punk robotics.

Angels without mercy.

Normal enemies are crazy enough, but the bosses, known as “Cardinal Virtues” (this game has more puns on religion than you can shake a stick at) are some of the most insane and delightful to ever appear in gaming.  What is that thing pictured below?  Hell if I know.  The design is great, and the aforementioned robotic cyborg parts really shine during boss fights.  Most bosses start looking normal (relatively) and divine, but start hacking off limbs and busting holes in their chests and the true awesomeness is revealed.  Blood mixed with oil flies out of the severed parts, gears meshed with organs are revealed, and it all seems to point (though is never fully explained) that the creator is not just willing these things into existence, but meticulously constructing them out of real materials.  It adds a weight and visual flair to these boss fights that works really well.

Oh here your fighting a uh...well it is kind of a....hell I don't know just start killing.

The plot ends up focusing on Bayonetta’s role in the cosmic order of things, but we need not worry about that.  If your playing this game for the plot, you have missed the point.  The highlight of Bayonetta is the title character herself, in more ways than one.  First and foremost, I have zero reservations about making the following statement:  This game has the best controls I have ever had the pleasure of using in a video game.  The system of punches and kicks, with different buttons linked to different limbs, is fantastic.  Initially this seems to be solid but not spectacular, as Bayonetta wields four pistols, one in each hand and one attached to each stiletto.  While delivering a kick to knock an enemy backwards, then holding the leg out straight and firing off a few rounds into the flying backwards enemy is great fun, the system really shows brilliance once you collect some of the different weapons.  Having combat ice skates (I am not making this up) on your feet and an energy whip in your hands makes the different limb attacks flow together beautifully.  Skate up to an enemy, jump kick and freeze him in place, then shatter him with a crack of an energy whip?  Hell yes.  Remember, reality has no place here.  Throw in rocket launchers, gauntlets for hands and feet that although are only one weapon but have two different modes, fire for slow but powerful, lightning for weaker but blistering speed, and a katana and the possibilities are all over the place.  Any of the weapon combinations work well together from a functionally standpoint, but almost as important, they all flow together naturally and in a believable fashion.

Bayonetta’s animations are sublime.  As you build up combos, they can culminate in an attack where Bayonetta uses her Umbran Witch powers to summon demons from beyond, through the power of her hair.  You see, the “black leather” suit that Bayonetta is always wearing is not actually black leather.  It is her HAIR.  As she channels her power into higher and higher combos, she draws power from said hair to bring forth said demons.  So, of course, as she uses this power, more of her hair is devoted to energy than to actually being a suit.  Which means, yes, the bigger and more spectacular your offensive move, the less and less clothes Bayonetta starts to be wearing.  The context sensitive killing blows on bosses are insane not only for the violence, but how at that point Bayonetta is basically naked as she channels all her power into the kill and none into covering herself up.  This game is super Japanese and they love their fan service ok.  This actually isn’t as over the top as it sounds, although it’s definitely up there.

It is worth discussing the sexual tones of this game and how the audience reacts to it.  There is no mistaking it, Bayonetta is not built like a normal person.  While not in the Laura Croft zone of video games in the chest department, Bayonetta makes up for it with some pretty insane hips.  The fact that her walk is that of a super model on a catwalk, or some of her combos end with her striking a pose and a shutter coupled with a camera sound flash on-screen for a second should paint a pretty clear picture of what this game is aiming for.  The camera will linger on said hips, behind, or her not Croftian but still ample bosom region in almost all of the cut scenes.  This is such an over the top and deliberate choice by the developer that I find it actually hard to find fault.  It is anime in video game form.  While all of the above can be read as sexist, Bayonetta herself, both in personality and physical prowess, is most assuredly not a deliberate video game female.  She is the central lead for this game, and ALL the other characters, including the bosses, are the targets of her razor wit.  Much like Dante in Devil May Cry, Bayonetta takes on a glib and sarcastic tone, occasionally even breaking the fourth wall, such as making fun of a boss for only showing up at the end of a level, and winking at the camera.  The only character portrayed as Bayonetta’s equal is Jeanne, whose basically a blonde version of our hero.  They may look over stylized, but the women of Bayonetta are the stars of the show, and the men are treated accordingly.  Even the friendly neighborhood bartender / weapon and item vendor / gatekeeper of hell, whose name is Rodin (suck it, reality), seems to shrink in Bayonetta’s presence.

A perfectly reasonable position to be firing guns from.

Speaking of Rodin, his bar serves as your leveling up hub of sorts.  From him you can purchase new weapons (some are also found in the game world), new attacks, items, costumes, and other goodies.  All purchases need the currency of halos, which are gained when any enemy dies at Bayonetta’s hands.  The larger a combo the more halos earned as enemies fall, which means learning to avoid getting hit and keeping the pain going in some way is a worthwhile skill to learn to increase your earnings.  Keeping your combo primarily involves not getting hit, which can be easier said than done, but Bayonetta has a great dodge move that is actually almost central to the combat system.  Pressing the right bumper will dodge, but timing is the key.  Dodging JUST before the attack hits results in the activation of “witch time” which is the bullet time slow motion feature that every game loves these days.  As the enemies slow, Bayonetta speeds up, enabling her to rush around the battlefield and deliver some wicked damage to everybody and is an almost necessity to keeping your combo going against some of the tougher foes.

Speaking of tougher, the difficulty of this game also deserves high praise.  Playing through the first time on the normal setting felt just about right, with some challenge throughout but I was never just totally stuck on a section.  The best part though is the second playthrough.  All of your unlocked weapons and skills carry over into playing on hard, and it is here where the game does something that I wish every game did:  it tunes Hard to be played with all that stuff.  I always find it annoying when an action game such as God of War has you playing on normal, unlocking awesome new weapons and cool new moves, then strips you naked if you decide to play again on a harder difficulty.  Bayonetta says “here you can keep all your stuff, but to compensate, you will barely even recognize most of the fights!”  I’m about halfway through the game on hard, and I am forced to use every single thing I learned in the first playthrough to even begin to fight my way through.  I knew I was in for it when a pair of enemies that were a challenge in the first playthrough, whose first appeareance is in the second to last level, showed up at the FIRST battle of the game on hard.  It gives a reason to replay the game, although replay paints it in a too harsh a light.  None of it feels “replayed”, the hard mode actually feels fresh and new.

I’ve heaped a lot of deserved praise on this game, but it is not flawless and is certainly not for everybody.  While the sound effects are good and the voice acting for Baynoetta herself is awesome, some of the ancillary characters voice acting is not so good.  And in case you can’t tell from the multitude of references previously, the story makes almost no sense and is hard to follow.  Honestly though, the biggest deterrent to playing this game, while not really a criticism, is how Japanese and anime inspired it is.  If you’re not sure what I mean when saying that, most likely this game is not for you.  The deliberate sexual stuff could ironically turn some gamers off and be read in a much more exploitive way than I believe the developers intended, be the audience male or female.  One really has to just embrace those elements instead of fighting them or the enjoyment will be sucked out.

All that being said, if you’re a person that loves great action games and can get past or even just accept the weirdness (I fall into this category) you will find a perfectly paced and fantastically controlling action affair with one of the most colorful pallets of settings and characters on the market.  If you’re a person that actually loves the anime and Japanese culture AND action games, there is almost no possible way you will not instantly fall in love with this game.  As just a gamer, I appreciate game for what it is trying to do, even if the goal isn’t something I’d usually like.  Crazy over the top anime might not be as interesting as God of Wars mythology setting, but from a gameplay perspective, one game clearly stands above the rest in the action genre.  With all do respect to Dante and Kratos, Bayonetta is now president of the former boys club.

Note:  The version of the game I based this review on was the Xbox 360 one.  When the game was released, it was agreed all over the internet that the PS3 was vastly inferior due to some overly long load times, to the point where the game suffered greatly for it, ie picking up an item resulted in a 2 second pause of the game.  The PS3 version has since gotten a patch that reworks some of the behind the scenes tech stuff to make it better, and enables an install option which lets it run even faster.  While I’ve read the Xbox360 version is still the way to go, the PS3 version is at least passable now.  If your thinking about trying it on the PS3, you might want to hit up the internets for the gritty details.

Eh. Why the hell not?

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