Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Developer: Platinum Games
Review Date: 2/7/10
Ever since I heard that Hideki Kamiya (the creator of "Okami") was making a girls with guns action game, I knew it was going to be something special, and seeing the preliminary character designs only confirmed my convictions. Still, the game managed to exceed my highest expectations and is the most deliriously gleeful game I've played in a very long time. I played for ten hours straight the first day (which is unheard of for me) and my face was actually sore from smiling so hard.
The world of "Bayonetta" consists of a trinity of realities based on Dante's "Divine Comedy." Paradiso is a world of light and angels, Inferno is a world of darkness and demons, and Purgatorio is a neutral spirit world that lies in between and mirrors the Human world. Two human religious factions exist: The Lumen Sages are followers of the light arts, while the Umbran Witches are followers of the dark arts. Both groups have the ability to cross between the Human world and the other realities, and to summon the powers of Heaven and Hell. Five hundred years ago, a child was born from the forbidden love of a Lumen Sage and an Umbran Witch, which upset the balance of power and led to the mutual destruction of both groups. Sealed away in a coffin at the bottom of a lake for the last five hundred years, Bayonetta is the last of the Umbran Witches. When she wakes up in the present, her memories are completely gone and she goes on a dangerous quest to learn about her past.
The game is very theatrical and could easily be reviewed as a movie rather than a video game. The narrative structure, design aesthetics, and character sensibilities conform to standard anime conventions, and nearly a quarter of the game consists of cinematic cut-scenes. That's about three hours worth of exposition, which has more style, substance, and craftsmanship than anything Hollywood could ever hope to come up with. Director Hideki Kamiya excels at this kind of story telling, and the rich mythology he creates provides a solid and consistent framework for the characters and their actions. The attention to detail is impeccable, from the amazing European architecture down to the intricate details on Bayonetta's guns. Everything in the game has a purpose that is designed to be consistent with the setting. The angels even speak in Enochian! It's truly a breathtaking game to behold. If I had one criticism about the presentation, it would be with the static storyboard scenes that are used to advance the plot. They're visually disconcerting, and while they are well made, they give the impression of being a cost cutting measure to avoid having to do motion capture and animation for every cut-scene in the game.
Bayonetta herself is delightful. She is smart, sassy, sophisticated, sensual, skilled, and super strong. She doesn't take shit from ANYONE, even the god of creation itself. Her silhouette and posturing are both feminine and threatening, and everything about her presentation says "don't mess with me." And those who do cross her end up in a very bad state. Character designer Mari Shimazaki focused on making Bayonetta stylish and sexy, with the sensibilities of a fashion designer. Her features are exaggerated in the same way that fashion art is, with super long legs, a long thin neck, and a disproportionately small head. Her outfit is a skintight black bodysuit that is actually made up of her hair. The Umbran Witches use their hair for many things, and they can even conjure demons from it (which conveniently leaves Bayonetta in a state of undress). While the character aesthetics are striking, they mean little if her actions and movements don't match. Thankfully, the motion capture for Bayonetta is spot-on, and she moves with the purpose and conviction of a dancer, stage actress, and fashion model. Everything she does is with style and grace, from simple walking to ripping angels apart with her bare hands. This is what so many other games and characters lack - physical grace. Bayonetta is pure poetry in motion. And to top it all off, Hellena Taylor's voice work is superb and captures Bayonetta's personality perfectly. She's strong without being forceful, sexy without being suggestive, tender without being sappy, and her subtleties speak volumes. Fantastic work, all around. At first I was dismayed to hear her speaking in English until I realized that it was intentional and not a localization issue. Again, it's consistent with the mythology and the setting of the game.
"Don't fuck with a witch."
"If there's two things I hate in this world, it's cockroaches and crying babies. Well, a crying baby cockroach would be truly terrible..."
"If I was your child, I'd be an awfully ugly witch, wouldn't I?"
"I've got a fever, and the only cure is more dead angels."
As far as gameplay is concerned, on the surface it feels very similar to Kamiya's previous "Devil May Cry," but it also has a lot in common with "Okami" as well. Presentation wise, it initially reminded me of "Otogi" more than anything else. The game includes several in-jokes and references to Kamiya's previous work, including "Resident Evil 2," "Devil May Cry," "Viewtiful Joe," and "Okami." Kamiya also pays tribute to Sega's Yu Suzuki by including two levels based on "Hang On" and "Space Harrier." Unfortunately, these levels are overly long and not fun to play. Bayonetta's arsenal of weapons consists of pistols, shotguns, and rocket launchers that she can attach to both her hands and feet, as well as a katana, whip, and special ice skates. Sure, none of it makes sense, but it works marvelously. Being a witch, she also has magic at her disposal and can summon up torture devices from the souls of slain witches, and demons from within her hair. Bayonetta's hair can also perform a "wicked weave" which delivers an extra powerful punch or kick. The demon attacks are basically just fancy finishing moves, but they are quite spectacular and very bloody. Bayonetta is in the business of slaying angels, and the halos she collects from them can be used to purchase various items at Rodin's bar, appropriately named "The Gates Of Hell." In keeping with Bayonetta's visual theme of hearts, flowers, and butterflies, the game's healing items are actually lollipops. Brilliant or absurd? Take your pick, but again, it fits into the established framework beautifully. Bayonetta can also concoct her own healing potions with raw materials that she finds throughout the game.
A common complaint I have with video games these days is that they're too difficult to play, especially as I'm getting older and I'm at least twenty years past my gaming prime. Fortunately, Kamiya recognizes this and "Bayonetta" is his most accessible game to date. Even "Okami" proved to be too difficult about halfway through it, which ultimately forced me to cheat. In order for everyone to experience the story in "Bayonetta," there's a "very easy" setting that almost anyone can excel at. I applaud this, because it allows you to experience the game with a minimal level of frustration, while giving you the opportunity to explore your combat options and hone your techniques. It's actually fun and gives you a sense of accomplishment. Then you can graduate to higher difficulties and try it again. "Bayonetta" is the first game I've played in years that I've actually wanted to play again as soon as I finished it. It provides a lot of replay value in that it's fairly short (ten hours) and you can keep adding to your inventory. You have to play through the game multiple times in order to collect enough halos to buy all of Rodin's toys, and more items get unlocked as your proficiency increases. There are also secret areas to explore and extra bonus missions that appear at higher difficulties. I've played through the game three times and I'm still not good enough to play at the "normal" difficulty level, so I'll never get to see a lot of these extra goodies. I'm just thankful that I managed to get through the entire game at any level and got to experience the entire narrative. I'm in it for the story, and perhaps more importantly, the closure of the story. I hate it when I start a game and can't finish it because of the increasing difficulty level. It's like getting kicked out of a movie theater during the final reel, coitus interruptus, no resolution and no satisfaction.
Visually, the game is superb and runs at a silky smooth frame rate. As I mentioned before, the attention to detail is astonishing, and there are a lot of things that you don't notice unless you step through the playback frame by frame. Complimenting the visuals is an equally wonderful soundtrack, which is just as diverse and gleeful as the gameplay is. Similar to the "Okami" soundtrack, it comes in a whopping 5-disc set and spans a variety of musical genres from epic orchestrations, to light jazz, to infectious J-pop, and even classic retro MIDI compositions. I even picked up a hint of "Charlie's Angels" here and there. Bayonetta's theme song is an energetic pop rendition of "Fly Me To The Moon," which at first seems extremely out of place, but then becomes eerily appropriate the deeper into the game you get. It wasn't just picked out at random because someone happened to like it. Again, brilliant work that I can't praise highly enough.
Unfortunately, whenever a new video game vixen arrives on the scene, the game loses mainstream appeal and the media goes crazy with sexual sensationalism. Both "Playboy" and "Maxim" sponsored Bayonetta cosplay contests, which totally undermines the intent of the game. Sadly, Americans can't seem to see anything beyond a pair of boobs. They just get stuck there and never move away. Even some of my friends get hung up on the superficial aspects of the game and never bother looking any deeper, asking insipid questions like "why does she wear glasses?" "does she get naked?" and "how can she be a good guy if she kills angels?" People never seem to ask these inane questions with male oriented video games, so why do peoples' panties get all bunched up when a game features a female protagonist? Granted, I prefer playing female action games and actively seek them out because I can identify with them better and they provide deeper emotional satisfaction. I get absolutely nothing out of playing a gung-ho bald space marine, and in fact, overly masculine characters really turn me off and make me uncomfortable. Which brings me to a topic that's been festering in me for quite a while: Art Vs. Exploitation.
What defines "art" versus "exploitation?" "Bayonetta" certainly contains suggestive themes, sexual posturing, and anime styled fan service, but does that make it trash? The amount of care, detail, and craftsmanship that went into Bayonetta's character and presentation shows a reverence and celebration of the female form that's rarely seen. For every time she suggestively sucks a lollipop, there's at least five minutes of in-depth back story that fleshes out her character, personality, and history. Yes, Bayonetta is sexy, but not because she tries. It's just who she is, and Kamiya treats her just like everyone else. To me, this qualifies as art. If the goal were exploitation, the game developers wouldn't bother with details and consistency, and would only focus on one-dimensional sensationalism. Let's take a game like "Onechanbara" for instance. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the game, its characters, or its setting. The character design serves only to titillate and appeal to adolescent male fantasies. The gameplay is simplistic and meaningless, only serving as a base outlet for bloody violence. While it does have a character driven plot, it feels as though it were an afterthought. The story serves the game, whereas in "Bayonetta" the game serves the story.
Even though both "Bayonetta" and "Onechanbara" utilize sexy imagery, is it fair to call one "art" and the other "exploitation?" Does the difference boil down to budget and production values? Is it a question of style and intent? "Bayonetta" embraces its feminine charms while "Onechanbara" flaunts it, much like the difference between fashion photography and glamour photography. I doubt the creators of "Onechanbara" set out to make an exploitation game, and I'm sure they did the best they could with the limited resources that they had. Then again, perhaps that's the sole reason the game exists - to take advantage of an undiscerning niche market that enjoys female exploitation and watches B-movies that feature naked breasts. (and one cannot deny that this is a sizeable demographic) This may in fact be the case with "Onechanbara," since there's very little in the game that would appeal to someone outside of this market. But if it's exploitation, does that make it bad or wrong? Does it even matter? As with all questions that involve art and personal taste, it's up to the individual to draw their own interpretations and conclusions. Art by its very nature is subjective, and in the end it may just boil down to a purely emotional reaction. Quite simply, "If I like it, it's art. If I don't, it's exploitation."