BAYONETTA – Review
BAYONETTA is a videogame developed by Platinum Games and published by Sega for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purpose of this review. It was directed by HIDEKI KAMIYA.
Edit: Fixed two typographical errors (see comments)
This article contains the following types of spoilers:
So, let’s start by saying that Bayonetta is a good game and you should play it if you can.
Have you ever watched a movie called Ultraviolet? It’s a lifeless film that drags and bores. It’s about Milla Jovovich looking hot in spandex and kicking ass in quick cuts intercalated by slow motion. Bayonetta is about the same thing, but while the mindless content of Ultraviolet brought it down as a movie, it is what ended up redeeming the game. For a game can be considered good even if it has nothing but a hot chick performing combos (doesn’t matter what her targets are); action films, on the other hand, easily lose their appeal if they are not balanced out with the story. Sure, there is the notion that fighting sequences can possess some degree of artistic dimension, but that is no excuse to forgive the rest if it glistens in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze – no matter how cool it looks.
The game was directed and written by Hideki Kamiya. Kamiya is a good game director, but a poor writer. He also directed Devil May Cry, Resident Evil 2 and the original Viewtiful Joe, so he understands how to make action game; he loves them. Like Viewtiful Joe was filled with movie commentaries, Bayonetta contains various references to other games. Like all other Kamiya games, the gameplay mechanics were meticulously tweaked and the visuals were designed to keep an unique feel. The result is a game whose action not only feels right, but so does the setting. Or more simply put, it’s a Kamiya game. The writing of Bayonetta, however, is troubled. This was not unexpected, though, as Kamiya-san has never been a great writer – just take his past efforts, the stories of Viewtiful Joe 2 and Okami, as evidence.
The game’s raison d’Ãªtre is simple: it’s about a tall, tall woman who wears glasses and four weapons at the same time.
There are combos and all that jazz, but the real improvement here is Bayonetta’s main power, called Witch Time. Witch Time is a natural evolution of the system already used in Viewtiful Joe. In that game, you had to dodge the enemies’ attack, who would then become dizzy. At that moment, you could use a power that slowed time down and allowed you to start inflicting actual damage on your foes. Bayonetta improves this system by skipping one (unnecessary) step: Witch Time is activated immediately and automatically after a successful dodge. The screen is painted with a purple hue and the player is awarded with a window of opportunity to attack. Fighting in normal speed is otherwise too hectic and chaotic, not to mention that an attack landed at slow motion deliver a much better visual and tactile feedback, despite the actual damage being practically the same.
Everything flows and looks awesome. In fact, all the punching and kicking and firing looks so good that I was surprised how easy it was to pull up that stuff. It’s all so elegantly simple – and yet some finesse is necessary. You perform all combos with only two buttons (and there are lots of combos) that will remain the same regardless of the weapon you use, although each weapon requires its own fighting style. I shouldn’t be surprised, of course. We should expect this gameplay tightness from Kamiya games the same way we expect verbal hemorrhage from Hideo Kojima games.
Bayonetta spends the whole game fighting monstrous angels. Some of them look awesome and inspired, some of them look just plain retarded (I’m looking at you angelic-car thing). The game itself is paced as a brawler: you clear all the monsters in an arena, which allows you to proceed to the next arena. Because of that, the inherent problem of such design is still present: enemies will eventually become repetitive – a few of them presented in different colors in a poor masking attempt that didn’t work in Final Fight and certainly doesn’t work here. But hey, if you go out in the rain, you should already expect getting wet (or melted), right?
The game starts big, but abandons its best ideas way too quickly. Fighting on walls and on top of falling debris was incredibly fun, but for every innovative sequence, there were 5 ordinary battles. At least the level design is imaginative. There is always something that pops, small items that could be destroyed, around. These are almost completely extraneous to the game. It’s just a bubble wrap given to players between arenas, which is great! Bubble wrap popping is, after all, the very definition of amusement.
Aaaaaaaand… here’s where Bayonetta stops working. It delivers function, but not feeling.
The proof is the loading screens. That you anticipate these blank empty training areas more than the cutscenes that followed them should tell you something.
Simply put, the plot in Bayonetta is a mess. That’s not saying that the game is about style over substance. It’s not! There is plenty of substance in the gameplay and I believe the game would be much better off had they ditched the plot altogether. Sure, you could dismiss the plot. You could say it doesn’t matter or that the game isn’t about the plot – but you would be wrong! If the plot didn’t mattered, it wouldn’t be there! Its mere existence is a manifest confirmation that the developers thought a plot was necessary and decided to spend money and people’s time in order to add one.
Contrary to other reviews, I didn’t think the plot was too hard to follow at all. I mean, after trying to make sense of the clutter that is The Legend of Zelda‘s storyline, whatever you throw at me is small fry. No, the plot’s problem is far worse: it is ridden with plot holes and the worst of Japanese storytelling idiosyncrasies: meaningless incoherence. The following quote, taken from one of Bayonetta‘s characters talking to a child illustrates my point perfectly:
It begins with a glorifying and needlessly complicated description of the mundane. You might think it will be used for some kind of metaphor, but what follows is completely unconnected and illogical. The character tries to pose it as some sort of conclusion that it isn’t. It’s just a clichÃ©d opinion with plenty of room to be taken figuratively that suggests obscure redundant images in order to mark its triviality and meaningless. Besides, why is that being said to a child in the first place?
The same goes for the entire plot of Bayonetta. It goes round and round, presenting us with flashbacks that takes us nowhere and different characters doing long expositions about things you have already heard – but forgets the main thing. Why are the angels always attacking her? What is her motivation? The game presents us with some deal about a stone and then simply forgets about it until the last chapters. As the goal of the character is not defined, there is no motivation for the player to keep going. That’s when that awesome combat starts becoming repetitive and makes the game feels longer that it is. Thankfully, there are some changes in gameplay from time to time that attenuates this problem.
Meanwhile, expositions start for no apparent reason as characters talk about the conflict of the Umbran Witches just because they are in a talkative mood; important characters – all coincidentally strongly connected to Bayonetta – have neither the motivation nor the justification for being where they are found; and the plot goes literally nowhere. Consider this: 7 chapters (of a total of 16) are all about Bayoneta trying to reach an island.
Another complicated issue is the lack of a good antagonist through the majority of the game. A hero can never provide drama on his own. It needs something, an abstract idea even, that personifies the story’s conflict. Without it, the point of fighting becomes the fighting itself! The result is Bayonetta‘s main flaw: there is nobody in that game I care about. This may sound simplistic but it is, in my opinion, what differentiates a game that’s pure fluff from the rest. There is nothing wrong with a game that’s only about showing off, but I usually like to know if there is a reason for me to do what I do and how much the protagonist depends on me – and Bayonetta clearly doesn’t need a player: her best moves are done during cutscenes, when nobody controls her.
Bayonetta herself is the only marginally interesting character of the whole game, because she might be aware of how ridiculous a game containing monsters made of hair is. She doesn’t have dialogue though; she has monologues. She acts the role of the bombshell that is constantly teasing men that never had a chance of getting her. These girls are harmless and silly at first, but quickly their ostentatiousness becomes annoying and boring. Bayonetta fortunately eventually becomes more interesting as she starts demonstrating concerns other than massaging her own ego.
The rest of the cast have little to no purpose. It feels they were included only because their design looked cool. The worst case is Enzo. The guy appears at the first chapter never to return during the game again. You will remember him because he wears a weird looking coat (aimed at people that feels like protecting their arms from the cold – but not their bellies), a bowling hat, a ponytail and Joe Pesci mannerisms. The plot doesn’t need him, though. His role could be easily replaced by an anonymous letter sent by Princess Peach. It’s a bit sad, because Enzo feels like the only character that actually has some kind of life outside the game.
Plot and character issues aside, at least the game is coherent in its fetish thematic. From Bayonetta’s ability to transform into a panther to her ear rings – everything is fetishized. I never found it insulting or anything (although I would gladly pay more for a deluxe version including some nipples). It was actually tamer than the some trailers first led me to believe, but then again, I’m part of the 80% male population that endured the crappiness of the first Tomb Raider only to find that one angle that allowed me to see the best vision of Lara’s boobs. Bayonetta is nowhere near as unpleasant as Lara Croft, by the way. There are nice little touches, like Bayonetta losing rose petals instead of blood and the camera click that occurs after certain attacks. Gameplay-wise, the game treats each attack as if you were tearing the enemies’ clothes away. Each punch makes the angels lose a part of their outer skin, making each attack more meaningful and rewarding. In the end, Bayonetta turns that gigantic angel made of marble and gold into nothing more than an ugly pile of bleeding muscles – like a true dominatrix.
Similarly, my ears were left bleeding as well. Bayonetta makes an effort to be quirky, but forgets that quirkiness doesn’t equal quality. In fact, the result is just a immature drivel. The first time you hear the song Flying me to the Moon sang with a Japanese pop rhythm during a fight at a cemetery is very impactful. Like hearing Coconut in Alan Wake, it was something I certainly wasn’t expecting. Hopefully, the game would keep up the pace and introduce more stuff, right? No such luck. It’s only that song again and again and again, making its impact will wear out fast, leaving only the impression that this song doesn’t belong in the game. Hell, it doesn’t even deserve to exist! But hey, maybe it’s a fetish thing.
Most other reviews were pretty reasonable maybe because there is not much to sink your teeth in Bayonetta outside the action.
Destructoid‘s Jim Sterling commented on the unnecessary and downright boring Angel Attack minigame, calling it bland and irritating, which adds to my impression that Bayonetta would be a better game with less appendices. IGN‘s Ryan Clements started his review with the bold declaration that Bayonetta was the best action game he has ever played (myself, I put games No More Heroes and Kamiya’s own Viewtiful Joe before Bayonetta), but the writing that followed lacked the passion I would expect after that initial statement. Ryan comments on the non-fully animated cutscenes (that takes place whenever action is not featured in a cutscenes); saying that, although they are better than the talking cardboard cutout JRPG standard, he would still have preferred seeing every sequence in Bayonetta fully animated. I wasn’t bothered much myself, although the transitions between frames were occasionally distracting. Finally, Martin Robinson of IGN UK calls Bayonetta one bit of S & M gear away from being the most perverse lead in video gaming history, to which I say two words: Custer’s Revenge.
All in all, Bayonetta is good. I mean, what can I say? It’s gorgeous, it’s fun… it dutiful provides what we would expect from a game. It could be a genre great, though. Instead, it’s fluff. That’s the only tragedy.
Other reviews that were mentioned:
Comparing to Bayonetta to Ultraviolet is… interesting. Ultraviolet had no storyline, only a pretense of one. It was director Kurt Wimmer’s vehicle to showcase his original concept of Gun-kata that was edited down and altered for Equilibrium. Also, he really liked Milla Jovovich. In fact, rumor has it he asked her to punch him in the face to get an idea of the intensity he wanted in her performance. Keep this information in mind.
What’s most important to know about Bayonetta, though, are two facts:
If you aren’t suddenly going Oh, now I see… then you should probably read this review of God Hand first. Or maybe watch the Let’s Play. Or go out and just buy the game, if you can find a copy anywhere.
Bayonetta is, very simply, God Hand with a girl who stole Dante’s move set and added her own touch to it. Also, she uses twice as many guns. Pretty simple, right?
Bayonetta is not complex and grandiose, it’s simple and silly. The overly complex storyline exists only to produce situations that Bayonetta has to do crazy things to get herself out of. She fights because she fights, that’s what she does. Characters exist as a reference or callback to another game, not for any particular deep purpose. Bayonetta is a game that shoves a metric ton of symbolism at you, and doesn’t care if you get it or not, because that’s not the point. The point is to hit these guys, and then run for a while, then hit these other guys, and then get a cutscene where you get better guns, or swords, or shoes, and then to get to the place where a giant angelic thing is waiting for fight you. Then, you get a cutscene that shows you how gorgeous the development team can make a game, and then you go fight more people.
If you’re being crude, it’s an exploitation film, made as a game: It exists to show off a fighting system, a gorgeous game engine, and a supremely talented, though tragically brain-damaged, development team. The developers didn’t just put in a bad story, they put in all the things that should be in a story, and meticulously connected them together, and missed the entire point and idea of a story in a game… much like an autistic child trying to do stand-up comedy.
I’ll admit it, I’m utterly charmed by Bayonetta‘s insanity and lack of coherence. It’s just so shameless, much like Bayonetta herself. In its own mind, Bayonetta is already great, and it doesn’t care if you disagree! Maybe that’s the point of the game: to show just what can be done if you abandon any thought of being looked down upon or judged for what you produce. If so, then give me more!
For the record, I played the (less shiny) PS3 version of Bayonetta.