Bayonetta is a trip back through the résumé of Hideki Kamiya and his crack team of designers in borrowing the irreverent humor and finger-blistering action of God Hand and Devil May Cry. At the same time, it isn't shy about keeping players' reflexes twitching while taking a missile for a midnight spin through enemy-held airspace.
Even though it brings in many different elements, Bayonetta is first and foremost an arcade adventure accessible by anyone who can slip beneath its Mature label and realize that this is a game that celebrates being over-the-top as much as it does in raking one's reflexes over the proverbial coals. It wouldn't be fair to categorize this as a simple DMC clone, but it does take a well-established formula and add in plenty of new polish to make it as refreshing as when Dante first hit the scene to stand on his own in 2001.
Bayonetta's a witch who has been asleep at the bottom of a lake for 500 years in a coffin until she was awakened 20 years before the start of the game. She has no memory of her past, only that angels are trying to kill her and that she has the power to see and shred them. For the past two decades, she's been trying to figure it out, and now it seems that she's finally found a solid lead that will take her into Europe and the mysterious country of Vigrid, a xenophobic nation whose theocracy is firmly rooted in a secretive ancient religion.
For an action game like this one, the story turns out to be one of its best highlights, with its own take on witches and angels, as well as their cosmological significance to one another. Witches aren't evil; they were actually partners in protecting the world until a terrible war broke out between them and their opposites, the Lumen Sages. The witches won, but not before superstition brought down the wrath of the world upon them, leaving Bayonetta the last of her kind. Thanks to a gang of oddball characters, incredulous bosses, and shifting camera angles capturing every moment, it's a tale that is every bit as fun to follow as the action.
The look of each angel, the bright colors and fantastic effects burning up the screen, characters' expressions, and the stylized mix of narrated freeze-frame cuts and animated scenes make Bayonetta's atmospheric storytelling one of the more unique experiences on the Xbox 360. It feels as if the artists had taken the time to make sure that every pixel had a purpose, whether it was to plaster an angelic script on the wall or to add reflective detail to an enemy's robes. Vigrid doesn't exist anywhere on the map, but much of what is there mixes familiarity with a fantastic mix of hellish effects and heavenly vistas. Even the fighting system follows this philosophy, with Bayonetta's boot-mounted guns leaving nothing to chance and the fluid fighting system makes each button press feel as if you're on the verge of unleashing death.
Perhaps one of the more unique approaches was in deciding on English as the primary language to develop the world's intended quality, in much the same way that Sega may have wanted Yakuza 2 to retain its flavor by opting not to dub over the Japanese audio. Whether or not this gave Bayonetta a storytelling advantage is a consideration, but it certainly gives every character plenty of personality without having to wonder if something may have been lost in translation. The eclectic soundtrack is as solid as the action, matching each scene with a mix of heavenly choirs, classical thunder, jazzy beats and even a few tunes from Sega's classic library. Racing along a highway to the tunes of Out Run and After Burner II? Yeah, retro fans, they're in here.
Bayonetta's character fits into the mold of being the sexy bad girl with a good heart, and she isn't shy about flaunting what she's got in the same way that Dante impersonates "Shirtless Kirk" with a trench coat.
There are also motorcycles in this one.
Not everyone will appreciate the crazy confidence of the title's heroine, but it's almost as if the volume had been intentionally maxed out to tickle funny bones and tease preconceived notions. Female protagonists aren't new, but they're not often this showy, which can catch many off guard.
Cammy is a tough cookie in Street Fighter and I doubt that her uniform is standard military issue, but she doesn't sashay her way into the next round, either. Bayonetta could have been nothing more than a pandering advertisement to a certain stereotype, but get beyond the surface, and you'll find a clever, tongue-in-cheek smartmouth in a deeply stylish fighting system. She's so much more than a stylish face with a list of moves.
Dial-a-combos help cover most of the angles with a blistering array of devastating attacks, all of which can be practiced between stages as the next one loads, but memorizing them all is hardly a requirement. Button-mashing will only take one so far, especially if you're looking to score well and collect as many halos as possible to spend on upgrades, weapons and, if they survive to the end, costumes. When enemies begin spawning en masse later in the game, it'll be important to know which combos to use and how best to quickly and efficiently dispatch your foes.
One very cool mechanic is Witch Time, which is triggered when Bayonetta dodges an attack at the last second, slowing down everything for a short stint to allow the player to savage their enemies with impunity. Far from making things too easy, it's integral to the gameplay if only because of how valuable it is in dealing with hordes of enemies that can sometimes move as quickly as Bayonetta can. Later on, it becomes the only way that certain enemies can be defeated, but there are other foes against whom Witch Time cannot be used. Infuriated enemies won't fall prey to this, and if you want an added challenge, there's an accessory that you can buy to make this the norm.
Bayonetta's mix of supernatural action and store-front focused upgrades make fighting just as rewarding as it had been in Devil May Cry, if only because of the carnage and the collectable halos, which are the currency that are dropped by angelic enemies or found by destroying breakables, such as statues or park benches. Halos can then be exchanged for a number of goodies at the Gates of Hell, a bar run by a Ving Rhames lookalike named Rodin, who has secret dreams of being a bald space marine. It's thanks to this guy that Bayonetta has so many wonderful toys to perforate and eviscerate her enemies, and he's more than happy to supply her with the latest stuff as long as she brings in the halos. There are also special bullets to collect, allowing her to play an arcade shooter, Angel Attack, at the end of each level. Any points earned are used in trading for a few goodies or more halos.
Rodin will sell anything from updated weapons to lollipop-flavored aids that can patch up Bayonetta, protect her from damage for a limited time, replenish her magic, or temporarily enhance her fighting strength. Over the course of the game, a few more items become available, but the most important ones are the equippable accessories. Bayonetta can wear two of these at the same time, and they grant passive abilities, such as being able to deflect and counter attacks with an unbreakable shield or making every angel infuriated and much harder to kill. Since the effects change the game considerably, they also command high prices. Fortunately, the furiously quick combat engine makes it fun to grind through unlocked chapters to gather up more halos — and a better leaderboard standing.
Button-mashers who are intimidated by the long list of dial-a-combos and the handful of unique moves can have difficulty levels tailored to ease them into the insanity. In their quest to make Bayonetta's gameplay as accessible as possible to anyone who picks up a controller, the developers added a few innovative touches. Easy and Very Easy both go one step further in making the enemies somewhat easier to defeat and automating some of the fighting. Instead of switching between punches and kicks, the game will hold the player's hand and do it for him. Easy mode can make button-mashers look good on-screen, while Very Easy mode can make them look godlike.
In Very Easy mode, all the player has to do is keep pressing one button while the game plays itself out, making it ideal for those who are more interested in the story than in taking the time to learn the system. In it, Bayonetta will shift to new targets as soon as the last one is killed and fly into combos and special moves whenever the need arises, although it won't keep you from diving in and taking over if you're feeling bold. Very Easy mode slowly replenishes Bayonetta's health bar, which can still take damage if the player is particularly careless. The difficulty can also be changed on the fly, reducing the need to break your controller during those special moments.
DMC veterans will also find that they'll have to play through the game at least once to unlock the Hard mode, which isn't initially available. There is plenty to do in the game that can take over 15 hours, depending on how much grinding one does to earn enough halos for a particular accessory or fighting technique, but veterans who were hoping to start off by getting their asses handed to them may be disappointed by this requirement, though they can purchase accessories to increase the game's difficulty. Survival can almost become a question or whether you can outlast your enemies by killing them with pinpricks — until the enemies start hitting hard and frequently enough to burn through your health before you even see the next boss.
Having all of this freedom to collect stuff is also something of a double-edged sword if you're striving for a better score; using any items will count against your evaluation at the end. Even then, there's plenty of finger-abusing fury provided by some of the craziest enemies and the even crazier bosses seen outside of Capcom's character factory. It's not enough that some of the bosses are as large as houses, but they kept growing even larger and became even weirder the further I pushed toward the end. One of my favorites was duking it out while surfing around a four-legged war machine the size of a battleship while composer Rei Kondoh provided a choir that serenades the action as if it were set on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Most of the game is like this.
Adding to the challenge are special areas accessed through hidden portals throughout the game, in the much the same way that Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden had special challenge zones. Each area has its own requirement for success, whether that is staying up in the air for 20 seconds or killing the enemy with a limited number of punches and kicks, and the reward makes it well worth the effort.
The action of each area is laid down in what can initially seem like a typical progression, until you see the rewards listed for each encounter and there are missing gaps in the lineup. There are rewards for exploring every broken staircase and floating platform, in backtracking to find them and then racking up the kills and a scoring reward. There are also good reasons for doing this in the same way that figuring out how to beat each of Bayonetta's challenge areas can yield valuable rewards. Broken Angel LPs, when assembled, allow Rodin to craft new weapons for Bayonetta to wreak havoc with. Angel Heart pieces can extend her life bar when enough have been pieced together, and Moon Pearls can improve her magic bar with additional slots so as to bank even more power for Torture Attacks.
Bayonetta's fighting action is an adrenaline-charged circus of brilliant arcade action that makes few apologies for its angel-grinding arsenal of funky moves and witchy weapons. These are all further enhanced by the use of Torture Attacks, which are triggered when Bayonetta has enough magical energy in reserve. Magical energy is usually earned by beating down a number of angels, among other options, and when used, it can either inflict massive damage or kill any target outright with a special tailor-made fate. Iron maidens materialize out of thin air for Bayonetta to kick foes into, a crushing press can turn them into paste, or a guillotine can give her a head start on a new halo collection.
The game doesn't want you to be a passive observer, either, and whenever a Torture Attack is called up, either hitting a button as quickly as possible or spinning the left analog stick will determine how much it hurts and how many bonus halos you get out of the deal. If that weren't outrageous enough, Bayonetta can also set off Climax attacks against the bosses. Her hair is alive with the power of magic — as well as acting as her clothes — and it coalesces into a wicked Weave of unstoppable force while tastefully covering her naughty bits.
The form of Weave attacks isn't decided by the player but by the boss in question. Bayonetta simply knows what to call up, but they all make it infinitely satisfying to crush the boss. A giant draconic head may erupt from a portal and chomp on a boss for a snack, or giant hands popping out from mid-air and moving faster than Manny Pacquiao may pummel a boss into a lifeless lump. It's all done in the same dazzlingly wicked fashion as everything else in Bayonetta.
As for any shortcomings, Bayonetta is strictly a solo experience with online leaderboards the only thing playing any part with Xbox Live, but it would have been nice to see Angel Attack rankings as part of the scoreboard as well. There are quite a few unlockables that only a patient application of skill will tease out. The camera is also pretty twitchy in spots, making it hard to gauge certain distances and the direction from which attacks may come, but on the whole, it was a lot more manageable than I thought it might be. The inclusion of a high-speed shoot-'em-up might also throw off certain players, as it's a retro risk that not everyone's thumbs may welcome. There were also a couple of bizarre glitches during the racing sequence toward the end when I clipped through part of the highway after failing a jump.
Completing a playthrough adds a gallery to the main menu to allow players to view art assets, 3-D models, listen to the epic soundtrack, and watch the music video at the end of the credits, which reminded me of when Aki Ross and company from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within performed to Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Replaying previous chapters for a better evaluation, to grind up a few more halos for Rodin, to challenge yourself at a harder difficulty level, or simply splatter a few more baddies are all solid reasons that can keep the game active well after the story is completed.
The demos hardly do the complete game justice. From its unabashedly virtual vixen of a leading lady to the bloody apocalypse that she rains down on her enemies, Bayonetta isn't for everyone, especially if they take its glib humor far more seriously than it takes itself. With its blend of cutting-edge action and scintillating adventure, Bayonetta comes across as an explosion of ideas that Kamiya and his crew may have had since their work on Devil May Cry. In many ways, Bayonetta is the culmination of that effort. It's the wildest ride yet.
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