Monday, 22 November 2010

Bayonetta Review

This review originally appears on Studycove, but it's reproduced here by kind permission from Steve.

2010 has been a bumper year for video games. Red Dead Redemption, Bioshock 2, Mass Effect 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Enslaved and Final Fantasy XIII have contributed to a sparkling year of new releases as the current generation truly comes of age. And yet my very favourite game of the year came out in its first week.

Bayonetta is, on paper, an unconvincing prospect. It seems to be composed of a lot of unrelated ideas hashed together into an over-excitable whole. The game is a spiritual sister to the Devil May Cry series (they are both directed by Hideki Kamiya), and tells the story a witch who can summon demons through her hair which she uses to send angels (yes, angels) to hell. The plot makes no sense no matter how many times you play through the game and the soundtrack can only be described as choral electro-jazz.

It works because not one of these elements is compromised. Bayonetta is not a game that does things by halves. It wins you over with its sheer audacity, never once apologising for its preposterous premise. It's an action game, but it takes everything you thought you know about action games, sticks a pair of wings on it and batters it into oblivion with a stilletto-heeled boot.

There is a sequence in the game in which the player has to drive a motorbike up a vertical tower into space, dodging laser beam traps laid by angels. After a hairy sequence in which they have to avoid the giant hammers of a pair of haloed golems, they have to leap off the motorbike, transform into a panther and scale a hundred-foot statue of a woman which is hurtling towards the sun. And then beat it to a pulp.

It's just one in a long line of raucously enjoyable set-pieces which push the boundaries of this once-tired genre and elevate it into something innovative, fresh and exciting.

Single-player games which focus on fighting are a risky prospect. The God of War games set an admirable standard, but once you've beaten them once, they hold little incentive to return. At the other end of the scale are the Ninja Gaiden games, but these can be prohibitively challenging for the inexperienced (or clumsy) gamer. And the Prince of Persia series tended to treat fight sequences as a chore rather than a joy.

Bayonetta manages to solve all three of these issues, and look good doing it. Unlike God of War, there are hundreds of combos, and many more to be unlocked than can ever be seen on a single playthrough. And the multiple difficulty settings mean that even though the easiest mode can be tackled by the most butterfingered player, the hardest is on a par with anything Ninja Gaiden has to offer. And the fights never seem laboured or tiresome, mainly because Bayonetta herself seems to be having so much fun.

The basic game mechanic is deceptively simple. One button to kick, one button to punch, one button to dodge and another to fire pistols (which our heroine idiosyncratically keeps in the heels of her sexy boots). Although the game features a mind-boggling number of combos, you don't need to have the instruction manual open on your knee in order to learn them. This is because the input system is more reliant upon rhythm than anything else, so as long as you time your button mashing to the sound of the impact of boot upon angel flesh, you can't really go wrong. This makes the fight system seem infinitely more intuitive than those which rely on a fixed list of rigidly enforced up-down-kick-left-punch-dash sequences.

The moves themselves are spectacular. Bayonetta is a witch, so she isn't contrained by pesky things like physics, or reality. Her foxy catsuit is made of her own hair. At certain points in battle, her hair unwinds itself from her body and takes on the form of some kind of demon (you know, dragon, fist, spider, the usual) which proceeds to beat her assailant to bits.

The icing on the cake as far as the fight system is concerned is "Witch Time", a period of slow-motion triggered when Bayonetta dodges an enemy's attacks at the very last moment. Should Bayonetta fail to land any blows, it will be over quickly, but if she manages to rack up the hits, the enemy is left floating for several seconds whilst the witch does her worst. Witch Time is beautiful in itself, momentarily transforming the environment into a purple bubble, making it seem as though Bayonetta and her assailant are underwater.

As I have mentioned, the plot is fairly unfathomable, but it's so stylish and funny that you're unlikely to mind. Bayonetta herself is an engaging character so at home with her own silliness that it's hard not to be seduced. She sports spectacles and an English accent, and manages to transcend all the tired cliches about tough-talking action women. She's as comfortable with her femininty as she is with her katana, and considering the humourlessness of most video game heroines, this is a breath of fresh air.

The supporting characters are amusing as well, but it's in the enemy design that the game is at its most inspirational. Whether they're planet-sized statues, cherub-faced plants or flaming crabs, they're all spectacular to look at an incredibly fun to fight. Each requires a different strategy and the game wins endless points for placing checkpoints in the middle of boss-fights.

The game features a rating system (from "Stone" up to "Platinum") at the end of each chapter. Points are awarded for the complexity of combos executed, and taken away for dying and using items. It's possible to rack up further points in some of the secret areas of the game and completing the challenges found therein. Although it's incredibly hard to achieve a Platinum award in any of the levels (even on "Medium" difficulty), it's so much fun trying that this aspect of the game just adds to the game's replay value.

Bayonetta is not just one of the most enjoyable games of the year, it's also one of the most inspiring. It's as imaginative as it is well-executed, and despite its cutting edge graphics and perfect polish, it's one of the purest action games you will ever play. I can't reccommend it enough.

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