It’s rare for a game to overcome the kind of horrible first impression a bad demo can bring. After I tried the Bayonetta demo, I spit venom on the podcast and said it was the most inane, over-sexualized crap I’d ever seen. That would normally have sealed it for me, but when resoundingly positive reviews started pouring in, I was thrown for a loop. I hedged and rented it, wondering if reviewers with Japanese fetishes were about to lead me astray.
At first I was sure they had. Bayonetta opens with the sort of overwrought, nearly-impossible-to-understand cutscene that became popular when game developers began to exploit the processing power of the PS2. The story's opening is mainly about establishing a stylish main character with as much subtlety as a sledgehammer to the face. Bayonetta standing at a grave, disguised as a nun with bell-bottom dress pants and pearly white vestments. When the angels descend from heaven she launches herself into the sky and becomes a gun-firing whirlwind of destruction. Blood and feathers everywhere. Eventually her costume is ripped, revealing the leather-clad bombshell that has proved to be so controversial since the game came out.
I was both flummoxed and intrigued, I decided to give it a few hours and see where it took me. I’m glad I did.
It’s not because she’s a sexy witch with impossibly long legs and a costume that reveals flashes of bikini-level nudity when you attack. That all plays into the identity of the character of Bayonetta, but it’s not something she seems to identify strongly with. She moves with confidence, but she’s never trying to use her sexual wiles to get anything done. Her response to nearly every situation would actually be considered typical of a male action hero.
When a boss enemy launches into a monologue, Bayonetta will often say something along the lines of “Shut up and get to fighting already, you boorish prick.” But because it’s a woman wrapped up in skin tight leather which is not altogether that different from how Dante is portrayed in Devil May Cry, the rules are different. I’m not really equipped to talk about gender roles -- I've got only one, and I'm just getting by with it as it is --but I’m not too surprised that a female with a similar ethos garners such attention. We all have our own backgrounds and beliefs when it comes to portrayals of lead characters.
For example: A local gay friend of mine described this pizza deep throat scene in Devil May Cry 3 as "incredibly gay." Can't say it occurred to me at the time, but perspectives vary so much, who am I to judge? It IS kind of suggestive, now that you mention it.
If you’re lucky enough to get past the so-called hurdle the in the game’s presentation, what you’re left with is one of the most inventive action games in this generation. My wife pointed out that the combat reminded her of SoulCalibur because it’s easy to pick up a controller and quickly do a lot of cool moves without needing to get super technical with the combos. Because Bayonetta's attacks work primarily with two buttons, you can do all kinds of fun stuff just changing your timing a little. Throw in multiple melee weapons and some pretty ridiculous guns and it’s quite the achievement that they’ve managed to balance in so much complexity while still making the combat fun and approachable.
That's not to say the game is without nuance. Dodging is actually critical later in the game as it’s your primary form of defense, but it also sets you up for your best chance at pulling off longer attacks when you dodge at the right moment. A near miss from your enemy means you enter a brief spot of slow motion where you move at normal speeds and your enemies slow down. Turning defense into a launching point for more offence is a subtle, but important tweak to the formula. You’re never sitting in a corner with your defenses up while a crowd of bad guys wail on you.
Surprisingly, as much as I enjoyed the combat, the stuff in between the battles was what kept me intrigued. The different ways Platinum Games managed to top themselves on level design all the way up to the final credits was astonishing. Every time I thought I’d reached the height of what they were doing and expected them to rinse, wash, repeat, they threw something new at me. A motorcycle sequence, riding a giant bomb as it skims the ocean waters and running along ribbons of light in animal form are just a few examples. I’m delighted by the imagination on display with each successive level.
Bayonetta was just a joy to play. It was wonderfully inventive and somehow managed to maintain a strong design consistency through some incredibly daring and off the wall directions. Most importantly, I grew to like the Bayonetta character. There’s a lot we still don’t know about her, but she’s no one-dimensional sexpot. She has a Loki-like quality about her actions that amuses me and it’s clear the people behind the curtain are fond of their creation too. With any luck, we’ll continue to see more from her in the future, she has a style that cannot be denied.