Bayonetta is a unique beast. Based on the hour I spent with the Japanese import -- kindly lent to me by X-Play’s Mike Demski, who coughed up a hundred bucks for it -- the game knows its audience well. Once you cut through the librarian fetish, the disproportionate character design, and the ass you can bounce a roll of quarters off, Platinum Games’ vision purports to build upon the hack n’ slash action genre in new ways. It’s still tough to tell, since I’m still early into its chapters, but my initial impression is that Hideki Kamiya, director of Devil May Cry, has helmed a project that points to where he might have taken Capcom’s series. It’s a wild vision of gory creature-slaying, suggestive camera angles, and rapid-paced combat.
If you haven’t been following Bayonetta until now, you’re in the pistol-packing high heels of the titular witch, who, like Devil May Cry’s iconic Dante, is the spawn of a relationship between a mystical entity and a human. She’s woken up after a half-millenium of sleep and sent to Vigrid, a fictional European city, to do combat with a variety of creatures. And since she just woke up, she can’t remember why she’s braining angels with their own trumpets.
From the time Bayonetta fires up (and its introduction pulls no punches), there’s no denying that it’s got some very stylish and unconventional approaches to cinematic storytelling. Some cutscenes are very deliberately portrayed through film strips. Others tout Devil May Cry’s predisposition toward camera ogling. You’ll be disturbingly familiar with the intricacies of Bayonetta’s crotch and the stitching on her outfit within the first 20 minutes of starting the game. Good luck explaining what you’re playing when any non-gamer walks in the room.
And then there’s the dialogue. Bayonetta feels like a PS2 game dressed up in HD in many regards, and I mean that in the most “grindhouse homage” way. It’s so reminiscent of yesteryear’s games in its presentation, awful voice acting (we’re talking “Jill Sandwich”-level), and cheesy J-Pop soundtrack that it feels shamelessly ripped from 2003. So far, the supporting cast feels like a pastiche of Hollywood stereotypes, including Enzo, the annoying Joe Pesci rip-off. Bayonetta’s prologue is loaded with long cutscenes, Velveeta dialogue, and cheesecake camera angles. After so much awkward time and so many “WTF moments,” I was prepared to dislike what came after the cinematics stopped. My brain ached.
Then Bayonetta relinquished control to me. And that’s when everything snapped into place. Despite its initially obnoxious presentation, it’s very responsive. It’s easy to dismiss it as a DMC rip-off, or to intimate that Kamiya is completely out of ideas, but the combat system is fluid and satisfying. I was a fan of DMC4 (at least until it started recycling itself in the second half) and dabbled in Ninja Gaiden II, but so far, this one feels smoother than either of those games. There’s a great flourish when you set up a combo that allows you to finish a moveset by holding down a button to continue blasting away with one of her guns, all of which reference the folk song “Scarborough Fair.” I’m not sure which one’s "Rosemary," and which one’s “Parsley,” but they’ll good for lighting up enemies.
There’s no doubt that gamers will feel déjà vu upon firing up Bayonetta. Many of DMC’s conventions, from its upgrade system to the way Bayonetta melees her way through mystically locked doors, have transitioned over to this game. And yet, although Platinum makes no attempt to hide the fact that it feels like a Devil May Cry game, the combat feels so subtly evolved that it gives Bayonetta plenty of character of its own.
That’s solely based on an hour of hopping around Bayonetta’s beautifully-rendered environments. Although Demski assures me that the story gets better later on -- as in, it gets endearingly wackier -- it’s still a bit early for me to pass any verdict on how it’ll ultimately turn out. I’m hoping that once he beats it, I can borrow it again to play more and provide you with more impressions. For now, it plays remarkably smoothly, and should give action fans plenty to teethe on for the first few months of 2010.