Bayonetta Review

By Sterling McGarvey - Posted Dec 22, 2009

Sega's twitch action game evokes the best elements of Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden while contributing its own unique flair to the genre. Even a hackneyed storyline and awful voice acting can't keep down Bayonetta's exceptional combat system.

The Pros
  • The most fluid and satisfying combat in the genre in years.
  • High replay value.
  • Exceptional and creative setpieces.
  • Tough enemies that never feel cheap.
The Cons
  • The final boss could cost you a controller.
  • Awful voice acting and incoherent plot
  • Loaded with gratuitous (and awkward) moments of misogyny.
  • Unintuitive moments that lead to "trial by death"

The struggle to describe what Bayonetta truly is proves to be as chaotic as the fast-paced action that drives Platinum Games' hack n' slash title. It's a love letter to PS2-era action games and Sega classics as well as a subtle jab at Capcom all in one fell swoop. The story might be about as coherent as someone describing an anime series after a three-day meth binge, yet the gameplay shines through, thanks to smart combat and great setpieces. At times, it evokes (and outpaces) the likes of Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden. There hasn't been a game quite as schizophrenic in its presentation in quite some time, nor has there been one nearly as well-executed.

The DMC comparisons largely stem from Platinum's pedigree as a dev house full of ex-Capcom creative directors, one of which is Hideki Kamiya, DMC's designer. It's far too easy to cynically dismiss it as a clone of Kamiya's prior effort, and it's unfair. The level of depth in Bayonetta points to a fusion of classic hack n' slash gameplay with a far deeper scope thanks to tech that didn't exist when DMC dropped in 2001. Achievement and trophy hunting aside, you'll need to replay this one time and time again to hit the bottom of the well. It's a game designed from the top down with repeat plays in mind.

Bayonetta Review

As the titular heroine, you'll step into the gun-toting heels of Bayonetta, a 500 year-old witch in a mystical land where witches have the faces of supermodels and the legs of Shaquille O'Neal. It's a good thing the game points out that witches aren't human -- Bayonetta's physical characteristics are a freakish caricature of femininity. She's awakened from a twenty-year slumber with a nasty case of amnesia. Somewhere along the way, she starts picking up the pieces of the past, and it involves hideous angels trying to kill her. She has a rival, the silver-haired Jeanne (who with her red jumpsuit and motorcycle, might remind you of someone familiar), and enemies the size of small buildings trying to crush her. Thankfully, she can use her long locks to conjure demons that appear to be borrowed from the Final Fantasy Book of Summons to crush hideous cherubs and two-headed dragons with Renaissance masks for an ass. And that's just one of the first bosses you'll encounter.

Bewm Chicka Wah Wah

It's peculiar that the game takes such a fetishistic approach to its heroine; like adult entertainment, Bayonetta's plot is largely a vehicle for an orgiastic display of high-energy combat action. The story unravels as though The Divine Comedy Cliff's Notes occupied the same space in Kamiya's bathroom as an issue of Maxim. Is it poor translation? Is it a disjointed plot? Either way, it's quite bad, whether you get the winking irony of God Hand or you take your gaming entertainment at face value. There's supplemental literature you can pick up along the way (similar to how Capcom's action classics conveyed backstory), but it doesn't do much to enrich a rather hackneyed tale. Even if some of the game's cutscenes only span around five minutes, many feel more agonizing than Metal Gear Solid 4's most exasperating moments. And God forbid your significant other walk in on one of several awkward cinematic moments focused on Bayonetta sucking a lollipop or bending over to pick something up. The game's camera angles border on gynecological at times when focusing on her. I'm far from the most politically correct person, but I winced on more than one occasion at the degree of cheesecake on display.

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And Now, For Something Completely Different

But once you're in control of Bayonetta, the plot contrivances and piss-poor dialogue fly out the window. Suddenly, nothing matters but nailing combos and dodging attacks to activate Witch Time. The feature is arguably the best part of the combat, since it allows you to fluidly string together big hitting combinations and open up vulnerabilities in enemy defense. It's a great counterattack mechanism, and it takes some time to get used to the rhythm of knowing when a dodge is merely moving you out of the way, or when you've hit the opportunity to activate Witch Time. Bayonetta also has the ability to pull off finishers on her opponents. In some cases, she can summon a guillotine, and in others, she can crush angels with tombstones or giant bells. There's a specific finisher for each enemy type.

In addition, Bayonetta's verse system breaks down your performance on a moment-by-moment basis. Battles and big sequences define the verses in each level. It'll take a lot to complete each verse and during the first playthrough, you'll likely disappoint the game's high standards. Not to worry, though. The combat is lean and tight enough that replay value is here if you're an ardent fan of this genre, and you'll probably back track to repeat verses for better rankings. Like other games on the genre, Bayonetta can purchase upgrades, such as new hand-to-hand combat moves, stronger weapons, and ultimately expensive amulets that give her special perks. The amulet cost is yet another incentive to play through again and earn enough money to deck out Bayonetta's abilities.

bayonetta review

Throw Me a Frickin' Bone Here!

If there's a minus to the elegant combat system, it lies in some unintuitive, head-scratching moments. As you play, you're under pressure to play well. If you die (or worse, use any power ups), it's a penalty against your overall level score and bonus rewards. Unfortunately, Bayonetta is chock-full of "trial by death" moments on your first playthrough, many of which would've been totally preventable had the team implemented even the slightest warning. While no one's asking for the game to hold them by the hand, there are sections where you genuinely won't be able to figure out what in the hell the game wants you to do until you're on the verge of death. In some boss fights, one-hit kills come without much warning, and you'll finish the stage with the lowest rank possible. Undoubtedly, hardcore gamers fluent in the genre will get it, and will likely clear the game far ahead of my initial 18-hour playthrough. The final fight of the game, however, will prove maddening for most. I never spike controllers. I made an exception for the finale.

Bayonetta Laughs At Your Silly Dice Puzzles

Frustrations aside, the setpieces in Bayonetta are a sight to behold. The combat is great on its own, but thankfully the Platinum team saw fit to add some great moments to change the pace. Few are dead weight. Bayonetta must run up the sides of skyscrapers and along the tentacles of giant monstrosities, and in a great segment, re-board a jumbo jet after being ejected mid-flight alongside a half-dozen cargo containers. Other moments evoke Sega classics such as Hang-On and Space Harrier. Although it'll take some tries to figure out how boss fights tick, they're satisfyingly larger-than-life. Alongside satisfying combat and unique setpieces, Bayonetta is full of gorgeously designed environments and villains. Whether the team made the deliberate choice to design humanoid characters highly generic-looking remains to be seen, but the bosses never ceased to leave me asking "what the #$^@ is that" in the majority of my encounters.

Fire Extinguisher

A great deal of fuss has been made regarding the performance difference between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions, but the argument can be resolved quite simply: in this case, if you have both consoles, buy it on Xbox 360. Load times are worse on PS3 and at times, the action looks muddier, but in all honesty, PS3 owners shouldn't skip the game solely because textures aren't as good or the game loads every time you pause. Bayonetta is great no matter what platform you have, and at the end of the day, both Xbox 360 and PS3 owners should be happy stuffing angelic warriors into iron maidens.

In Other Words...

Bayonetta is a wonderful experience that I emphatically recommend for fans of the genre. Granted, the objectification and ogling of the titular character can be rather uncomfortable at times (the end credits and post-credits should be watched in solitude, if only to save yourself heaps of awkward explanation) and the awful storyline reads like an elementary school child's book report on The Divine Comedy, but like (ahem) adult entertainment, plot is secondary to action. And in that sense, the team at Platinum Games has truly forged a refreshing new entry in the hack n' slash action genre. Hopefully, Capcom and Team Ninja are taking notes. Bayonetta shoots for the moon and succeeds.