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A few chosen words on the world of video games

Bayonetta: Better than you might assume

I had this game about half way down my Gamefly queue.  Of course, Gamefly loves to send you games that are half-way down your queue rather than the ones at the top.  Every third game or so you get from them is your first pick in the queue, but rarely do you get two in a row from the #1 spot.  I guess they feel that after sending you two other games you kinda wanted that you’ve earned the right to get your #1 pick.  When I do get my #1 pick it always feels like they’re doing me a favor by sending me the game I really wanted to play in the first place.  Wow guys, thanks!  It’s not like I have a damn queue for a reason or anything.

Anyway, I digress.  My fascination with Bayonetta had earned enough merit to put it in the queue, but it was constantly bumped down in favor of other games that I wanted to play more.

So, I end up getting it in the mail last week, and at first I’m a bit disappointed that it wasn’t a game I’d had higher in the queue, but I figure how bad can it be?  After all, it has a 90 (360 version) metacritic.  Yes, I know metacritic isn’t the beat-all end-all of scoring sites. I mean, CoD2 has a 94 on there… which is an 85 at best IMO.  But even assuming that there’s padding and fanboys in there, that’s an insanely good score for the type of game it is.  It’s also made by Platinum Games, which is the ex-Clover guys.  The guys who created Okami and Madworld, just to name two.

Side note: Okami is an absolutely wonderful game and one of the most criminally over-looked games (in sales) that I’ve ever played.  If you’ve not played it, go get it.  It’s on PS2 or Wii.  It’s cheap.  Get it right now.  Stop reading this, seriously.  Go play that game.  You will not regret it.

So anyway, two points in Bayonetta’s favor right out of the gate.  A great semi-meaningful score, and a great developer behind it.

I was a fan of the Devil May Cry series (for a while) and figured that Bayonetta was some kind of knockoff.  It’s even done by the same game director.  I figured it would play about the same as DMC did — endless button mashing that quickly gets tedious, way too many and mostly useless combos, mostly useless weapons, a story that makes no sense, generally useless move upgrades, lots of violence, and level repetition — and boy did Bayonetta not live up to most of those expectations.

Yes, I said it did not live up to those expectations.  I totally expected a knock-off of the DMC games… and that’s not what I got.  Not only is Bayonetta a good game, it’s a really good game.  I have to say in many ways it has the kind of simple-yet-deep gameplay that Batman: Arkham Asylum had.  The combat system isn’t as refined as Arkham’s, and it doesn’t do environments in the same open free-roaming kind of way, but it’s going for a different type of experience, so it emphasizes different things.

First up, the story.  It’s insane… but it works by the end of it.  Bayonetta is a witch who hunts angels because if she doesn’t she gets dragged down to hell.  Sucks to be a witch.  So, her life is one big game of baiting angelic creatures into attacking and then slaughtering them all to appease the devil she’s made a deal with in exchange for her powers.  Her order (the umbran witches) was one of two factions which kept balance in the world.  The witches are all hunted to extinction after a catastrophic event in the past.  Bayonetta is sealed away — banished — and got overlooked in the witch hunt.  Waking up some time later, she can’t remember anything about her past, but she still has to appease the devil, so off to hunt angels it is.  Of course, the sages (the counterpart to the witches) have run without balance for a long time, their own apocalyptic plans near fruition when Bayonetta comes back on the scene.  Long story short, Bayonetta has to kill her way through Paradiso’s forces (i.e. Heaven) to stop the apocalypse.  There’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist.  The supporting cast you meet on her way includes a buffoon rogue guy, a little kid (not as annoying as you’d think), a fellow witch with an agenda, the ex-angel demonic weapons dealer doing his best Shaft impersonation, and a fat whiny schlub that screams of Joe Pesci from the Lethal Weapon films.

As for the main character herself, Bayonetta is part runway model, part stripper, part gymnast, part gunkata master, part commando, and all ass-kicker.  She slinks around the board in this amazing gymnastic style that is raunchy and classically sophisticated at the same time.  She poses like a model in a photo shoot after certain kills, complete with shutter click sounds and effects.  She does slinky stripper dances for taunts.  This crazy hyper J-pop version of “fly me to the moon” plays as she does her outrageous super attacks.  Her skin-tight outfit is also her hair, which is stripped away from time to time when you unleash finishing moves on bosses and enemies.  There’s no nudity, but it comes about as close as possible without showing anything directly.  It’s certainly risque.  She’s also British… because the accent is just cool, right?

The bread and butter of this game is close-range combat.  There’s a really solid underpinning to it that I didn’t see at first, but made the game immensely more enjoyable once I figured it out.  So yes, you can button-mash in this game like you did in any DMC.  You’ll get through most of the game on normal difficulty with just button mashing, and certainly on easy.  But you know what?  You’ll spend about 75% more time than necessary by doing so.  Although button mashing one button is cool looking and fancy, it does the least amount of damage of any of her attacks.  Multi-button mash combos are more rewarding, but again they’re wasteful.  Instead, patient use of the three attack buttons (guns, arms, and legs) in short bursts yields the most rewarding results.

For example, if I have the sword equipped and mash the attack button 7 times, I’ll get this fancy combo string that takes 15 or so seconds total and does about 20% of the total damage on a large enemy.  Now if I do a nice three-hit  combo alternating hands / feet / hands on that same enemy, I can do over 50% of its health in ~5 seconds.  So finesse is not only faster but it’s also more rewarding.  The entire game is like this.  Some of the best combos are short ones that require timing rather than mashing.  Once you start being patient with the game’s combat, it’s immensely more enjoyable… and less taxing on your button fingers.

There’s a combo string system very similar to the one found in Arkham Asylum.  It’s not as unforgiving as the Batman one, allowing you a window of time to do damage to anything in order to preserve your current combo.  You can rack up some insane combos and multipliers by chaining together different attacks and combos from one enemy to the other.  The main way you do this is through what they call “witch time”, which is just bullet time… for witches.  All it takes to use is nothing more than timing your dodges.  Dodge an enemy attack at the right moment and the world (except for you) slows down, allowing you to unleash some huge combos without fear of immediate retaliation.  Dodging is easy to do (tap RT), and except for a few completely visually insane fights, all the monsters telegraph their attacks with visual and audio cues.  If you pay attention, it’s easy to know when to use it successfully.  There are items in the game you can get that make it easier to do… and even automatically when you get hit.

Weapon-wise, almost everything they give you has places that they are useful.  The weapon selection is diverse, from swords and guns to lasers, whips, shotguns, rocket launchers, and razor-sharp ice skates.  Yeah, ice skates.  You even get Nightmare on Elm street-type claws that if you wear on your legs, the claw tips become the stiletto part of her heels.  Nice.  Aside from the whip, I found every weapon to be useful versus different creatures.  The sword ended up serving me the best for most of the game, but everything else (sans whip) had frequent use.

The amount of combos you can unleash are… well there’s so many I didn’t get close to doing all of them.  You can check what you have and have not completed, and I’m not even close.  It doesn’t help that every weapon combination you equip (and you can equip different weapons on your arms and legs) has different combos associated with them.  Did I mention there’s at least 8 different weapons in this game?  6 or so of which can be on your arms or legs?  Thank god there’s no achievement for doing every move at least once.

Level-wise, the game is paced really well.  There’s a nice diversity in the intensity and duration of fights on any level and the amount of puzzle & exploration time between each.  There’s maybe 10 different enemies you encounter on a regular basis, with a few larger ones and bosses scattered in-between.  This allows you to learn the behaviors of each so you’ll have a good idea how to fight them.  Some are nasty if you don’t pay attention.

The game is longer than you’d first think, clocking in at 10 to 12 hours on first play-through on normal, assuming you’re mashing for some of it.  Likely you could get that down to 8 or so if you paid more dedicated attention to learning the combo system than I did.  Unlike DMC4, none of the levels are repeats, so you won’t be backtracking at all.

It’s also a fairly diverse experience for the type of game it is.  You ride a motorcycle in a racing type game at several points, fly on a giant missile in a huge homage to Space Harrier for one entire level (down to the classic spinning oval shots and enemy patterns), fight on a raft plunging down a whirlpool, outrun several lava tidal-waves, hurtle buildings at monsters, dodge orbital weapons, and have a few battles that completely twist your sense of space and direction.  There’s wall running, ceiling running, spinning gravity platforms… the works.  They really try to mix up the game play in every way they can.  You even get a sequence that’s akin to a scene from the movie “Wanted” as you guide the final bullet in slo-mo directly into one boss’ forehead.

I wonder how well this game did sales-wise, as it is so easy to dismiss it as a DMC knockoff from seeing screenshots and press videos.  Even though it’s directed by the same guy that made DMC (and Viewitful Joe, Okami, and Resident Evil 2!), this game shows a lot more love and thought than the DMC games have had in their latest incarnations.  Maybe he’s had time to improve the formula since leaving that franchise.  The last few DMC games had no where near this level of finesse behind the scenes.  Whatever he did, it worked, as this is the superior game in the genre.

If you can put up with the absurdity of the story, the over-the-top dialogue, silly characters, and the fact you’re playing as a bad-ass stripper / runway model with guns, the game delivers…  especially if you look just a little deeper than what the surface may suggest.  There’s nothing in this game that’s revolutionary, but there’s a lot of well-thought through evolution on display for the genre.

Did I mention that after finishing it on normal difficulty, there’s two more difficulties to unlock, a secret boss, a full secret level, hidden weapons, time challenges, and two other playable characters to play with their own unique move sets?  A gamerscore fiend will have their hands full with this one for sure.

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