Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Bayonetta -> Review

Originally posted on Game People.

Taking the base structure of Devil May Cry and turning it into a kaleidoscopic fruit basket of exorbitant gameplay, colour and style, Bayonetta is the ultimate videogame. The sheer indulgent delight of sampling its intoxicating mix left me breathless with adoration for its balletic combat, fantastical characters and intriguing plot.

I must admit the very mechanics that Bayonetta works from has never previously interested me. The action/adventure combat system nearly always defeats me with it complexity, difficulty level and the manner in which it often obscures the game world. But Bayonetta has changed all that. With its camp and overblown presentation providing the lustful eye-candy, the actual combat is as graceful and cathartic as the Kirov ballet.

I never felt like I did anything as mundane as walking or running with Bayonetta. In the same way as every movement in her cutscenes is deliberate yet beautifully smooth, the merest action within the game is like gliding through silk. Combat is easy - not in the ‘press one button to win’ way but due to the ease with which I found myself moving through opponents, mastering the wide variety of moves and relaxing into the game’s flow. That’s not to say it isn’t challenging - at times it felt like I was riding down a chaotic river and retaining control by the seat of my pants.

The difference between this and other action games is the progression of the enemies you face; they are all bursting with unsettling creativity and dispatching them into Hell becomes increasingly more satisfying. The mini boss fights have an allure about them, especially when more powerful attacks result in Bayonetta shedding her hair-made cat suit, and are a tease for the full-on end boss.

It’s easy to put this ‘feature’ straight into the male titillation box that many might feel the game deserves. Is it pandering to a largely male demographic to have a character that gets gradually unclothed according to her combat status? Probably. Is it empowering to women to have a strong female lead in the game. No. But Bayonetta is not an overblown, highly sexualised object that’s merely been dropped into male players hands. She’s a fantastical avatar, an artistic icon that isn’t to be taken in a literal visual way - not long legs and big breasts but a graceful and confident character that fits the world created around her. The truth is that none of those issues really matter in this instance. There are many other games that portray men and women in a stereotypical light, with no hint of irony or humour - Bayonetta just ices its incredible mechanics with camp and sexy goodness - and no malicious intent at all.

As a result each boss fight that concludes a chapter has a pace and pleasure that’s akin to another stage in the process to a world-ending sexual climax; Each fight has its own stimulating ending but each minor encounter becomes a tease, a deliberate delay to the ultimate climatic conclusion that leaves you breathless with pleasure. Does this sound fanciful? The kind of fantasy that's 'typically Japanese' and 'bat-s*** crazy'? That would be a clichéd and lazy appraisal of a game that doesn't just pour insanity around merely for the sake of its own visual effect. The world of Bayonetta is fantastical, like the inside of Terry Gilliam's head, but it makes sense within its own extraordinary boundaries.

The tumultuous story that barely contains all these features could similarly be dismissed as nonsensical; a melting pot of Japanese paradoxes and narrative circles that only serves to give Bayonetta more opportunities for cheesy dialogue, achingly stereotypical characters and yet more vagina shots. But while those charges could condemn Bayonetta, it’s actually very clever with what it does. Boil those combat scenarios away and you’re left with a story about the constant battle between light and dark; the Lumen Sages and Umbra Witches. With its fiction involving the brutal Witch Hunts of European history and using such distinct architecture to put faces on the enemies you encounter, Bayonetta is far more than just the crazy brawler many will describe.

Skewing the conflict of Heaven versus Hell closer to that of Phillip Pullman's The Dark Materials trilogy rather than biblical sub-text, it's clear that the concept of good and evil in this world is deliberately muddied. Even the defeated Angelic beings are carted off to Hell with blood-red demonic arms bursting into reality and dragging them into damnation. It’s an uncomfortable portrayal of Paradiso (Heaven), Inferno (Hell) and Purgatorio (Purgatory) if you stop and think about it. With so-called heavenly creatures having such a grotesque form - who really is the enemy in this universe? The answer, which comes at the end, is a lovely knock against organised religion even if the videogame wrapper blunts its meaning and intent.


The darkly religious overtones fade perfectly into the background when you don't pay attention - and many will gladly revel in the beautiful and balletic display of fighting that the game delivers with aplomb - but it’s there to add a canvass to the sensible insanity of the game. If you love your fighting games along the Devil May Cry route then Bayonetta works in delivering the pinnacle title that the series could never itself achieve.

The beautifully uncomfortable world the game portrayed was the magical key that made this title something special - as was the gameplay that came together in a perfect alignment of accessibility and challenge. This is more than the best action game I’ve ever played - the sense of awe, fear and elation that I experienced meant that every moment of play and subsequent replays has given me more pleasure than I could have thought possible.

The debate about the central characters sexual nature, the constant focus on her crotch and the suggestive dialogue that runs through the entire game will rage on regardless of critical success and adoration. But Bayonetta is a game that deserves to rise above that unnecessary dialogue and be enjoyed for the unashamed 'videogame' that it is.

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