Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bayonetta - With Practice, Pure Poetry

Generally speaking I am not a fighting game fan. I can certainly see the appeal, the memorization of button sequences or combos that eventually become reflex, and turn combat from a button mashing affair into something that is almost poetic when played at its full potential. For me, the whole idea of learning move sets is akin to learning a foreign language, as something I'm interested in but find altogether too daunting. One could argue that the "stylish action" games are essentially fighting games in a 3D space, with games like Devil May Cry having just as much complexity as Tekken or Street Fighter.

So it came as no surprise that I let Bayonetta's release pass unmarked. From the previews and articles leading up to the game's release it was clear that this was going to be just another skill-based stylish action game, as the game was marketing towards the DMC set as the next big thing. Sure, the videos looked amazing and the combos were incredible to watch in preview videos, but the thought of what I would have to do to reach that level of expertise loomed too great in my mind, and I moved on to other things.

Sometime this summer Gamefly had a sale on used games, offering a number of titles for less than 20 bucks. I saw Bayonetta for $15 smackeroos (and Bioshock 2 for $17!) and decided to give it a whirl. I knew it was going to be good, but I was apprehensive about whether or not I'd be able to get through it, or it was destined to sit atop my piles of unfinished games as another title that I enjoyed but couldn't bring myself to finish.

Around 7 days later I had around 30 hours in Bayonetta and a newfound appreciation for the genre. Bayonetta is, simply put, an incredible action game that does so many things right that it's easy to overlook its faults. As a general rule I don't like to spend full price on new games but I am sorry that I waited as long as I did to play it, and now that I have I am almost afraid to play other games in the genre in fear that they may not measure up.

Bayonetta's story is arguably its weakest point. It's predictable, but the basics are as follows: Bayonetta is the last witch, a secretive sect taking part in the grand battle between good and evil, although much like DMC it's made clear that Bayonetta follows her own rules, mostly because she is too cool/sexy/whatever to march to anyone's drum. And much like DMC the plot is something of a throwaway. There's a phenomenal intro sequence that narrates what's going on but you never really go into detail about the specifics, and the various plot points brought up to string together the action sequences are usually mentioned but never resolved. However you almost get the sense that this is done intentionally, that the story is made deliberately ambiguous (and often ridiculous) to go along with the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of the action itself. It leads to a situation in which the story is disappointing, but you're usually having too much fun killing shit to notice.

The funnest part of Bayonetta and the part that really hooks you is the combat. Bayonetta has access to guns, shotguns, claws, whips, even rocket launchers and gun-chucks (yes, those are as cool as they sound). Each weapon has its own move set and you can equip most weapons on your feet as well as your hands, leading to a huge number of permutations. They all let you kill the way you want to, although button mashing will only get you so far on Normal difficulty or higher. This is a game that demands you learn to dodge and counter, lest you use up all your consumables and finish stages with bronze/stone awards. Successful dodges will activate Witch Time, a slow motion mode that lets you beat up monsters with relative impunity.

For me, the first 75% of my first playthrough was spent cursing at the screen, projecting my self-loating at my own prowess or lack thereof. But then, after a few hours away from the game something clicked in my brain and I was pulling off combos and dodges like a champ, and suddenly I went from the worst awards to golds and platinums. Learning to play this game properly increased the fun I was having, which made me want to learn more, and led to more rewarding gameplay. And there's the hook for Bayonetta-- it's a game that punishes you for failure with one hand, but teaches you not to make the same mistakes with the other, keeping the frustration level to a minimum.

That's not to say the gameplay is perfect. There are a few vehicle sections that are out of place and somewhat poorly implemented, and some of the optional challenges/achievements are extremely difficult bordering on impossible. I suppose you could argue that the hardest difficulty modes (where Witch Time is disabled) are there to really challenge a high level player, adding to the replay value, but even with my meager breakthrough I struggle to think about how much practice it would take me to not get frustrated by that.

In terms of value, there's a lot here. One playthrough will only take you around 8 hours but you will almost certainly be playing it again to unlock the additional weapons and accessories. Interestingly enough, almost everything you can unlock by say, beating the game on Hard, or beating a hard optional boss, can be unlocked using in-game currency as well, allowing less determined (read: obsessive) players to still experience the rewards without having to quit their jobs and train at Bayonetta. There's also extra characters, optional bosses, and an unlockable final chapter to wrap everything up. Basically there is almost no way you will get away with plaything this game only once, and getting all achievements will probably take you upward of 40-50 hours.

More often than not for me my bottom line when it comes to playing a game on my backlog is about value and Bayonetta is about as good as it gets. It's fun and has plenty of unlockables/upgrades, and 40-50 hours for the $15 price tag is a steal. As I said I hate spending full price for a game but there's enough here that I can safely say I wouldn't have been angry over spending a full 60. Bayonetta is THE action game to beat now, and the fact that you can easily find it for $20 makes it a must play for anyone who's even considering it.

Oh and I should point out that if you have the choice, play this for the 360 and not the PS3. There are some loading/graphics issues with the PS3 version (due to Sega's shitty porting job) but those flaws are still no reason to miss out if you have no other option.

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