Review: Bayonetta (Xbox 360)

What, exactly, is going on in Bayonetta?

That question has weighed heavily on me throughout the last few months, from the moment I launched the game to the present day, where I find myself in the middle of my third playthrough. And, frankly, that question is a big part of why this review has taken weeks to write.

While I'm still not convinced I've distilled the core theme or purpose of Bayonetta, I am confident it can be defined in just a few ways:

  • Bayonetta is a stylish, fast-paced action game
  • Bayonetta is a dynamic, fluid and intricate combat game
  • Bayonetta is a hypersexualized and exploitative commentary on the role of women in games

If you're considering buying a copy, it's my firm belief that almost anybody is guaranteed dozens of hours of great entertainment with Bayonetta. Although it might simply look like a prettied-up rehash of a modern character-action game like Devil May Cry or God of War, a few minutes with a controller in hand will prove otherwise. Like Guitar Hero and Wii Sports, it's the sort of experience where the main appeal rests in the actual, tactile feeling the game evokes; it's one of those things that can't be described, but you know it when you experience it. In this case, the player is treated to a surprisingly natural and empowering sense of control over the protagonist that steadily grows in complexity and escalates in lunacy throughout the game's dozen-plus levels. It's a wild ride that's simultaneously brilliant and befuddling, and it's required literature for anyone with a taste for adrenaline.

It requires the hard work of a lot of people to make a fully fledged, sixty-dollar videogame like Bayonetta. And while it's not my intention to sideline the creative input and effort of the entire team at Platinum Games and publisher Sega, Bayonetta bears the unmistakable mark of its director, Hideki Kamiya.

Even among the enthusiast gaming crowd, Kamiya might not be a household name like Miyamoto or Kojima. But if you've played some of the top-rated games of the past decade or so, chances are you've played a few of the games he's had a hand in from Capcom and the now-defunct Clover studio. His directorial credits, including Resident Evil 2, Viewtiful Joe, Devil May Cry and Okami, run the gamut of game design between high-tension survival horror, engrossing action-adventures and fast-paced stylized action-fighting hybrids. Although Kamiya's games have been both blockbusters and commercial flops, they all received glowing reviews from nearly every game critic upon release.

After Clover was dissolved by Capcom in early 2007, Kamiya went on to join Platinum Games. And now, almost three years later, Kamiya has reemerged with his first new title under the Platinum label: Bayonetta.

Bayonetta doesn't bring any major revelations to the character-action genre. Instead, it focuses on refining the elements that worked best in its predecessors and removing the half-baked ideas that held them back from perfection. The result is a straightforward, mostly linear journey through a number of distinct levels (with a small amount of requisite backtracking thrown in for good measure) punctuated with a steady series of distinct confrontations.

Fortunately, Platinum's decision to stick close to the feel and structure of the Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden and God of War series doesn't leave the game feeling stale. In fact, it makes it easier for genre veterans to slide right in and get down to discovering what makes Bayonetta distinctive: its style and fine-tuned game design.

Each level is a guided journey through beautiful set pieces punctuated by a dozen or so distinct confrontations. These fights, despite only being composed of a couple dozen enemy types, never feel repetitive, thanks in large part to the careful balancing of each encounter. A battle can last as long as ten seconds and no longer than a couple minutes, which helps keep the tempo at a fast pace.

Fights are fast, involved, and almost overwhelmingly flashy. With the game's bold use of color and rhythm, it calls to mind the sort of imagery and physical sensation that often comes with games like Treasure's twitchy and unparalleled Gunstar Heroes and Sin and Punishment. And while fluid animations and flashy effects are vital to any modern character-action game, they're merely par for the course; any game from Devil May Cry to Dante's Inferno is filled to the brim with these components. But what the competition lacks is something that can't be seen -- it has to be felt.

Simply put, controlling Bayonetta is a joy. She moves with an exaggerated grace and ease, transitioning from move to move with a surprising fluidity that creates the illusion that she's anticipating the moves you're performing. Her body language evokes a sense of glee at violently dispatching her creepy, inhuman adversaries, and it fosters a delightfully politically incorrect overtone throughout the game: you're not working for the forces of good, but you're sure as hell not the bad guy.

At the conclusion of each encounter, the player is scored on how well they performed. Ratings on time, style and damage provide the player with a heads-up on what their strengths and weaknesses were without lending a sense of punishment for not doing well. Winning the fight is still winning the fight, and the game doesn't dwell on any individual encounter longer than a few seconds after the fact before you're running headlong into the next. It's a rare instance where scoring is a uniformly positive experience for the player as opposed to something like Grand Theft Auto's The Ballad of Gay Tony, where the parameters for scoring well are withheld until the end of the mission and scores are often significantly lower than the player anticipates.

Bayonetta bears the mark of a well-polished game thanks to a number of small but significant features that are so obvious in retrospect that it's puzzling why nobody thought to include them before. Loading screens are fully interactive and display a move list at all times, allowing the player to practice a handful of moves and to warm up for the next major fight. The game's level selection feature allows the player to return to any level on any difficulty at any time, meaning there's no penalty for going back to revisit a particular sequence or to stock up on halos, the game's currency. Besides being a less-than-subtle nod to Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog series, these halos also function as a currency that can be spent at the Gates of Hell, a bar operated by a sunglasses-wearing, sinister merchant named Rodin. Halos can be spent to learn new moves, acquire new equipment and stock up on resources, a process that requires multiple playthroughs to complete but yields rewards ranging from near-vital combat abilities to bizarre costumes for Bayonetta to wear.

An integral part of Bayonetta's appeal is its tongue-in-cheek, self-referential humor. A number of acknowledgments to Kamiya's past games are slipped in as clever asides; for instance, at one point early in the game, Bayonetta spouts a one-liner that's nearly identical to Viewtiful Joe's catchphrase ("Henshin a-go-go, baby!"). At times, Bayonetta seems acutely aware of the fact that she is starring in a game and flirts with breaking the fourth wall on a few occasions by commenting on her present situation as though speaking directly to the player. Rodin also does this whenever you stop in at the Gates of Hell for some upgrades: "Hey, check this out: 'What are ya buyin'?' Heh heh. Heard that in a game once."

Bayonetta's story involves two warring clans, the Lumen Sages and Umbra Witches, who maintained balance for thousands of years until they went to war and the Lumen Sages influenced humans to instigate witch hunts. You're the last of the witches and you're out to understand what happened and kill anything that crosses your path. As a narrative, it amounts to nothing more than your typical black-and-white, good-versus-evil dichotomy, but the game clearly isn't concerned with sending a strong message about the importance of balance or anything heavy-handed like that. It's simply a premise that attempts to justify the over-the-top action and violence that define Bayonetta, and while it usually ends up feeling utterly ridiculous with its pervasive sexual themes, it did more to keep me interested than to deter me from finishing the game.

Of course, that same imagery of a woman who flaunts her exaggerated curves and strips naked every few moments with reckless abandon inevitably leads to some tough questions about gender stereotypes and exploitation. Perhaps the most pertinent question is: Is Bayonetta misogynistic?

That question isn't one I can answer on a universal scale, but it is undeniable that Bayonetta is filled with provocative imagery and classic examples of male and female gender role stereotypes. What I can do is assess what I've observed in playing the game several times and explain how I came to my own conclusion.

The best place to start is with the character of Bayonetta herself. She doesn't look like a realistic human being: she's impossibly tall, her feminine features are intensely exaggerated, and she's usually half-naked. Her hair is the focal point of much of her power, which -- aside from being symbolically significant -- also acts as her sole source of clothing. In the heat of battle, Bayonetta's hair is flying in all directions, meaning the vast majority of her body is exposed. As the player -- and as a heterosexual male -- I found this discomforting. There's a concept in gender studies (which I'll admit I only have a cursory understanding of) that relates to the idea of the male gaze, a common theme in all kinds literature where women are placed in situations where they are exposed and ignorant of what's around them while a male character observes in secrecy. The most famous example of this in film is Psycho, where Norman Bates watches as a woman undresses and is then murdered in the shower.

Bayonetta's nudity isn't confined to combat, either. The opening scene depicts her shedding her clothing on highly suggestive regions while moaning at an increasingly high pitch. Really, how many ways that can be interpreted? It's utterly ridiculous. If anyone else had been in the room, I'd have been mortified to be seen playing the game.

So yes, Bayonetta is absolutely a hypersexualized experience. But is it misogynistic?

I think anyone with a conscience would be entitled to say so; there's certainly enough evidence indicating as such. But personally, I don't think it's misogynistic at all. I think Bayonetta is empowering to women if only because she seems so acutely aware of constantly being the object of observation by male characters -- and how she uses that advantage to deliver a swift and brutal death to anyone who stands in her way. Whenever a male character, such as Luka, makes a comment objectifying her, he's always immediately punished for it or made to look the fool by her. She is in control of every situation, and the only instance in which control is taken away from her is when her friend -- another witch -- comes to save her.

Bayonetta is fully aware that she's a sexual stereotype, and she uses that knowledge playfully as a weapon before brutally murdering her enemies. But it's also undeniable that these overtly sexist images have weight to them, and as a result not everyone will have the same interpretation I do. I believe you're entitled to interpret the game however you like, and it's important that you're aware of what's involved in Bayonetta before you purchase it. Fortunately, there's a demo available for just that purpose. But I do hope everybody reading this will give the game a shot and draw their own conclusions. After all, no matter what else you call it, Bayonetta is simply the best game of its kind. It delivers a much-needed shot of adrenaline to the character action genre, and it's absolutely one of the finest games of the year.

Bayonetta does more than preserve Hideki Kamiya's reputation for crafting the greatest games the action/adventure genre has to offer: It elevates him and the team at Platinum Games to the absolute highest echelon of game development.

Bayonetta was developed by Platinum Games and published by Sega.  It retails for a suggested $59.99 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The reviewer completed two full playthroughs and part of a third on the Xbox 360 version of the game and unlocked 41 of 50 achievements.

Recommended for:

  • Fans of fast-paced fighting and action games who seek a genuine visceral thrill in a game
  • Hideki Kamiya devotees who appreciate his trademark bizarre style and high standard of polish
  • Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden and God of War fans looking for a fresh take on a tired genre
  • Anyone doubting the creativity and craftsmanship of the Japanese games industry in recent years -- Bayonetta proves there's at least one studio out there with serious chops

Not Recommended for:

  • Anyone offended by the ostensibly sexist imagery and rampant violence that characterize the game's image; my theory is the game is consciously using an exploitative style to convey a positive message about female heroes in videogames, but your interpretation may vary

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