Sunday, June 27, 2010


Bayonetta is like "Ultraviolet: The Video Game," only not quite as cool as that sounds.  But Bayonetta's eponymous heroine does have Violet's inhuman fighting abilities that test even the camera's capacity to keep up, her proficiency with the blade, her wicked gravity powers that allow her to walk on walls and ceilings, an outfit of comparably temperamental fabric, a motorcycle, and a somewhat annoying and unwelcome child tagging along.  I'm pretty sure there's even an amateur "Gun Kata" moment in there.  And Hideki Kamiya's latest game is even more frenetic and nonsensical than Kurt Wimmer's 2006 film.

Bayonetta is, of course, the latest work by Hideki Kamiya, the creator of Capcom's Devil May Cry, which in 2001 established a new standard and mechanical vocabulary for 3-D third-person action games.  The seminal game was a critical and commercial success, but Capcom then shockingly handed development on the sequel to a different team.  Kamiya was disappointed with the decision, players were disappointed with the new team's product, but then the series rebounded as the DMC2 team found its way with DMC3, after which most of us moved past the fiasco, and so too seemingly did Kamiya, as he went on pouring his passion into Viewtiful Joe and Okami instead.  By the time DMC4 came out in 2008, this was all ancient history to most fans.  But then came the unveiling of Bayonetta, Kamiya's first project since leaving Capcom.  The similarities to Devil May Cry were impossible to ignore, and players were once more intrigued by the idea of what could have been, had Kamiya been allowed to make the sequel to his game.  Now that we may finally have the answer, was it worth the wait and the heartache?

Kamiya's spiritual successor to Devil May Cry is leagues better than DMC2.  Put it next to the original Devil May Cry, stellar in its own time, and you'll find Kamiya's new game to be a more robust, vastly more refined experience.  Indeed, had we gotten Bayonetta back in 2003 instead of DMC2, I'm sure it would have been amazing.  But that's not reality.  The reality is that this is 2010--nine years and three Devil May Cry sequels since Kamiya's PS2 hit.

The near-flawless DMC3, which I consider the peak of the genre, captured most of what made the original great, then made significant tweaks and additions--most notably, the chapter select system encouraging replay--to produce an overall more solid, more playable game.  Bayonetta is a very good action game, as was DMC4, but its only substantial evolutions upon the original Devil May Cry are features that were already implemented in DMC3.  Technological advancements allow for some flashy new set pieces, but the gameplay feels fundamentally just like DMC, now a somewhat tired, distinctly last-generation game.

Even taking these games out of their respective historical contexts, I think Bayonetta would be merely on a par with DMC3 and DMC4, but not necessarily better.  The real-time weapon switching is nowhere near as tight as in DMC3, and without DMC4's handy Devil Bringer to reel enemies in, it is again sometimes cumbersome having to chase enemies down.  Despite possessing a ton of weapons, each with accompanying massive move lists, Bayonetta also doesn't seem to have as many impressive or obviously useful special attacks as Dante or Nero.  Devil May Cry is similar to a 2-D fighting game in that respect, outfitting its characters with big utility maneuvers--the lunging Stinger, for example, or the enemy-launching High Time--whereas Bayonetta, despite feeling very similar, is more like a 3-D fighter such as Tekken, where instead of having special moves, the player is supposed to string together regular punches and kicks in different sequences to different effects.  It's not that one approach is necessarily better than the other, but just as I will always take Street Fighter over Tekken, so too do I prefer Devil May Cry to Bayonetta in this respect.

As in Devil May Cry, there are additional moves to be purchased in Bayonetta, but whereas Dante never felt "complete" until he had his full arsenal, somehow I never felt, in Bayonetta, like I needed to exert myself even so far as to utilize all of the weapons I found incidentally.  I beat Bayonetta on normal difficulty--the highest default setting--never spending a dime except on the air dodge maneuver.  I did not buy any other items or abilities, nor did I go out of my way to search for hidden items or optional challenges.  Even with my Bayonetta at less than half of her maximum potential health, I never felt greatly challenged.  I must credit this to the game's very generous checkpointing, which will sometimes even restart the player in the middle of a multi-phase boss fight.  There was only one boss--the second fight with the giant infant whip-head--that somewhat confounded me, but instead of slowing down to figure it out, I just used a single healing item--the only one I would use during my entire playthrough--and powered my way through.  I know that's not how these games are meant to be enjoyed, and I'm sure I did miss a few things by not shopping, but the game itself didn't really encourage that.

The most significant point of divergence from DMC is in how Bayonetta stresses defensive play.  The DMC sequels were all offense except in boss battles, but Bayonetta requires a more attentive, defensive mindset even against regular enemies.  It's nothing as severe as Ninja Gaiden, but the central mechanic of Bayonetta is the dodge maneuver.  Nearly all enemies have attacks that cannot be interrupted and will, in fact, deflect any attack of yours.  The goal is to sidestep these attacks, and if the dodge is performed just before an attack is supposed to hit, Bayonetta will activate "Witch Time," completely freezing all enemies for a short period, during which you can assail them without reprisal.  The timing required to activate Witch Time is much more generous than for similar mechanics in other games, such as DMC3's Royal Guard block ability, so even mediocre players should be able to pick it up within a few minutes of play.  Pay attention instead of mashing buttons, and you'll find yourself stopping time with regularity against even imposing boss enemies.  When you do manage to thus neuter a boss, it's uniquely empowering, but that feeling comes at a great cost.  In requiring that you make such specific use of the dodge against even basic enemies, the game forces you to play a certain way, meanwhile discouraging the sort of experimentation and improvisation that are so much the heart of Devil May Cry's combat.  That's probably why I didn't bother shopping for moves or exploring the combo system more deeply, instead mostly just relying on dodging and the basic punch-kick-punch combo throughout the entire game.

I did mess briefly with the one-handed Easy Automatic mode.  It's pretty cool and does genuinely allow even the feeblest of players to make it through the game, so that they can, ahem, just enjoy the story.  DMC3 and 4 may not have been sophisticated literature, but they were pure narratives that presented their themes cleanly and effectively.  Bayonetta's story is complete bunk.  Neither is the plot ever even vaguely comprehensible, nor the cinematics sufficiently impressive, outside of maybe two or three noteworthy action cut scenes.  Most annoyingly, for a story so devoid of sense, there are some surprisingly lengthy and dialogue-heavy scenes to be had.

Another area in which Bayonetta differs from DMC is the camera.  Kamiya has traded the fixed camera locations of the DMC games for a user-controlled, character-centric camera.  This has a subtle effect, more so on level design than on gameplay.  With the fixed cameras, DMC was often constricted to filling its maps with lots of corridors.  Many of the more open environments, meanwhile, were just three-layer constructs, with a clear background and foreground, while the audience formed the fourth layer viewing from beyond the performance area.  Bayonetta doesn't have to thus take the audience's limited viewing angle into consideration, so its stages can be more fully three-dimensional.  So that fountain, for example, can form a more organic piece of an interactive environment, rather than being strategically placed for best eye-catching effect.  What this camera really exists for, however, is the "Witch Walk," Bayonetta's single coolest mechanic, which allows you, at specific points in the game, to defy gravity and walk on walls and ceilings.  As you transition from one surface to a perpendicular surface, it is the world itself that appears to rotate around your character.  The game's highlights are the battles with Bayonetta's rival Jeanne, during which both characters Witch Walk from surface to surface as they trade blows.

The anti-gravity business contributes to a perhaps deliberate softness in Bayonetta that, along with its vivacious new heroine, gives the game a personality subtly distinct from the harder-edged Devil May Cry.  This can be felt in the jumping, which is floatier, ironically closer to DMC2.  In the rest of the DMC titles, Dante could buy a second jump, but with or without it, he still had to rely heavily on his handguns to give him some extra hang time against ground threats.  It made for one of the coolest effects in DMC, the idea being that it was only the recoil from his pistol fire that kept him afloat against ever-present gravity.  DMC2 Dante's double-jump, on the other hand, involved some kind of magical float ability, as though he were conjuring wind beneath him, and Bayonetta similarly is able to sprout wings to gently glide short distances.  As for Bayonetta's handguns--functionally closer to machine guns--they deal more damage than Dante's, but they don't integrate very naturally into melee combos and are hardly necessary for combat, which makes them hardly necessary at all, since they aren't needed to augment Bayonetta's jumping.  Witch Time, meanwhile, is functionally similar to Viewtiful Joe's VFX Slow ability, though also somewhat the opposite.  Joe used his ability to slow down time in order so that he could dodge bullets and other fast attacks.  For Bayonetta, time slows as a result of dodging.  In the former case, Joe is having to make the most of his powers in order just to survive.  Bayonetta, meanwhile, is practically baiting attacks so that she can dodge them and activate Witch Time as a reward.  Whereas Dante and Joe seemed to always be walking a razor's edge, Bayonetta seems more out on a casual stroll.  (It also feels counterintuitive, to me, for time to slow after you've already dodged that (figurative) bullet, although I'm obviously nitpicking to call the game out on that.)

Finally, if you're one of those Devil May Cry fans who loved the first game but wondered where all the really zany stuff went in the sequels, then Bayonetta may be the game you've been waiting for.  What Kamiya offers that the DMC sequels have not is the completely random gameplay non sequiturs--points where the game will suddenly depart from the regular action gameplay and instead switch to some extended mini-game.  There's a motorcycle stage, a rail shooter stage, and other wackier sequences.  When Devil May Cry pulled this in critical, even climactic, moments, it was shocking, but a part of me had to smile and tip my hat at the sheer nerve of Kamiya to simply discard all the deep combat mechanics that the rest of the game had spent hours drilling into the player.  The rail shooter stage in Bayonetta is unfortunately much longer and more full of distracting special effects than Devil May Cry's, however, and whatever novelty there is to it wears off well before it's over, leaving the player just a pretty shallow and annoying shoot 'em up segment to endure.

If all you've been waiting for is an action game as good as the original Devil May Cry, then you've been waiting needlessly, because Devil May Cry 3 already was that game.  Bayonetta, like DMC4, is just more of the same, and the amount of enjoyment you derive from the experience will depend on your appetite for that kind of comfort food.  But if you are a hardcore fan of this hardcore genre, then the emergence of a worthy new contender in Bayonetta--much more a direct Devil May Cry competitor than Ninja Gaiden or God of War--is surely welcome, even if it doesn't revolutionize the formula.


Czardoz said...

I still don't understand what this "gun kata" is supposed to be, other than absolutely ridiculous.

Did you notice that Christian Bale and that villain were doing all this gun kata while dead bodies were lying not ten inches away from their feet?

Henry said...

All joking aside, I think the idea is that Kurt Wimmer took the sort of rigorous choreography normally applied to martial arts or dance sequences and adapted it to gun battles. As it is in theory with his character, so it is in practice that all of Christian Bale's movements, however subtle, are deliberate and calculated.