Most of 2009’s best games were exercises in restraint. Uncharted 2 was streamlined to perfection as was Modern Warfare 2, Street Fighter IV was a return to strong roots, Flower and Canabalt took great strides in minimalism, and Batman’s ultra-simplistic combat engine is more fun than the entirety of other games. Bayonetta, on the other hand, is like Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
The game proper starts in a cemetery as a fat gangster posits over life and death while a hot nun quietly murmurs incoherent nonsense for at least five minutes. Enzo chomps hungrily on scenery like his cigar, until angels descend from heaven, I tighten my grip on the controller and, uh, watch as Bayonetta takes everyone on while the Joe Pesci wannabe “comically” falls about the scene and complains about damage to his car. We’re now going on ten to fifteen minutes and I’ve yet to press a button past start.
This is action?
Let me mention that I also say “the game proper,” purposefully excluding the opening tutorial-battle-thing. You fight millions of angels, possibly at the height of your power before the coffin banishment (though your every move doesn’t create massive fists and heels like by the end of the game…so were you ever at full power to begin with?) Jeanne by your side, as a mysterious voice tells us about witch history. It’s a complete sensory mess, and could have been stricken from the record.
Within the first minute of God of War, Kratos kills himself before you beat the life out of an undead army, impale hydra heads, rip wings off harpies, and walk down a monster’s throat to snatch a key from a helpless man that you let fall to his death. This is within fifteen minutes, at least. As absurd as it may sound now, God of War showed excellent restraint. It was a streamlined experience with barely any fat and a direct, simplistic plot. Most cutscenes were deliciously short. They lasted long enough to deliver an emotional sucker punch then gave control back to the player. Its now famous QTEs were varied enough in presentation and input to make them seem less scripted, more visceral. QTEs were taken to sterling heights in GoW2, where slamming Theseus’ head repeatedly in a door was one of the great pleasures I’ll take to the grave, and I’d even say perfected in Chains of Olympus, where a thematically effective QTE had you push a frightened child away.
Bayonetta shoots itself in the foot (ha-ha) with cutscenes. Most fights with Jeanne begins as two lady witches trade blows with missiles and motorcycles at unimaginable speeds while they strike “cool” poses, sometimes, I guess. You passively watch all this, of course, and when the action’s finally back in your hands…it’s the same three to six button combos you’ve been doing since the game started. Oh well, at least this time they’re fighting on the wing of a plane, eh?
The plot has been called nonsensical, but I’d go one further and call it unedited, unrestrained, and completely in love with itself, much like Peter Jackson’s King Kong. You see, the original Kong is Jackson’s favorite movie. After the unimaginable success of Lord of the Rings, Jackson was given a blank check and total carte blanch. He decided to do his dream project, and delighted in recreating the original for modern audiences, but mostly for himself. Unfortunately, he couldn’t separate over-indulgent love from smart filmmaking decisions. The result is a film with loads of visual style, but a bloated plot as thin as puddle water that lasts one hour longer than it needs to. How many slow motion shared moments between Naomi Watts and CGApe did we need? Jackson couldn’t get past his love of the original Kong to make a good movie, and I argue Kamiya couldn’t get past his love of Bayonetta, the character, to make a good game.
There’s no doubt that Kamiya is infatuated with Bayonetta. If the “artistic” slow motion pole-dance during the end credits didn’t convince you of that fact, then the “fun” go-go dance after the credits had to have driven it home. There she is, dancing, for no reason other than to let us watch her dance…yet…again. Kamiya must have loved every second of it. I counted the seconds until I could skip past that last dance, because I certainly wasn’t allowed to skip the credits. By then I was so entirely sick of the game that I haven’t touched it since.
The plot is abysmal to an nth degree, n valued as how long it takes for your brain to melt down to lukewarm goo during the opening cutscene. Nothing in Bayonetta makes for a compelling story, but please don’t mistake “compelling” for “coherent.” A story doesn’t have to make sense to be good; it has to be good to be good. For further reference, sit down and play Dead Rising or Katamari Damacy, or watch Big Trouble in Little China or Demolition Man. They’re all great times that don’t make one lick of sense, because why should they? You may think I’m treating the plot of a game about witches with guns on their feet a bit harshly, but that’s because I believe Bayonetta, the naughty masochist, wants to be treated this way. It goes through absurd lengths to justify its plot, giving us flashbacks, flash forwards, sideways flashes and books upon books of backstory, not one of which I could bring myself to read. By the time I reached David Bowie, cutscenes became bathroom and coffee breaks. When it comes to action games like this, when will developers take to heart the immortal words of John McClane, “Bad guys are about to do bad things.”
What more do you need?
God of War’s story is effective because it’s simple. In a delightfully noir opening, Kratos commits suicide before we’ve even had the chance to play him. Now why’d he do that? We don’t know, we’re curious, and one title card later we’re doing what we bought the game to do: fighting. After a truly bombastic opener that I still use as a benchmark for games gone right, Kratos is given a single task by Athena: kill Ares, the God of War. Kratos swears it’s the last job he’ll do as their divine errand boy. He’s had enough, and wants to be released from his torment. What torment? Ah, another simple question. Over the course of the game, layers are carefully added to the backstory, adding weight to your actions, but the task remains the same: kill Ares, a god so wholly committed to the idea of combat and warfare that he desired to create the perfect warrior. In the end, Kratos tells him he succeeded, then rams a sword down his throat. Damn. Now that’s pathos.
Of course, plot means little at the end of the day. We came for action, and Bayonetta offers this up in spectacular spades, right? Not quite. While it is incredibly pretty to look at, and the slightest touch of a button causes neutron stars to implode, I can’t help but feel that Bayonetta offers nothing new for the genre. It lacks the unforgiving preciseness of Ninja Gaiden, the exhilarating QTEs of God of War, the rock-paper-scissors approach of Arkham Asylum, or the intelligent use of SFX powers in Viewtiful Joe. This was the latest game from the man who proved 3D action was possible with Devil May Cry, but plays almost exactly like that seminal title from years ago. The difference is now you have four guns instead of two. It’s the Wii Mario Bros. of the action genre.
Was it wrong for me to hope for something more than gigantic, recurring bosses and missile fights? Contra 4, an homage to the type of games made twenty years ago, had an entire level built out of missiles; Bayonetta’s motorcycle level feels like Final Fantasy VII’s, only less strategic and much more tedious; the shoot-em-up stage is an absolute chore to slog through; and the battles with Jeanne feel much too like Dante and Virgil for my tastes. In fact, the game is filled with references to Kamiya’s other works. Bayonetta shouts, “Flock off, feather face,” cries “Dancing a go-go” while leaping away from molten lava, and sprouts black roses in her panther form wake. The sheer amount of self-referral suggests that Kamiya considers this a culmination of years of game design experience and, quite possibly, a masterwork. I’m not against self-addressed love letters. Numerous artists sample their older material to strengthen a new work, but if Kamiya considers this a masterwork, I feel bad for him.
A game should leave you spent, exhilarated, and thirsty for more. As soon as Viewtiful Joe ended, I was both delighted at the hint of possible sequels (which turned out uninspired and repetitive) and eager to start the game over on a harder difficulty. Once I crawled through Viewtiful mode, I started over again to get perfect rainbow rankings. I was hooked on a three to four hour game for weeks.
But Bayonetta left me exhausted, thoroughly bored, and wanting nothing more to do with it. Whether Bayonetta drives our medium forward in terms of female presentation (which I highly doubt) is a moot point compared to the crushing realization that a master of the action genre completely dropped the ball. Has anyone else noticed? Judging by how many critics call Bayonetta the best action game of its generation, I doubt it. For the record, I don’t share that line of thinking. It’s not the best of this generation. It’s not even the best of last generation.
It’s Hideki Kamiya’s King Kong.