Bayonetta is a very strange game. It snubs masculinity and macho manliness in a genre dominated almost exclusively by burly, muscle-bound, devilishly attractive men and Spartan war gods. The debates as to whether or not it's a culturally progressive game or an exploitative assault against women still rages on. It employs sex as a deadly weapon where other similar games have used it as a minor and often completely overlooked selling point.
It's also easily the best game in its genre to this day.
I've been incredibly frank when introducing this game to friends of mine that had no prior knowledge of it: "It's a game about a stripper witch-nun," I'll say to them. "She breakdances and has guns on her feet and fights angels from Heaven and sometimes she is almost naked." It's entirely true too: within the first ten minutes of the game, Bayonetta -- the slender, long-legged femme fatale packing heat in more ways than one -- is in various states of undress as she cartwheels, pole dances and backflips through hordes of grotesque "angels" that look more like embellished vultures with halos. The sheer ridiculous nature of this game allows a suspension of disbelief just long enough to watch the game and form an opinion of it, but only after actually having hands-on playtime with it does one truly begin to appreciate such a bizarre game.
Why, then, would I claim that it's the best game in its genre to date if the aforementioned description is all that's really interesting about this game? Because that alone pales in comparison to the many highly-polished gameplay elements Bayonetta delivers, and the myriad improvements it makes on predecessors in its genre. The only issue many Americans have with the game is that they don't seem to be able to successfully bridge the large divide between form and function, between the creative delivery and actual gameplay. All they see is a stripper nun with guns on her feet getting naked, and that's all they need to see in their opinion. Even many "respected" game journalism outlets have given the game less-than-favorable ratings and reviews, most of them citing the outlandish character design, the limits to which the game pushes sexuality and ennui, and the fact that the main character is an independent woman up against a veritable army of men.
I for one enjoyed the oversexualization, highly stylized and unrealistic portrayal of the feminine form, and its almost chauvinist presentation of very anti-masculine messages. Not only is it incredibly Japanese in its delivery, it openly defies the conventions established by its predecessors -- a game that fits into its genre while at the same time rebelling against it. But whether or not you appreciate that isn't the issue: the issue is that all of this is met with shallow immaturity and baseless disapproval that turns people away from an incredibly solid game they might otherwise like, were it not so heavily laden with raw, unapologetic sex and outrageously feminine overtones.
So let's take a moment to look at the technical merits of the game before getting into the more socially relevant stuff, shall we?
- The control system is incredibly tight. Timing is everything, and pauses in combination attacks are not only measured but encouraged. Timing also plays into dodging attacks, which is a complex system that is very well explained and easy to pick up but also difficult -- and rewarding -- to master. Later in the game you have the option to purchase new ways to dodge, allowing you to negate attacks that connect rather than simply avoiding them before they hit -- a piece of strategy that vastly improves the player's experience with the game, not to mention their chances of surviving difficult fights.
- There are a wide array of weapons to choose from -- just over 50 possible combinations in all, many of which are challenging to unlock and provide an immense sense of satisfaction once earned. These weapon combinations result in a number of different attack chains that allow the player to customize the game to suit their preferred style of fighting, something vitally important in a game that revolves primarily around fight sequences, and something many of its predecessors often overlook. Instead of being locked into a particular weapon, attack sequence or style of play, the player can customize their experience to surprising lengths. Many people have played and continue to play the game, but because of the combat system's depth, player experiences are rarely identical to one another.
- The all-important aspect of combat itself is fast and frenetic, but rarely do you ever get lost: audio and visual cues are used surprisingly well, and the game communicates far more than a player realizes through deceivingly simple means. A distinct call or movement from a particular enemy tells you what attack they're about to launch against you, and gives you enough of a warning to react accordingly if you can think fast and have a decent grasp on the control scheme. Even beyond that, just the use of cosmetic effects such as screen flashes, slow-motion sequences and subtle lights and sounds feed the player tons of information, giving them far more situational awareness than they might expect out of a beat'em up action game.
- The game does not rely heavily on quicktime events, also called QTEs-- canned cinematic sequences mid-fight where all you do is mash a single button at the right time to perform amazing and often gruesome, messy feats you wouldn't otherwise be able to do. This is incredibly surprising considering what you can do on your own, and is quite a compliment to the game's designers. There are QTEs throughout the game, but they are largely for navigating tricky obstacles or initiating tongue-in-cheek "Torture Attacks," where an enemy is bound up in ancient torture devices like guillotines and iron maidens to deliver massive damage. Some games similar to Bayonetta, like the immensely popular God of War franchise, employ QTEs heavily and sometimes even require them to progress through the game or dispatch particular enemies. Bayonetta rarely ever truly relies on employing these aside from delivering the decisive blow in boss battles, which is usually an incredibly satisfying and subtly facetious cutscene of the boss character getting pummeled into submission. This means that the game's mechanics rely more on both timing and player skill, rather than simply pressing a button when prompted to, which results in a much more difficult and overall rewarding gaming experience.
Quite frankly, Bayonetta's gameplay delivers a wholly gratifying and immensely entertaining experience to the "Extreme Action" genre, something fans of the genre have been dying for. It's strange, then, that these fans have been turned off by the game, often calling it "bad" or "weird" or "stupid." Why is that?
Unfortunately, the demo released prior to the game really did the game itself no justice. The controls were explained a little bit, you get to see some of the attacks, but you don't get to really truly appreciate just how tight the controls really are. The game was developed for the Xbox 360 and ported over to the Playstation 3, and the latter version has framerate and loading time problems because of bad coding translation issues. Even despite the issues, the game sold 100,000 copies in Japan in its first week and roughly 60% of those purchases were for the PS3. Western PS3 gamers have spoken out against these issues however, and many refuse to buy the game until these issues are addressed...something that Sega (the company responsible for the issues) has expressed little interest in addressing. On top of that, many gaming media outlets have claimed that it has a convoluted or confusing storyline...which is strange to see in a field that largely judges games on their graphical achievements first and their storytelling merits last. I have a personal issue with this though; if you're paying attention and have even a rudimentary understanding of storytelling elements like imagery, foreshadowing and metaphors, the plot shouldn't be confusing at all. It's a bit convoluted, and all of the fine points aren't blatantly spelled out for our more critically handicapped games journalism friends, but everything is explained in one way or another. But I digress.
Technical problems and sales numbers aren't the only issue here though, I don't think. I see a very prominent issue lying squarely with the gamers themselves. They see a game where a very overtly sexualized, independent woman that uses sex as a weapon -- sometimes very literally -- is the main character. They see a game that has very Japanese quirks, humor and edgy design elements. They see a game that takes cues from its predecessors and immediately interpret those associations as "ripping off" past games: Bayonetta wields a pistol in both hands like Dante, the very exaggerated masculine pretty boy protagonist from Devil May Cry, a similar title and the one that pioneered the "Extreme Action" genre. They see plenty of gore and very graphically detailed, grotesque monsters like the enemies seen in God of War, another similar title along the same genre lines. Because of these associations that are unfortunately set in concrete in many western gamers' minds, they refuse to consider this game anything other than something not worth playing because they cannot leave behind the trappings of previous associations they've made with other, similar titles.
Sadly, to Average Joe Gamer, it's easier to link vague correlations between things they've already played than actually put effort into giving it its fair and due chance, and likewise the ignorant masses prefer to turn down Bayonetta as an "impostor," a "copy" or "wannabe" game simply because it's a new franchise trying to shove its way into a field dominated by very masculine games with multiple sequels under their respective belts. Furthermore, they want to thumb their nose at it because the game pokes fun at the conventions they are used to and comfortable with; conventions like ideal and often unrealistic image of the male protagonist as an extension of themselves, the clear definition of good vs. evil (Bayonetta is a witch fighting against angels from Heaven, which turns out to be the truly "evil" side. If that doesn't disgust every God-fearing red meat-eating American I don't know what would.) and plots that don't extend beyond a painfully obvious "I have been wronged, I must avenge my honor/dignity/family/etc." Essentially, Bayonetta isn't doing well because there are far too many cosmetic quirks to be considered a popular, "mainstream-acceptable" title -- too many gamers are deathly afraid of clever designers pushing irony and progressive changes from the status quo into a market that prefers mind-numbing similarity and unflinching constancy. Oh, and because she's a woman and has more attitude and sheer presence than the male protagonists gamerbros are comfortable with.
I remember this being the same problem Devil May Cry had when it was brand new and competing with God of War though, so maybe some day years from now, long after the game has gone out of print, Bayonetta will be truly appreciated for what it really is, rather than scorned for being what it appears to be. In the meantime I'll just sit here and stir while terrible lies and slander are spread about a legitimately good game because a bunch of sexist manchildren couldn't get over Bayonetta being about a girl they felt intimidated by.