Hideki Kamiya isn’t a name that comes to mind when discussing auteur status (Kind of a theme here this week, er, month?), which sucks since the guy directed Capcom greats like Resident Evil 2 and Devil May Cry. True, that could be because there’s no meaningful throughline in Kamiya’s work. If there’s any message from him it’s to kick ass in the most beautiful, hyper-stylized fashion possible — or rather, to kick evil’s ass so beautifully it flies 1,000,000,000 miles into space before colliding with a million star-fueled explosions. Video games don’t need to make you cry with flowers, pulhoons and braids and stuff, sometimes they just need to make you feel like an all-powerful warrior, someone tough and flamboyant like Claire Redfield, a flaming wolf goddess, Viewtiful Joe or Dante — y’know. Characters.
We’ve seen what Bayonetta has to offer before in other games, but not quite like this. By taking the DNA of everything Kamiya’s been involved in, as well as Ninja Gaiden, God Hand and plenty of herbs and spices from many other sources, Bayonetta reaches the climax of the “stylish hard action” genre Kamiya launched years ago with the first Devil May Cry. It hacks, it slashes and it pulverizes — with giant feet wearing stilettos made of hair — and it accomplishes everything it sets out to do so well by embracing its videogameness so lovingly. It’s a ridiculous silly game, just like how video games used to be! No pretensions of art or grandeur … just piping hot videogamey fun.
Not that there’s no art to be found in Bayonetta. Bayonetta herself is some kind of miracle of otaku design, a meganekko witch in her golden years who gets half-naked when she summons dragons and giant spiders at will. She’s also displays tsundure qualities, constantly giving Luka, the journalist/explorer on her trail, a tough time when really, she probably digs the poor sap. Her corny British dialect in cutscenes suggests a sultry schoolmarm or dominatrix and sure, there’s double-entendres all over the place, yet none of it feels smarmy or sleazy so much as playful and campy. Bayonetta, for all her gyrating innuendo, is like the video game equivalent of Barbarella or Cutie Honey and there’s no harm in that, is there?
Her co-stars Luka, Rodin and even the little girl Cereza all share a similar sense of style and charm, from giant scarves to too-cool sunglasses to a little cat doll with button eyes. Cereza says “mummy” instead of “mommy” because she’s a faux-Brit too, and Rodin the item seller casually quotes Resident Evil 4 and talks about bald space marines. There’s a keen sense of self-awareness at work here, and there better be, when everyone in your game stands 12 feet tall and the main character has four guns strapped to her limbs.
Although shooting magic bullets isn’t even half of the game’s combat. Bayonetta can trap enemies in iron maidens and other torture devices, swing them around like a centrifuge and do all sorts of amazing over-the-top Haruko-from-FLCL-running-on-a-giant-shotgun-barrel stuff I’d hate to spoil, in addition to the God Hand-style flurry of fists and kicks that take up the brunt of the combat, which can be as advanced or as simple as you like. There’s a startling amount of combos available from the start and you can practice them all in loading scenes. You can also switch weapons on the fly, which is brilliant, because sometimes I want to slice enemies apart with a katana and other times I want to shred them with Wolverine claws. Mm-mmm, do I love choices.
Then there are the times the game shifts gears and pays explicit homage to Hang-On and Space Harrier, and while playing, somewhere overhead I thought I felt the ghost of my Sega Master System float by. There are a lot of exhilarating moments like this in Bayonetta, spread throughout its ice levels, fire levels, forest levels and, oh my god, how fitting that a Sega game’s final areas take place in outer space? Sonic and Sparkster would be so proud if they weren’t so busy reviving their careers.
There are items hidden in the environment worth looking for, weapons to collect, items to mix together, big floating journals hanging around to read an optional backstory if you want, though you don’t have to, it’s not like the game’s goofball plot — something about witches fighting angels — is essential to the game. It’s not, really, at all. Though cutscenes are surprisingly longer than expected, especially in the beginning, they’re almost always entertaining anyway. If they’re not, they’re skippable. How nice is it that the story takes backseat to the playing?
Time will tell how often I go back to Bayonetta, which lures you back with the promise of shinier trophies and shorter completion times. But the rest of 2010 looks like a deluge of high-quality titles unseen since 1997 or 1998, and I worry Bayonetta will get lost in the confusion. It’s a polished, so-dumb-it’s-smart package that marries low (Bayonetta poledances at times) and high art (An action-flavored version of “Fly Me to the Moon” plays often on the soundtrack) in a candycoated confection, so it shouldn’t, NO, it doesn’t deserve to get lost among the likes of Final Fantasy XIII and Metroid: Other M.
And Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and Valkyria Chronicles 2 and Sonic the Hedgehog 4.
And Red Dead Redemption, Rocket Knight, Sin & Punishmnent 2.
…Super Mario Galaxy 2.
But who knows how those will turn out?! We know how Bayonetta turned out! It turned out great. So, thanks, Kamiya.