Saturday, 6 August 2011

Summer Backlog: Bayonetta

I collect video games as a hobby; in a way, I do this more than actually play them. It's a bad habit, but not one unique to me - you wouldn't have to look far to find someone who hoards DVDs or books or music (I'm guilty of that last one too), but eventually you collect more than you consume, and you create the dreaded BACKLOG. The ever increasing mountain of media that you know you want to work through, but looks increasingly more daunting as you add more to the stack. How on earth will I juggle all these games around work or university? But since my summer holiday has started, I have the free time to work my way through some of my collection.
I started Bayonetta ages ago - last October when I moved in with a house mate who owned a 360. It was a game that I had followed from its announcement to its release - and I finally had the opportunity to take it for a spin. The game had pedigree - its production staff having worked on some of Capcom's greatest action titles of the PS2 era (Viewtiful Joe, Devil May Cry, Okami) - and Bayonetta promised to refine those sensibilities into the purest essence.

Bayonetta's premise is a rather ridiculous one. Bayonetta is an Umbran Witch, a clan of magic users forever waging war against the Lumen Sages for control of Heaven and Hell, all outside the notice of us ordinary humans. It seems Bayonetta is a key piece in the Lumen Sages gaining control; so they send an army of angels after her. The angels are monsters - all white porcelain and gold banding on the surface, but fleshy and hideous underneath their façade, ranging from lowly bird-like minions to two-headed dragons the size of cathedrals. Fortunately, Bayonetta can defend herself using her enchanted hair (which also comprises her clothing - so when the hair attacks her clothing gets skimpier. Oh dear), and pistols attached to her hands and feet. What this results in is some incredibly bizarre but very fluid combat.

Honestly, even though I wasn't very confident with the high-octane, no mercy action of the Devil May Cry series, I was able to take to Bayonetta with great ease - and caught a glimpse of that gameplay perfection they had touted. Bayonetta is a complicated game. Almost every button on the controller is a separate tool of destruction - controlling the titular witch as she caves in the faces of her angelic aggressors; and you're expected to know how to put all of them to best use, or die trying. And I did die - many, many times. I started the game on Normal difficulty, but that still required my full attention, learning both what I could do and how my foes functioned. When I 'got it', the game looked wondrous, my character weaving in and out of her enemies, dealing deadly blows left and right. Though more often than not, I faltered, leading to a pummelling, and a trip to the Game Over screen.

Even though my death count was steadily racking up, the game just kept me coming back for more. Even if the combat wasn't my forte; the game's visual set pieces - from a city in France being destroyed by waves of lava, to running up and down the sides of a moon-lit tower, to being flung through the air, fighting atop a slab of pavement wrenched from the earth. Every location looked and sounded stunning; overriding whatever frustration I had regarding my failures.

That was until the first Difficulty Spike. About halfway through, the game starts throws the meanest enemies in the game at you, Grace and Glory. At that time, I was in no way ready to take these guys on - my tactics were sloppy and my reaction speed just too slow. 15 deaths later and I had resigned. Too headstrong just turn the game down to easy and continue - I left the game in the dust and went to other endeavours.

Fast-forward to this summer, where I'm talking with fellow gamer Aryn, and I find out that he'd long ago beaten Bayonetta - even on Hard! "Show me your ways, oh teacher!" I said, and we sat down to play the game together. The experience drastically improved. Having not played for months my skills were rusty - the stopping point from before was no easier, but with advice and encouragement I got beyond that; and got to see the meat of the game.

While the detailed combat system is the crux of the game, it's broken up by some rather welcome changes in gameplay styles, echoing classic games in Sega's history. Ploughing down an motorway on a motorcycle echoes Super Hang-On, and riding on a commandeered torpedo, shooting down enemies amusingly references Space Harrier (along with some nauseating barrel-rolling that definitely wasn't in the Sega Mega Drive original).

As I neared the end of the game, I did a little research into the production of the game, and found something interesting, but a bit worrying. The game's director, Hideki Kamiya was the man responsible for Bayonetta's 'lethal sexiness' character design. It's presence was original and very well integrated, but at times this decision felt like something far less than feminism. Certain scenes (thankfully never story or gameplay-related) dropped all pretence of capability and class, and went straight for the Male Gaze. It never felt 'sexy', just awkward. If I was living with my parents or had a girl as a house mate, I could see myself as being too embarrassed to play Bayonetta.

It's a damn shame that such a wonderfully crafted game, the try to best example of the Hack 'n' Slash genre, is marred by something so objectifying and honestly rather sad. As I finished off the game's final boss and played through the ending sequence, I was elated to have finished such a difficult game, and wowed by the awesome stylishness of the ending sequence. Even the start of the credits had bonus battles to take on; but then my reward for finishing the game was poledancing. Sigh.

Bayonetta is entirely worth a play for anyone who likes action games, and even those who aren't confident with the genre can burn through the game on Easy – but I can't help but feel bad about promoting something with such rampant sexism in its design.

This article can also be found at The Yorker.

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