Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bayonetta Demo: First Impressions

It's difficult to have played through the Bayonetta demo a few times and give an accurate account of what the hell happened. It is a brief glimpse into an action game that can be generously described as off-kilter and less generously written off as indulgent. Certainly, the game delivers on the idiosyncracies upon which it has mounted considerable anticipation: gratuitous violence, a unique aesthetic, and a burlesque show of a title character. But does it reinvent the stylish hard action wheel or merely spin it really fast (and sexily)?
Let's start with something that has bugged me and will inevitably concern a few people: Bayonetta resembles Sarah Palin. Despite Jim Sterling's protestations, there doesn't seem to be any way around it. I don't blame this on the character designers as I'm sure preliminary models were already made by the time the Wasilla Express left the station last year. The fact of the matter is both of these barracudas wear their hair in silly buns with wind swept bangs and thick black-rimmed glasses. Additionally, from the brief intro in the demo (told through frames of a film reel), Bayonetta appears to have been cast out of a witch's coven and is seeking revenge on her former mentors. What a maverick!
The similarities make Bayonetta unnerving. Fortunately, the camera seems to be set far enough back from her that the comparison can be ignored. Anyone who has played Ninja Gaiden or any of the Devil May Cry games will be familiar with Bayonetta's camera. It does its best to capture the scale of the game's settings and enemies, both of which vary greatly even within the span of the demo. After an optional tutorial in a blood cell (seriously), the game jumps into a scene wherein Bayonetta is plummeting on top of a destroyed clocktower face towards the surface of a dark planet. Naturally, angel dogs attack her and some mythril serpents show up and destroy the clocktower bit by bit until it is revealed that this is a dream. Bayonetta awakes on a train to the announcement that they are arriving at her destination, a place that is somehow worse than the falling clocktower face. I'm assuming that the aesthetic of this area is what pervades the entire game. Like Devil May Cry, it's the twisted carnivalesque theme: architecture somewhere between a circus tent and Grand Central, checkered patterns where appropriate, and an endless succession of spacious foyers and round terraces. The entire demo seems to resemble something from Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland only with the brown palette we've become accustomed to this generation. Complementing the setting are its inhabitants, the neon demons that got lost on their way to Burning Man. Spindly creatures with oversized weapons and brightly accented accoutrement, simultaneously conspicuous and forgettable because of their garrish appearance. I don't mean to poo poo a departure from the gruff humanoid aliens with guns that pervade most action games, but I also don't think a commitment to "stylishness" should be carte blanche for a character designer to combine fuck all simply for bizarre effect.
I wouldn't spend so much time discussing Bayonetta's look if it didn't feel like this is a game developed around the fancies of its design team. Remove the otherworldly environs, the ethereal, even abstract character design, the torture moves, etc. and this is essentially Devil May Cry with the same camera problems and button-mashing gameplay. Combat controls are intuitive and there are an endless number of combos to administer on your foes, but the amount of activity on screen at any time makes it difficult to read the visual cues for timing your actions. Not that it necessarily matters, because most combinations of buttons will result in a devastating area attack that is both satisfying and confusing.
Because Bayonetta attempts to one-up its predecessors in every conceivable aspect, it also presented me with the first time I've felt simultaneously overpowered and underpowered as a player. While playing, I was supremely confident that my button combinations would succeed but less than confident that my volition as a player has anything to do with my performance. To be fair, the game more than likely calls for a more nuanced sense of rhthym from the player later on. But my money is on the game progressing towards more chaotic and bizarre scenarios, not necessarily more challenging ones. I'll pass.