Just another place for one anime fan to put his thoughts.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Thoughts on Bayonetta

After playing 50-some odd hours of Bayonetta, I consider it to be the best 3D action game I've played. What made it succeed and excel as a a combat game was that it was a combination of DMC's combos and Ninja Gaiden's combat, only hurt by a dash of God's of War's QTEs mixed in.

Bayonetta's combat has been rightly compared to that of DMC. It has the same R1 lock-on mechanism, same type of gun+melee combat style, same lack of blocking. The same insane types of weapons (ice skates, rocket launcher tonfas, and shotgun nunchucks being the craziest in my opinion), but even more than in any DMC game. Of course, given that Kamiya was the CREATOR of DMC, this should come as no surprise.

And Bayonetta inherits the former series's excellent freestyle combo system. It's certainly a little more strict than DMC, but there are plenty of roll-cancels to be had, and like the DMCs after 2, there is mid-combo weapon switching. The weapons can be mixed and matched quite freely, and they all work together well. Furthermore, keeping combos going, being creative, taunting your enemies, executing perfectly timed dodges and parries are appropriately rewarded both in combat and in the form of points and currency.

These are the attributes that made the DMC series (DMC3 and 4 specifically) so great. At the same time, though, Bayonetta improves upon that system with a deeper combat mechanic. Much has been said about its Witch Time mechanic, a simple way of integrating bullet time into the combat. But I don't consider that mechanic to be that big a deal. Rather, what made the combat that much more enjoyable for me was the Ninja Gaiden-esque dial-a-combo system.

Like in the NG games, pressing a certain sequence of buttons out of 2 (heavy/weak in NG, arms/legs in Bayonetta) initiate specific combos. The power of this in the NG games was that this allowed for a great varied number of moves. While DMC gave you a medium-sized set of moves you could chain freely, NG gave you a huge number of moves that could only be accessed through certain rigid combos.

And while Bayonetta has this large variety of moves, it still keeps the user free to modify the combo in real-time. The dodge-offset mechanic, which allows Bayonetta to continue from the middle of a combo after a dodge, is one such example. Another is how holding down the attack button in each hit affects or prolongs the duration of the hit.

The enemies of Bayonetta also seem to combine the best parts of DMC and NG. Like DMC, the enemies are varied in size and style. Besides the armed humanoids that make up the majority of the enemies, there are multiple flying enemies and a couple quadrupeds. The bosses usually try to emphasize the scale too much (most of the bosses are gigantic and require multiple phases, including having Bayonetta scale them during the fight), but the best boss by far is Jeanne, who is Bayonetta's foil. You encounter her 4 times throughout the game, reminiscent of the 3 Nero Angelo and 3 Vergil fights in DMC1 and DMC3, respectively.

But unlike in DMC games, these enemies are generally very aggressive, coming at you constantly. Each usually have a large arsenal of attacks they can use, both long and short ranged. In this way, they keep you on your toes much like the enemies in Ninja Gaiden do.

In short, Bayonetta is a great combination of the best parts of DMC and NG, the 2 flat-out best crazy action game series out there.

It's not without its faults, though. For one, it also apes some mechanics from God of War, in the form of Quick Time Events (QTEs). QTEs exist both in-combat in the form of torture attacks or boss-specific attacks/counters, and within cut scenes. QTEs are fundamentally flawed because they strip away the deep, interesting combat system and replace it with a button-pressing DDR minigame. The sole reason for QTEs is that they allow the characters to do things that presumably can't be integrated into the combat system itself.

But is that true? If you look at DMC4 and NG2, both games found ways to simulate QTEs while integrating them seamlessly into the combat system. In DMC4, it was the Devil Bringer, which could have Nero perform long and fairly elaborate moves. Some could also be changed by button presses, again, without having the buttons flashing on screen. In Ninja Gaiden 2, it was the Obliteration Technique. These were also elaborate moves, modulated by what weapon Ryu had equipped, what enemy he was facing, which limb of the enemy had been cut off, and whether the OT was triggered while pressing forward or not. In both games, these complex almost-QTEs could be used against both regular enemies and bosses. No flashing buttons required.

Bayonetta's analog of the Devil Bringer and Obliteration Techniques is the Torture Attack. It requires that she have a full line of magic filled up to use, and can be triggered at any time against pretty much any enemy. They're somewhat context sensitive, depending on whether the enemy is knocked down, on the ground, or in the air, as well as which direction the enemy is facing. They involve Bayonetta summoning some torture device (or in one case, a very large 16ton weight) and using it against the enemy. They can be complete in just a couple seconds or take almost 10 seconds to finish.

There are a couple problems here. The first is that whenever you can do a TA, the buttons required for them (Y and B in the 360, Triangle and Circle on PS3) appear right in the bottom middle of the screen. The second is that once it's initiated, a somewhat arbitrary button starts flashing rapidly, telling you to start mashing on it. Neither of these is necessary. The player knows if he can use a TA or not, just by how many magic orbs are filled out and which enemy he's facing. The player knows that he needs to mash some button (there's no reason it should be different for different TAs) over and over again. These flashing displays serve more as distractions than reminders. They're just insulting to your intelligence and turn what could've been a good in-game mechanic to a dumb button-matching/mashing minigame.

And the rules change for bosses. Against bosses, they're true QTEs, happening at unique moments (ie when their health is down to a certain amount) or when they trigger a certain attack. There's no reason the cues for these attacks couldn't have been integrated more naturally into the boss's behavior. For example, Bayonetta has a great countering mechanism - why not use that to initiate boss-specific counters instead of flashing buttons at you?

There's also no correlation with how much magic Bayonetta has. Like TAs, they require mashing a semi-arbitrary button (there's a loose connection - X for hair attacks, Y for punch attacks, B for kick attacks - but they're chosen for you) over and over again. QTEs also happen in cut scenes at somewhat random places - there's no real consistency there, so most likely, the first time around, you'll miss it.

Besides the QTEs, the other weaknesses of Bayonetta are the two driving/flying sections and the two bullet-aiming sections of the game. They're just not fun, and the last bullet-aiming section is horribly designed and ruin the great climactic fight that ends the game.

The common thread with these weaknesses is that they take you away from the combat. When Bayonetta is working right, it's downright sublime, having you go from one combat encounter to another with some very light platforming. But seemingly in an effort to "break up the pacing" or "add variety," Platinum Games added these inane and sometimes downright horrendous parts to the game.

But Bayonetta is far from unique in this regard among 3D combat games. The DMC games have far too many horrible platforming sequences. The Ninja Gaiden games also suffer from bad platforming, as well as those projectile attack sections in NG2. And God of War's just a disaster, because even the combat itself is unfun, and it mixes it with bad platforming/puzzle solving. It's just a shame that a game with such a great combat engine, the best in its class, is taken down a notch by losing its focus from it. I felt the same way when I first played NG2, which is the game I would say has the second-best combat system.

All in all, I'm loving Bayonetta, planning on spending another 50 hours on it, getting more Platinum rankings (I've already completed it for Normal), probably playing through all of it as Jeanne. Its strengths outstrip those of any other game in its genre, and it manages to minimize its weaknesses. I didn't go into the story at all, because I don't consider story to be at all important in a game like this. Sure, DMC3 had a pretty good story and good characters, but other games in the genre, including DMC1, DMC4, both Ninja Gaidens, and God of War have stories ranging from uninspired to downright incomprehensible. They just serve as excuses to go from one combat encounter to another, and that's all they need to do. I will say that there are definitely some crazy fun cut scenes, but nothing approaching the kind of stuff we saw in DMC3.

Likewise, I don't have much to say about Bayonetta's character. She's just an avatar for holding weapons and performing moves as far as I'm concerned; she could be a wireframe model for all I care. I will say that she may be the most mature depiction of a hyper-sexualized female character in video games, though.

Oh, and I played both the PS3 (import) and XBox360 versions of the game. The stories you hear about the difference between the two is true. It takes 4 seconds to get to the pause screen in the PS3 version, and every loading screen takes at least twice as long. And the graphics and framerate are much worse. Get the XBox360 version if you can.

(images were from IGN - clicking on them takes you to a bigger version of the image on IGN's site).

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