There are a lot of words that could be used to describe Bayonetta, the new action game from PlatinumGames, but the phrase I keep finding myself going back to is “fucking ridiculous.” Before you call the expletive unnecessary, consider the titular lead character. Bayonetta is a roughly 10-foot-tall amazonian librarian-slash-dominatrix with a posh, saucy English accent dressed in a skintight outfit made of her own hair. She spends most of her time luring angels out of heaven so she can murder them using her sexy stripper dance moves and her guns, two of which are attached to the back of her stiletto heels. Imagine Ulala with a mean streak in skintight black leather, and you're almost there. There's a permeating hypersexuality here that could be derided as being deeply misogynistic just as easily as it could be hailed as a beacon of post-feminist self-actualization, except that the absurdity in Bayonetta is so bone-deep that it doesn't really matter one way or another. What matters is that Bayonetta is an action game bursting at the seams with enthusiasm, a game that celebrates Japanese game conventions--with ample nods to both Sega's and Capcom's back-catalogs in particular--and then pushes them to their breaking point. Even if you don't like what it's doing, you kind of have to respect the way it does it.
The action in Bayonetta takes the baton from games like Devil May Cry. It then hurls that baton off a cliff, tears off all its clothes, and then jumps after the baton, laughing maniacally the entire time. Primarily using a punch and a kick button, with the occasional swirl of the analog stick for more advanced moves, you'll produce a nearly infinite string of consistently outlandish combos, the best of which turn Bayonetta's hair-suit into gigantic fists, feet, or monsters that reduce your enemies to red paste. These moves also temporarily remove strategic bits of Bayonetta's outfit, furthering the game's peculiar stripper theme. Your guns are good for ranged attacks and generally just add to the fun, much like the torturous finishing moves you can perform that manifest iron maidens and guillotines for you to punish your foes with. Also key to the experience is Witch Time, which activates automatically when you dodge an enemy's attack at the last possible moment, and momentarily slows everything else in the world to a crawl. Usually Witch Time just serves to give you the advantage in a fight, though you'll occasionally need it to progress past certain obstacles. There are also a few fights that take place entirely in Witch Time, which add another layer of slow-motion chaos to the already overwhelming action.
Despite how manic the fights can get, Bayonetta is surprisingly approachable, though don't take that as a euphemism for “easy.” As similar as it is to your Devil May Crys or your Ninja Gaidens, Bayonetta rewards good timing more than it does rote combo memorization, making it a less technically demanding experience without shorting you on the difficulty. It definitely scolds you for dying, putting a permanent mark on your record that has an adverse effect on your overall score, but it also gives you the tools to avoid it. You'll gain access to additional weapons like a katana and alternate guns as you progress, and you'll also collect halos (which look suspiciously like the kinds of rings Sonic the Hedgehog can't seem to get enough of) that you can spend on new moves and various lollipops that restore health, make you temporarily invincible, or give your attacks more punch. Yup, Bayonetta's health item is a lollipop. Deal with it. Additionally, each chapter wraps up with a weird little shooting gallery game where you can earn more items and halos. You'll also gather colored regents that you can combine into the same stuff that you find in the shop, though I found this stuff to be relatively rare, and the menu interface for the whole process is kind of confusing.
The game breaks up the rhythms of group fights and multi-life-bar-bearing boss encounters with big, amped-up homages to Sega arcade classics like Hang-On and Space Harrier. They're both awesome sequences, some of the game's most memorable, but they're just the most obvious examples of Bayonetta's almost subconscious reverence for classic Japanese game culture. Mostly, though, Bayonetta keeps you on your toes by constantly pushing just how over-the-top everything about it is. You're just as likely to fight a freaky two-headed dragon while half-naked on the side of a church that's spinning through space as you are on terra firma. When that's your standard, it's possible for just about anything to happen, and in Bayonetta, it usually does.
Visually, Bayonetta is defined by a constant state of information overload. In the rare moments that the camera's not voyeuristically twirling around Bayonetta's suggestively gyrating figure as she smashes a cherub-faced angel-monster, you can actually appreciate the incredible detail on Bayonetta herself, the dizzying complexity of the intricately choreographed dance-fight sequences, the unsettling enemy designs that graft familiar angelic imagery and bits of Renaissance marble onto a menagerie of hideously meaty bird-creatures and golems. There's a lot of craft in Bayonetta's whole rococo steampunk aesthetic, but it's just as impressive that the game performs so well when it's awash in layer upon layer of crazy effects, while all of it moves at just below the speed of light. It can be a transcendental experience, if it doesn't give you a splitting headache.
There's a big, crazy, reality-threatening story in Bayonetta, but it's so inscrutable that it's really not worth trying to sum up here. That doesn't stop the game from spending an inordinate amount of time dwelling on prophecies, the agents of heaven and hell, forgotten identities, parallel planes of existence, misplaced revenge fantasies, and epoch-spanning conspiracies. I'd admonish Bayonetta for its lengthy, corny, dialog-heavy cutscenes, but it kind of emphasizes just how Japanese this game is. Plus, the oddly staged dialog scenes are consistently paired with some of the most outrageous cinematics I've seen in any game, the kinds of unbelievable moments that whip right past awesome on their way to hilarity. There are plenty of occasions where you'll have to quick-time your way through a cinematic, but often they're so intense that you'll be grateful when you can focus your energies on keeping up with just what in the holy hot hell is going on.
Bayonetta even sounds crazy. Giant Bomb's own Jeff Gerstmann rather adroitly described Bayonetta's sound design as akin to being on the chaotic floor at the Tokyo Game Show--just a cacophony of battle cries, gunshots, and weapon clashes with a layer of Japanese vocal pop idol music, soaring orchestral chanting, and synthy sushi-bar jazz underneath. While the words they are saying are borderline gibberish, the voice work is actually pretty good, with Bayonetta in particular benefiting from the assertiveness of her speech.
Unfortunately, most of the kind words I have for Bayonetta are reserved for the Xbox 360 version, as the PlayStation 3 version suffers from crippling performance issues. Load times are bad, even popping up when you're simply cycling through options on your inventory menus, but what really kills it is the way the game stutters and chops through the action, dropping frames and bogging down at an almost constant rate. In another, significantly less intense game, it's something I might be able to let slide. But Bayonetta's gameplay, and even its cinematics, put such a premium on speed and precision that the experience on the PlayStation 3 is thoroughly compromised. Let me be totally clear here: if you have the option between the two consoles, consider the PlayStation 3 version to be nonexistent. If the PS3 is your only option, well, proceed with significant caution, or hitch your hopes on the notion that Sega might, someday, release a patch to address these issues.
For as many different games as Bayonetta specifically recalls, there's really nothing quite like it. It carries a certain amount of the same technical appeal as Devil May Cry, while marrying it with the deliberate quirk of something like No More Heroes. It's definitely going to be a divisive game for many, but whether you like it or not, I have a feeling that the developers made exactly the game they wanted to.