First impressions can count for everything, and when, within moments of beginning Bayonetta, a 10-foot tall librarian with butterfly wings decked out in horn-rimmed glasses and low-cut skintight S&M gear made entirely of hair explodes out of a hot nun to cut and shoot a bloody swathe of destruction through an entire army of hideous fallen angels, you know you're in for something... well, pardon my French, but absolutely batshit insane comes to mind - and that's putting it lightly.
It only gets weirder. Bayonetta will take you around 8 hours to complete on the standard difficulty setting, and it's 8 hours of incredibly satisfying hack-and-slash character action - this is a fine game, no doubt about it - but it'll be a real struggle to remember anything about it short of the unalienable fact that this has to be the craziest thing to have come out of Japan in years; and surely that's saying something. What exists in my memory, in place of the experience of actually playing Platinum Games' latest, is a haze of style, titillation and J-pop.
I seem to recall, vaguely, as if through a drug-addled fog, that Bayonetta has a story. No idea what that might have been, though. There were certainly some cut-scenes, but they're memorable mostly for their choreography, their swaggering self-confidence. I know Bayonetta fought some monsters, and that she likes lollipops. There was definitely a little girl with an English accent, and a man with such a long scarf you'd think he'd be tripping up all over the place - but no. Was there a war between heaven and hell? Who can say.
The dearth of storytelling is of no real consequence, in any event. As was the case with its clearest antecedent, Devil May Cry, which had Dante and pizza where Bayonetta has the titular giantess and a red lollipop, this isn't a game you'll play for some carefully crafted narrative. In fact, the two games share more than that single commonality. For one thing, they each emerge from the baffling imagination of Hideki Kamiya, the highly regarded director of Okami, Resident Evil 2 and Viewtiful Joe. The mechanics of moment-to-moment gameplay in both, which is to say combo-driven button mashing, are very much alike. You have a light attack, a heavy attack and foot-mounted guns. Yes, Bayonetta has guns on her shoes. Why wouldn't she?
There are literally hundreds of combos for you to execute, a vast enough array of moves that even the most amateurish player will feel like a professional, not to mention a unique set of attacks specific to each of the weapons you collect throughout your journey, from a katana to new guns to mittens with vicious blades embedded in them. As you collect rings left over from the last abortive Sonic retread in a neat heads-up to Platinum Games' publisher SEGA, you're able to upgrade each of your armaments, as well as buy special techniques, powerful accessories and of course, new costumes to dress Bayonetta up in.
I've danced around the issue thus far, but though Bayonetta is a nearly flawless action game, it is far from an original one. Its only real claim to distinction, in fact, is its lavish design, and while the vast majority of the characters, environments and assets are a real pleasure to behold, you'll spend the larger part of your time with the game staring at Bayonetta herself - and though I don't doubt she'll appeal to a certain segment of the audience, her in-your-face hypersexuality will be a divisive issue indeed. Think the lovechild of Lara Croft and Dante, genetically modified for your supposed pleasure.
Ultimately, she's a lurid hybrid of every fantasy and fetish Kamiya could dream up. The camera will often frame her rear or her rack rather than her face. On the 360, the left bumper - your so-called "taunt" button - will have Bayonetta grab her crotch, shake her out-of-proportion booty and give voice to one innuendo or another in her saucy Queen's English. Pull off a particularly complex combo and your reward is a near-as-dammit naked lady. At least there's a sense of humour to go with all the sex, but even then, the laughs are very, very Japanese, and rarely translate well.
In truth, I'm probably not far from the target market of Bayonetta myself, but even for me, a red-blooded young male with a total thing for librarians, it's a bit much. As like as not, women everywhere will be offended, and men, whether or not they enjoy the virtual lap-dance on some level, will be offended on their behalf. It's outright objectification and it does not sit well with me, for one.
If you can get past the offensive presentation, however, there's a lot about Bayonetta to love. The actual game beneath all the misguided gloss is solid, off-the-wall crazy through and through, short of a few clunky, unnecessary vehicle sequences. The visuals, too, are excellent, the audio bombastic and suitably schizophrenic. Honestly, I'd recommend nearly every aspect of Bayonetta without question - short of Bayonetta herself. And in a character action game, that's a real problem.