Bayonetta - Xbox 360
We have a theory about how Bayonetta came about. Sure, the obvious line is that it's a game by Hideki Kamiya of Devil May Cry fame, and the natural development of his work on the much-loved action game series, but we prefer to think of it like this. Take a dozen 13-year-old boys, feed them junk food and energy drinks, then bombard them with a steady stream of Ninja Gaiden games, Devil May Cry, soft porn, lounge music, heavy metal and Japanese anime. After a month or two, ask them to design the ultimate video game. Bayonetta, or something like it, would be the result.
Bayonetta is shockingly bloodthirsty, remarkably violent, pitifully juvenile and more obsessed with the wobbly regions of the female form than any game since Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball 2. Stylistically, it makes Michael Bay's entire cinematic output look restrained. Narratively speaking, it's an impenetrable mess. As grown, vaguely literate adults of some refined taste we should probably hate it. Instead, we think it's completely and utterly phenomenal.
This is the sort of game where the heroine is a witch who wanders around with pistols built into her 6-inch stilettos in a pseudo-leather catsuit composed entirely of her own hair. It's the sort of game where you can pull the claws off some gigantic beast then use them to batter its allies into oblivion, or finish off a foe by (a) booting them into an iron maiden then (b) pummelling a button to make sure it hurts. In Bayonetta, special attacks actually involve the participation of our heroine's hair/costume, meaning that the more combos you dish out, the closer she gets to near-nudity. Our inner 13-year-old tells me that this is genius.
We'll spare you the details of the plot. Bayonetta stems from a long-lost clan of witches, but she doesn't seem to know quite who or what she is. To keep the legions of hell off her back she's involved in a constant war against the celestial "angels", and there's also some conspiracy going on to do with the witches, a similarly long-lost clan of sages, and some kind of "creator" deity.
Frankly, you don't really need to understand any of it. Just enjoy the stylish cutscenes, try not to cringe too much at the dialogue, and manoeuvre Bayonetta from a third-person perspective through the scenery from one big scrap to the next, with the odd bit of platforming and puzzle-solving along the way. If you've played Devil May Cry, God of War or Ninja Gaiden before, you know the drill.
A game like this is only as good as its combat system, but here Bayonetta excels. Three buttons handle guns, melee weapons and kick attacks, while the right trigger can be used to dodge incoming blows and ranged attacks. As in most action games moves can be strung together to form brutal combos, but where Bayonetta gets clever is in the timing. Dodge an attack at the last possible second and the game slips into "witch time", slowing down the action so that Bayonetta can lay into her foes while they're exposed.
Keep the attacks and combos flowing, and she can also store up energy for a magic torture combo, unleashing guillotines, spiked wheels, iron maidens and other nasty-looking medieval instruments upon her foes. Yet, brutal and fast-paced as the combat is, it's also surprisingly tactical. Duos or groups of tougher enemies can be murderously difficult, making it essential that you move fast, divide and conquer.
Bayonetta also delivers when it comes to two other pillars of the action genre - big weapons and intimidating foes. Whether you're wielding pistols, swords, gigantic chainsaw blades or glowing, mystic claws you'll find you've got impressively destructive tools at your disposal, and you'll need them to slash and tear your way through a consistently imaginative set of angelic warriors and beasts that keep on asking you to up your game. Let's make no bones about it - on the normal difficulty level Bayonetta can be tough, but it rarely makes the old Ninja Gaiden mistake of making you feel that the fight is impossible. There's always a sense that if you can just tighten up your timing and find the right approach, you will win through. Victory is always the sweeter because you've had to work for it.
Any combat-heavy action game has the potential to get repetitive, but Bayonetta rarely makes you feel like you're doing the same-old, same-old. What puzzle elements there are are well handled, and the game also has a knack of drip feeding new skills and magic abilities just when things show signs of growing stale. The pacing, meanwhile, is nigh-on perfect.
Most of all, however, Bayonetta is spectacular. Whether you're stalking angels through the sun-dappled streets of a fictional European city or fighting your way through storm-blown ancient ruins, the scenery is consistently stunning. Character and creature animation is superb, and the levels of detail outstanding. Moments that would be the climactic set-piece of a level in a lesser game are carelessly thrown in halfway through, and huge, multi-stage boss battles, often taking place in arenas that are rent asunder before your very eyes, are just par for the course. Sure, all this comes at a cost - there are too many sudden death moments and quick-time events for our liking - but as big, barnstorming thrill-ride games go, Bayonetta takes some beating.
Nonsense it might be, but Bayonetta takes the Devil May Cry/God of War school of action game to a whole new level of intensity. Whatever you think of the style, the "sexy ladies" angle and the story, there's no denying the sheer brilliance of its gameplay and imagination. Ladies and gentlemen, a star is born.