I have a game review due next week, and two games to pick from sitting on my credenza: Bayonetta and Darksiders. And it only took a few hours of Bayonetta to convince me that Darksiders, still unplayed, is the game I should review, for the simple fact I just wasn’t sure what to say about Hideki Kamiya’s hair-whipping, gun-wielding witch. Or if there’s anything to say at all.
That’s not entirely true: I did have one thought about it right off the bat: a somewhat lame crack that if Tomonobu Itagaki and Lady Gaga collaborated on a game, you’d end up with Bayonetta. But that was it; I had nowhere to go after that. It just doesn’t feel like Bayonetta has much to chew on – not meat or gristle - and certainly not for a few hundred words, especially since my time with it left me mostly apathetic and, as a result, a little befuddled.
Part of that befuddlement stems from the mountain of critical praise Bayonetta has amassed, particularly of the action; reading it I feel like the game is being measured by a yardstick I don't own, or even understand the units of. For example:
“With the fluidity and flexibility of its fighting engine, innovative use of bullet time and wall-walking mechanics, and the competitive online scoring system that is weaved into its very fabric, Bayonetta isn't so much a sister to other combat-oriented action games as it is an evolution of them.” (Lark Anderson, GameSpot, Score: 9 out of 10)
“Kamiya and his team have created an action masterpiece.” (Ryan Clements, IGN, Score: 9.5 out of 10)
Even my beloved Edge weighed in with an opening sentence that is only properly read aloud with a feeling of hushed, grave awe:
“Bayonetta is nearly flawless.” (No byline, Edge #209, Score: 10 out of 10)
Really? It's that great?
I'm not saying Bayonetta's bad, only that I'm not sure what makes it so much more impressive than the Ninja Gaidens and God of Wars of the world, and what nuances set it apart. Because frankly I had trouble detecting any nuance in Bayonetta at all; the game's style is so deafening, any substance it might have is reduced to a droning white noise in the background. But maybe my palate isn’t sophisticated enough to distinguish a Bayonetta from a Devil May Cry. They’re all Rieslings to me.
Is an item creation system “nuance”? Is that an example of a twist Bayonetta adds to the formula, as a few of these reviews argue? Because to me it seems gimmicky, and misplaced. Synthesis systems that involve hoarding useless items to combine into somewhat-less-useless items seem more appropriate for RPGs and adventure titles (or at least less jarringly out of place). In between skirmishes with the denizens of heaven and hell, it feels odd to look at my inventory, trying to decide what lollipop recipe is the best use of my unicorn horns.
Or more cynically, how much of the praise is due to so many writers who can’t help but root for critical darling Kamiya, the man behind a couple titles notable for the critical acclaim and popular indifference they got*, unceremoniously cast out by his corporate backers and trying to make his way as a small developer? Can some of Bayonetta’s glowing reviews be interpreted as populist activism? One tenuously-employed specialist showing solidarity to another in the form of a 10?
That might be a stretch. But stranger things have happened – like Bayonetta, certainly one of the stranger games I’ve played recently. But more than strange it’s specific, every inch of it seemingly tuned for a particular sort of gamer. Not good or bad so much as narrow.
As genres get more specialized, their tropes and mechanics get distilled over and over until only the truly devoted enthusiast can stomach the syrupy brew that dribbles out. Some game series - even entire genres - start to spiral into this damning perfection, resulting in titles that are so narrowly calibrated that they create fans of a specific game rather than a genre or even video games in general. Metal Gear Solid is one only the faithful can tolerate anymore (much less give a shit about), and arguably the entire genre of first-person shooters constantly walks a precarious line between mainstream accessibility and reckless obfuscation.
I don’t think Bayonetta is so niche that it can only be appreciated by Bayonetta fans, whose favorite games are Bayonetta. It’s not a monogenre like Metal Gear Solid; it occupies a legitimate genre with other titles. It’s the genre itself that seems to be drifting down the damned perfection path, because – to my eyes, anyway – its constituents are all starting to look the same… aside from the occasional black catsuit or glimpse of tush.
Anyway: look for my review of Darksiders next week.
*: Viewtiful Joe and Okami – both of which, for the record, I enjoyed much more than Bayonetta.