Some years ago, an EA executive horrified me by stating that he considered good game-play to be 'thumb candy'. His usage of that term was pejorative; the elusive, golden specter we all chased was demeaned and derided, given no more value than flashy FMV, an eye-catching box, or the prominence of a particular store-shelf on which that box might be perched.
Thumb candy. That's like saying a book's plot and characters are of no more value than the cover.
This sat with me for many years as a psychic rallying-point, something with which I could mentally bash those from publishing and which I could use to distance myself from 'non-creatives'.
Now I'm somewhat at an impasse. I've discovered a game with great game-play and visuals to match, but with such risible, infantile wrapping that it actively detracts from the experience to such an extent that the experience is ruined.
I am, of course, talking of the introverted teen's wet-dream, Bayonetta.
I first came upon the game at the Igromir game show in Moscow. The show is so retro and booth-babe-fixated in nature that Bayonetta's lurid crotch-thrust poster didn't seem out of place. I assumed the game was some Z-lister's ill-conceived limited release and forgot all about it.
Then the hype began. This was a new breed of action hero, soon to wipe the floor with poor gay-icon Dante. This was an experience with game-play so sublime that Gods of war, and Ninja's gaiden quailed and quivered in its presence.
This was THE game to be playing, and to be seen to play.
So, out went the £40, in came the game to end all games. I put the disk in and began to play.
Very soon, I found myself doing a couple of odd things. I was wincing. I was rolling my eyes. After a while I realised that I was finding the whole thing incredibly embarrassing.
I'm no prude - I've had a fair few Giger calendars in my time, and can sit through The Crying Game with my parents, pointing to the screen at key moments, with no trace of a blush upon my cheek. But this was something so clumsily adolescent I swear I could detect the heady scent of PanOxyl Maximum Strength and Bacardi Breezers.
First of all, I'm genuinely in a quandry. This game's achievements - on paper - look exquisite: more than can be hoped for from a game of this type, and certainly more than is found in 99% of games on the shelves. For example:
- It looks great: extremely high resolution textures throughout, loads of particle effects, wonderful-looking terrain and a cohesive art style. Most uncommon.
- The frame-rate is so fast and smooth you have expect to have to pour espresso into the console to keep it going.
- The heroine's move-set is large. Really large. Beat-em-up large. And changes with each weapon you pick up.
- Enemies are well-designed, very imaginative, and beautifully rendered. The angels are as magnificent as they are gruesome, suffused with a Renaissance filigree that makes them quite identifiable and unique.
- The game tries not to bore you at any point, giving you time to practice moves during loads; a fantastic idea.
- You can try moves before you buy them. We tried doing this in Fable 1 and 2, and failed to get it into the game due to time constraints. Newsflash: it really does work.
- The experience is very varied. Incredibly so. At no point have I ever felt I was grinding my way through any part of the game. I am constantly surprised.
- Most importantly, the game feels good, solid and tactile. Years of tropes honed in beat-em-up-style games come out to play, and the use of Witch (bullet) time is well considered and better executed. 5 stars.
Christ in a bucket... where do I start? Many years ago, Freddy Krueger - Wes Craven's nightmare killer - was cool, terrifying and shadowy. Hollywood thought him too iconic, too commercial to remain in the shadows and had him turn into a tap-dancing psychopath with truly awful one-liners.
Bayonetta starts out that way. She is designed to appeal to young men who have never seen women in the real world. Ever. Not even in a supermarket.
She looks like Sarah Palin's porn-star sister, with a wit to match.
She is deeply unlikeable, sharing a vocal style with Batman and Robin's 'Poison Ivy' as played by Uma Thurman. Not a good choice. At no point does she utter anything that isn't a derisive sneer, delivered in a mock-English accent that would shame Dick Van Dyke.
Most of the time, Bayonetta wears a catsuit with pale gloves. Apart from when her clothes fall off. See, her clothes are made of her hair... sort of... sometimes. This could have been a cool idea, but it soon becomes clear it's only there so they can remove all her clothes when she performs certain moves - usually ones involving her spreading her legs and giving the surrounding baddies a lead shower. Unfortunately, they break this rule of 'big attacks use her hair' all over the place, making it far more blatant an attempt at sexual edginess than it needs to be.
She has guns on her feet. No idea how she fires them. On her feet. Um. It means she can kick really hard... and shoot at the same time. Yes, it's as silly as it sounds. I'm not the sort of guy who questions Elmer Fudd's motivations in Bugs Bunny cartoons; they're predicated on the idea of a talking rabbit, so all bets are off. But so many elements of Bayonetta seem the creative equivalent of Alan Partridge's 'Monkey Tennis': invention for the sake of invention or - more accurately in this case - puerile titillation.
The StoryThe story of an Umbran witch's attempt to find the gem of whatsit is quite literally... shit. Random, visually led, gold and gem-encrusted shit, maybe, but turdy nonetheless.
Imagine a group of men sitting around a table trying to imagine what a teenage boy would think was cool. Random scene follows random scene feebly pulled along by the quest for... um... see, I've forgotten already. Where was I? Oh, yes. Randomness. Like this:
"Hey - how about she shoots a bullet up the willy of Belgium's famous peeing boy?"
I know it's supposed to be audacious, 'cos, you know, she's a WOMAN and she's shooting a bullet into a COCK! Hee hee. See the imagery? See the metaphor? SEE IT? SEE IT, YOU NEANDERTHAL EUNUCH! SEE IT AND APPRECIATE OUR MUSCULAR, THRUSTING TAKE ON FEMINISM!
Her clothes fall off every 5 seconds, guys. Your 'girl power' schtick is somewhat lost in the cleavage and thrusting pudenda.
Oh, there are some other characters in there, too, but I literally couldn't tell you anything about them. I think they said some random things like: "Holy SHIT!" as something exploded nearby, or "What a day!" as their car was thrown through the wall of a... I dunno... Tesco Metro or something. I'm afraid I was so bored I did what I never ever do ever ever ever. I started skipping cinematics. Yup. Every single one. That bad.
Yeah, I know nobody cares about videogame stories. But... Bayonetta is supposed to be a character rather than a cipher, and thus the story is supposed to be there to make us connect with her. Unfortunately, the story and dialogue are so egregious that they'd come a poor second to an episode of Acorn Antiques re-cut by Tarantino.
The PacingI like Norwegian Black Metal. Not all of it. Not all of the time. Nor do I like the bands' politics. However, when I'm in a nihilistic mood 'Thorns' is just great. However, I have no desire for Thorns to be the sole musical form I listen to for the remainder of my life. See the analogy? No? Then I'll rant some more.
Bayonetta's pacing seems based on the single precept that something must explode at all times. If something's not exploding, someone will randomly throw something else into the environment that will explode. Are you standing on a bridge? It's going to explode. A Colosseum? Explodeyness awaits. How about a park? I'm afraid something will throw an oil truck into that park, it'll explode, then something bigger will pick up the entire park and explode it some more. Still sound cool?
The first time this sort of thing happens, you go: "Crikey - that's spectacular!" After the 50th time, you hear yourself mutter: "For heaven's sake. Just stop it."
When you strip back the explosions, you'll find strangely restrictive environments. Invisible walls abound and funnel you toward the next explosion at all times. There is no opportunity to explore, no reason not to run forward, and no sense that there was anything more to a level's creation than the developers' desire to blow something up in your face around the next corner.
It. Becomes. Tiresome.
If Bayonetta Were a...
If it were a film it'd be a porn version of Matrix Reloaded directed by Stephen Sommers*.
If it were music, it would be thrash metal produced by Stock, Aitken and Waterman.
If it were a book... nope... there would never be a book of this. It'd be empty and still somehow confusing. Marvel Comics' worst excesses are works of Shakespearean wit and subtlety next to this confusing mess.
Despite its obvious technical merit and the evident ability of the team who created it, I think the game lacks several things which I increasingly value over and above pure twitch game-play - as amazed as I am to say it.
Its characters, story, world and tone are gaudy, superficial and cynical. I know that doesn't count for much in a world where few companies can make a game that feels good to play, but the world has moved on. Surely we - as an industry - are capable of so much more than this.
I find myself wistfully looking back at the relative restraint, beauty and atmosphere of the first 'Devil May Cry' game, when Dante was a brooding, near-mute hero and the environments he roamed cohesive, explorable areas filled with a sense of menace. I long for the occasional moments of true tragedy in the first 'God of War' that made you feel that the guy you were steering around the Elysian fields might have depth, and I warmly remember the sense of achievement I felt when maneuvering the great concentric circles of a dungeon on the back of a striding giant into just the right alignment.
While I'd never agree with the guy who said that gameplay was thumb-candy it seems there's more to great games than RSI. There's heart. This game is a cynical, heartless bitch.
If only Bayonetta herself had that much character definition.
*Not even Michel Bay would touch it, and he's a tit.