Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Developer: Platinum Games
Bayonetta is essentially a sequel masquerading as an original game. It's not a "nice first attempt." It's not short. It's not a foundation lacking features and variety and whatever else reviewers like to complain about. It has the kind of heft usually reserved for the second or third game in a franchise, and deserves to sit next to Assassin's Creed 2 and Uncharted 2 rather than their predecessors.
That may sound like I'm heaping praise on Bayonetta -- and to a degree, I am -- but the footnote here is that it was developed by some of the people that created the original Devil May Cry, including director Hideki Kamiya, so these guys weren't exactly starting from scratch. And it shows: Bayonetta feels much more like a sequel or a side story in the Devil May Cry universe than I expected it to when I started playing, even though the two officially have nothing to do with each other.
I could fill an entire review pointing out connections between the two, but from the obvious big picture ideas like how both are flashy, fluid, ridiculous action games that mix melee weapons with gunplay, to the smaller details like how certain enemy designs are eerily familiar, both exist within a very specific sub-niche of the third-person action genre -- one too lighthearted for games like Ninja Gaiden and God of War.
All that praise heaping up top, though, doesn't come from Bayonetta doing a good job mimicking Devil May Cry, but from what it does on top of that. Most notably: the nearly perfect controls/mechanics and the way almost everything in the game makes sense thanks to the ridiculous main character (named "Bayonetta").
Let's start with that character, who you probably see scattered all over the page right now in screenshots and video clips. She's an abnormally skinny witch with an abnormally large ass whose hair covers her body to create a skintight outfit. She walks like a model, births butterflies every time she jumps, can transform into a panther, and sometimes turns her hair into giant enemy-chewing monsters -- which, conveniently enough, shows her off in a nearly naked state.
It's hard to tell at times whether the developers are trying to play her for laughs or whether they want players to genuinely be attracted to her, but because they decided to go in this direction, they can get away with things that would seem out of place in other games. It's a gift from the story to the gameplay variety, essentially, since Bayonetta doesn't have to worry about about maintaining a consistent realistic or semi-realistic world. If it's something a crazy hair-transforming, motorcycle-riding, missile-surfing witch would do, in fits here. You don't see a Taunt button in very many single-player games, after all.
Ultimately, though, it's Bayonetta's controls that shine above everything else on this page. I can't think of another character-based game I've played that responds as quickly or transitions as smoothly between all its different options. Chances are, if you can think of something that could be done to make action game controls more user friendly, Platinum Games has done that here. Within a few seconds, you can easily run, morph into a panther to run faster, leap and double jump quite a long distance, attack with multiple combos in midair, then land, swap weapons on the fly, and dodge an attack at the last second to initiate the game's Witch Time mode.
Witch Time is worthy of calling attention to on its own, since I find it to be one of the best design choices in the game. The idea here is if you press the evade button at the last split-second before an enemy attacks you (the same timing you would use to parry attacks in other games), the screen turns blue and everything around you slows down for a few seconds, allowing you to spam whatever combos you can pull off. Unlike Bullet Time in Max Payne or similar features in most other games, Witch Time occurs at the exact moment you pull off a proper evade, and you can do it as often as you can pull it off. It's addicting, suits Bayonetta as a character since it's another way she can toy with her enemies, and significantly changes the combat pacing in the game since there's a greater risk/reward setup for players who choose to pull it off. After using the Right trigger/R2 button to evade with such fluid motion, I went back to using the Right analog stick to roll out of the way in God of War Collection, and evading there felt stiff and outdated.
Everything mentioned above is pretty easy to do at a second's notice, and the game encourages you to dart around a lot too -- even when an enemy hits you, your reaction animations usually keep you in motion, so don't expect many breaks while you're flattened on the ground like you see in other action games.
In fact, Bayonetta only really slows down in cut-scenes, which are at times surprisingly lengthy. I'd prefer a bit less exposition, but that's a minor complaint, and you can skip cut-scenes if you choose.
A somewhat larger complaint is that you fight some of the same enemies, minibosses, and proper bosses multiple times in the game, to the point where a few times when I was playing, I got déjà vu and felt like I was repeating sections I had already finished. For the most part, these aren't terribly difficult, and they don't feel like they're included to cover up an otherwise short game -- Bayonetta would be a satisfying 10-hour game if the developers cut down the repeated mini-boss and boss fights -- but they give me another reason to compare the game to Devil May Cry (though to be fair, this has been a much bigger issue in the Devil May Cry series than it is in Bayonetta).
So sure, if you look hard enough you can pick at occasional cobwebs from the Devil May Cry school of design, but really, this is as good as action games get. It controls like a dream, is extremely well balanced (not terribly difficult on Normal and incredibly challenging on Hard), has tons of variety, features great retro game references, contains tons of unlockables and challenges to keep you busy after you finish the story, and when it comes down to it, is the best game Sega has published in years.