Friday, December 9, 2011

Investigating the execution of Bayonetta and Action Adaptation

There are four action games that I hold in the highest regard: Muramasa: The Demon Blade, Bayonetta, Vanquish, and Viewtiful Joe. Out of all of these games, I always find myself contemplating which I enjoy the most; one would think I'd easily pick Bayonetta, but the one that usually comes out on top is Muramasa, and the reason for this comes down to one factor: execution.

What makes the best action games so enjoyable and timeless is how they test the player. Unlike other genres where challenge comes from simply figuring out strategies, level grinding, or doing one thing in a very certain way; action games challenge the player to learn and adapt to certain situations in order to overcome them. This flow of being challenged, learning, and adapting is what gives action games their unique level of satisfaction that few other genres replicate, and if they do, it's rarely in such a challenging fashion. It's this specific process, that I'll simply call action adaptation, and the execution there-of that makes the four action games mentioned above so endearing to me; there are other factors, of course, but every strong action game needs this factor of action adaptation to be truly satisfying, in my opinion. The process of action adaptation goes all the way back to action games like MegaMan and Castlevania on the NES.

So, what does this have to do with Bayonetta? Well, as many know, I love Bayonetta. It really heralded a new age of satisfaction for me; however, as time went on, and I put many more hours into Bayonetta, I noticed that it lacked something its fellow action elite had: a great execution of action adaptation. In Muramasa, for example, the flow of the game has random battles occurring as you travel throughout the game world. At first, the game may be a little overwhelming, for the player has many options open to them right at the beginning, including dodge rolls, air dashes, air combos, both types of swords, and special moves; plus enemies attack fast with swords and projectiles right from the start. Normally, modern action games start you off with only a few abilities, and then give you more as time goes on, but like the classic action games of old where Muramasa draws inspiration, you have everything from the start. But, back to action adaptation. In the first few battles of Muramasa, the player may not do so well; they will probably just button mash their way through a few battles without really understanding what they were doing, and that may be fine for a while. But then battles get more difficult with a larger number of enemies being encountered at once and new enemy types showing up that require different tactics. This is where action adaptation comes in; the player is forced to play better as they progress. Now, this is akin to many other genres in videogames, but what action games have that most other genres don't is a very rapid pace. Action games rarely give the player much time to breath before they have to fight again, nor do they the player many options to progress without understanding the bread-and-butter of combat; thus the player is forced to adapt and get better. But this is OK, because Muramasa gives the player many chances to learn and understand the combat thanks to its quick pace and random battles which pop up quite often, but are never too long. It's this brisk pace that gives the player his/her lessons in a healthy fashion. Muramasa, Vanquish, and Viewtiful Joe all execute the process of action adaptation very well, and, as a result, are games where you begin as an inexperienced player who button-mashes through a few fights to one who understands the games systems and is pulling off all types of cool combos to take down enemies you once thought were impossible to beat in a flash. It's this aspect of growing throughout the game, not just in-game with items and abilities, but as a player who has gained the skill to use those items and abilities to their fullest that creates the great sense of satisfaction that action games provide. Unfortunately, Bayonetta doesn't execute the process of action adaptation nearly as well as the other three games.

In Bayonetta, the set-up of the stages is similar to Viewtiful Joe, where the player progresses forward while doing battles that are set up at specific areas and performs short platforming sequences between the battles; though platforming is less complex in Bayonetta. The difference between the two, however, is the content of the battles, specifically, the enemies fought in battle. In Viewtiful Joe, there weren't too many enemy types. The player would fight the normal enemies often, and thus learn how to fight against them to apply later, and whenever a new enemy appeared, they were usually alone, thus allowing the player to learn how to fight them so they could be fought more efficiently later when appearing in groups. This is the process that many of the best action games take; unfortunately, Bayonetta doesn't really take this route. The content and execution of Bayonetta's battles, called Phases, are more akin to those of an RPG than an action game. There is only only truly reoccurring enemy in Bayonetta, the Affinity, and the action adaptation process works well with them, but with the other battles, there is often some type of enemy, often a new one, that is thrown at the player. This would be a normal part of the process of action adaptation, if the new enemy the player just fought started appearing as a normal enemy. In Bayonetta, there are a lot of enemy types, which would normally be great if they appeared consistently. This is where the RPG trend comes into Bayonetta's execution. It's as if Bayonetta's levels are a mix of battles with Affinities and a bunch of mid-bosses. In RPGs, it is common to fight enemies that are stronger than normal ones that you'll most likely never see again, or very rarely. The same process occurs in Bayonetta. It is this factor that hurts Bayonetta's execution of action adaptation, because I'm fighting these new enemies, and while I didn't do too good the first time around, I think to myself "That's OK. I'll just do better next time!" Unfortunately, "next time" may not be for another couple of stages, or maybe not at all. As a result, by the next time I fight the enemy again, I don't really remember how to adapt what I learned because I've done so much since then. Action adaptation is a process that builds off of its foundation found at the beginning of the game and grows as the game progresses; Bayonetta ignores this process and instead throws a lot of random tough battles at the player. Yes, a player can utilize what they've learned by replaying the level itself, but that just ruins the flow of the game and story; a game should never HAVE to be replayed in order to truly enjoy it.

Bayonetta's weak execution of action adaptation occurs in it's boss fights as well, with the exception of the battles against Jeanne. For the boss battles in Bayonetta play very little like the normal battles found in the normal stages. This results in the same flawed process of having to learn how to defeat an enemy in the fight that will be my last time with it. This breaks the natural-feeling process of action adaptation even further, as it is very hard to adapt what the player has learned by fighting normal enemies to a boss battle. Pile this factor on top of the fact that many fights against new enemies, as mentioned before, occur in the stages as well, and the whole process of action adaptation nearly falls apart. The motorcycle and flying stages are great to have, as they are something of a break from normalcy; many action games have such things (the point being that the motorcycle and flying sequences don't break action adaptation).

It's all of these factors that come together and make playing Bayonetta feel like a bit of a jumbled mess of ideas. Now, this isn't entirely a bad thing, as it does keep things feeling fresh throughout the game, and makes each level feel very unique. However, the problem arises when looking at Bayonetta's combat system. Despite simply being an evolved version of the Devil May Cry combat system, Bayonetta's combat system is the best you'll find in a 3D action game. There is simply so much to experiment with and utilize in battle; unfortunately, it is very hard to expand the battle system because of the huge variety of situations given to the player through the use of many different enemy types, many of which are fought very rarely. If I feel that a battle against a certain enemy would've went better had I used a different weapon, I can't learn and adapt my strategy because I won't see that enemy again for a long time, and I just get sucked back into my strategies for other enemies. It's this stagnant process of throwing many different enemy types at us that I find hinders the battle system from growing past anything that simply bread-and-butter combos that work on every type of enemy. The battle system can't grow because the game simply won't allow me to learn. This process of throwing something new at the player works well in other genres such as shooters and platformers, because they are built upon a foundation of basics that don't really grow in complexity, but simply challenge the player to use the same basics in different ways. Action games begin with basics, but need to evolve into the realm of complexity and advanced techniques, and it is when these advanced techniques are utilized to their fullest by the player that he/she feels true satisfaction. It is the process of action adaptation that makes the basics grow into advanced techniques. I feel Bayonetta keeps the player from obtaining these advanced techniques, and thus true satisfaction, by poorly executing the process of action adaptation.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love Bayonetta. And I do replay the stages many times in order to learn and adapt what I've learned in order to try and obtain advanced techniques and some true satisfaction. However, replaying the same levels over and over again is not a truly satisfying way to learn and adapt, especially for an action game. It is for this reason, that it has taken me some time to fully comprehend, that I find Bayonetta to be the weakest of my favorite action games. Bayonetta is still an amazing game with fantastic graphics, an amazing art direction, great music, and an epic scale; but a truly great action game is one that the player should feel the urge to master and then actually adapt what they learn through playing the game to achieve that mastery. Bayonetta gives me the urge to master it more than any other action game I've ever played with its amazing weapons, items, skills, and rewards for showing true skill, but, unfortunately, that mastery comes at the price of tediously playing through the game's levels many, many times, and even then, true mastery always seems out of reach because of the amount of enemies which are encountered rarely and require very different tactics to combat efficiently. This poor execution of action adaptation is what keeps Bayonetta from being a truly satisfying action game, for while a great visual and aural experience with great gameplay does make for a great game, an action game is one that needs to be mastered, and the process of action adaptation is what brings about that mastery.

The fact that Bayonetta poorly executes the process of action adaptation shows me both its flaws and its potential, for if the same great visual, aural, and gameplay quality are put into a sequel that perfectly executes action adaptation, then it truly will be the greatest action game ever made.

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