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Kamiya's opus is looking good in Cologne

The first ever GamesCom trade fair in Koln has been something of an eye-opener for this writer. With Real Time Worlds' upcoming epic APB radically changing an otherwise staunch resistance to MMOs, a similar reversal of opinion regarding the hack-and-slash genre has since arisen following hands-on time with Platinum Games' all-action title Bayonetta.

Moreover, despite a publisher demo that was almost impossible to follow due to surrounding noise interference and the near inaudible delivery of Sega's distinctly French commentator, Bayonetta quickly emerged as one of the show's surprise packages after Monsieur Sega offered up some personal game time on a private booth.

Set to arrive as a marked departure from the usual testosterone-fuelled alpha males known for peacocking their way through hack-and-slash titles, Bayonetta is a sexy shape-shifting witch armed with a combo-friendly arsenal of firearms, deadly hair and magical attacks that belie her outward presentation as something of a sombre long-legged librarian with a stern hairstyle and a penchant for single-minded destruction.

Beset by confusion after abruptly waking from a 500-year slumber, the action of Bayonetta sees the game's bespectacled witch embarking on a bloody adventure of self-discovery as she strives to recoup lost memories and realise her mysterious destiny through a steady procession of all-action gameplay and boss encounters that boast as much white-knuckle scale as they do controller-twisting challenge.

With the game described by renowned Japanese director Hideki Kamiya (Okami) as an epic that "will blow the doors off the action genre," the appeal of Bayonetta's no-nonsense witch is rooted in her ability to wield all manner of firearms in both hands and also on dangerous ankle housings. And, not limited to default projectile armament, Bayonetta can also conjure up devastating magic attacks, temporarily utilise the weapons of downed foes, and even whip up extra melee damage with her long and flowing locks.

With an attractive and unique core character set in place, hack-and-slash genre prerequisites suitably met, and an appealingly vague narrative likely to pull players through the action, the most important facet of Bayonetta's ongoing assessment - as with any such title - remains grounded in its fundamental gameplay.

We can happily report that Bayonetta bears absolutely no resemblance to Atari and Cavia's woeful Bullet Witch (2007) and plays like a particularly vicious but beautifully realised dream. However, it's worth noting that Sega's disappointingly basic demonstration really did the game little justice whatsoever, and our preview would have perhaps reflected that had we not been gifted the controller and allowed to form a more rounded opinion.

As it is, hands-on time with Bayonetta reveals a richly designed game world, fabulously fluid character animation, deadly environmental finishing moves, and a host of interesting enemies with varied attack patterns. Also, for those gamers not moved by the layered canon of series giants such as Devil May Cry, Bayonetta arrives as a refreshingly new IP exuding a challenging but rewarding gameplay mechanic that's instantly easy to grasp but will be satisfyingly tough to master.

In terms of the demonstration's more notable points of interest, expectant players can look forward to the brief advantages associated with slowed gameplay through Witch Time, which is created by executing last-minute dodge moves. Bayonetta's gloriously bloody and grandiose attacks are also boosted by gruesome 'Punish' and 'Torture' moves that employ the assistance of famed items such as guillotines and the iron maiden. And, in an effort to make Bayonetta's visceral combo-rich gameplay even more appealing to those who - like me - have no real affinity for hack-and-slash action, load screens serve as welcome mini practice arenas that allow players to hone their button and thumbstick skills.

While we're currently more than enthused by Bayonetta's existing gameplay prowess, quirky Japanese production values mean that intermittent narrative explanations and flashback cut-scenes are punctuated by questionable English dialogue performances, an ill-fitting blend of comedy slapstick and extreme profanity, and the kind of musical accompaniment you'd expect to suffer while trapped inside an elevator. Relatively small complaints, we know, but persistent genre detractions that could unnecessarily cheapen the worth of an otherwise standout title.

In savouring our brief but tantalising taste of Bayonetta's stylish elegance, savage kinetic energy, and beautifully flowing animation, the appeal of its bespectacled heroine blends perfectly with genuinely appealing combo gameplay likely to eclipse almost any encounters with wince-inducing localisation and cheesy lift musak.

According to Sega, Bayonetta is "more than an action title," and is expected to head the busy genre thanks to a core gameplay ethos of "faster, better, bigger!" In light of our time with the game during last week's GamesCom trade fair, who are we to argue?

Bayonetta is under development through Platinum Games (MadWorld) and is expected to blast its way onto U.S. and European markets before the close of 2009 on both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

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