The Games That Defined Platinum's Legacy Are Back

by Dustin Bailey,
In certain ways, the story of PlatinumGames is a tragedy. Founded in 2009 by ex-Capcom developers whose credits include the likes of Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, and Okami, the goal of the new company was to escape that corporate structure and create all-original games that had worldwide appeal without pandering to any particular market. Their first wave of games—the ultra-violent monochrome brawler MadWorld, the RPG/strategy space opera Infinite Space, the sexy DMC derivative Bayonetta, and the rocket-powered shooter Vanquish—all became cult classics, but critical success didn't translate to significant sales.

Now Platinum's lineup is a more mercenary one, but even among a ton of licensed titles there are only a few clunkers. The company picked up the pieces of Metal Gear Rising to make an all-time great action title, brought the bizarre vision of this year's darling Nier: Automata to life, and even managed to put out a pretty good Transformers game along the way. Yet with the abysmal sales of Wonderful 101 on Wii U and the ultimately doomed development of Scalebound on Xbox One, the future of Platinum's original development is shaky at best.

But why worry about the future when you can enjoy the accomplishments of the past? The two biggest highlights of Platinum's first wave—Bayonetta and Vanquish—both came out on PC recently, bringing some of the company's best work to an audience that probably missed out the first time around. One of those ports is an absolutely definitive version of a modern classic, while the other is moderate improvement on a technically troubled original. But both releases are excellent excuses to revisit a pair of fantastic games.

Hideki Kamiya's reputation (as a game designer, not a loveable Twitter asshole) was built on Devil May Cry, which codified the stylish action genre. Free from whatever restraints Capcom might've placed on him, Kamiya's first game at Platinum was an insane combination of aesthetics, from ornate European architecture and Western religious images to mountains of sexual innuendo and a heaping helping of stylized violence. Yet underneath it all, Bayonetta is perhaps still the best-playing game in its genre—and the only real contender for the title is the Nintendo-published sequel.

Bayonetta is the titular star, an amnesiac witch piecing together her past and the role her forebears played in a massive war of light and darkness, pitting witches against sages and demons against angels. Your enemies are those angels, put together from bits of gold and flesh hidden behind statuesque visages. It all takes place in a fictional part of Europe filled with beautiful architecture and the solemn hints of ancient religion. Then Bayonetta herself dives into the action and rides a sexually-charged wave of ridiculousness straight through the otherwise dignified setting. The story borders on nonsense, but that's okay—it's all about spectacle, a sexy fever dream that sees Bayonetta attacking the forces of heaven with the same demon-pact hair that implausibly forms her own clothes, leading to increasing displays of near-nudity as she executes more powerful attacks, culminating in the appropriately named climax finishers.

That action is just as satisfying eight years later, and it's nearly incredible how well Bayonetta has aged. There are a couple things that very much feel like products of 2009 game design—notably the quick time events that weren't great even then—but by and large it stands up incredibly well today. Punches and kicks form your basic combos, you're reward for making it to the end of those strings with Wicked Weave strikes that do big damage. Avoiding attacks is all about dodging, and doing that with exact timing will briefly slow the action down in Witch Time so that you can do even more damage. You can prolong a combo at any point by holding down the attack button, which will cause Bayonetta to start shooting one of the guns she keeps attached to every limb—this brief delay lets you dodge in the middle of a combo and keep the attack streak going.

It all feels great, even if you are—like me—only a middling action game player. That's not to say Bayonetta is easy, as it still has moments of serious challenge and anything less than expert play will lead to a whole of end-of-level awards not marked even as bronze, but rather stone. The game shows some of Platinum's smartest attempts at universal appeal, with difficulty options ranging from levels where the game essentially plays itself to insane challenges meant for only the most dexterous of players. Whatever level you're at, there's always just enough hint of the game's greater depths to make exploring the further challenges exciting.

The new PC version is absolutely fantastic, and feels like the way the game was meant to be played. Everything looks sharp and crisp, and it's easy to get super-smooth performance across a wide variety of computer specs. The fast-paced action benefits hugely from the improved detail, too—it's way easier to see incoming attacks thanks to the sharper image, and both the original and Wii U versions of the game now look downright blurry by comparison. The PC edition also includes the Japanese voice track added to the game for its release on Wii U—though it's notable the original title was recorded exclusively in English.

Compared with the excellence of Bayonetta, returning to Vanquish is a bit of a disappointment—though that's not really because of the game itself. The intervening years have made clear Bayonetta's status as an action game of unparalleled quality, where Vanquish is “merely” a great shooter with unique ideas. That disappointment only comes by comparison, though, since freed from the expectations of its original release it's a lot easier to appreciate Vanquish—but the PC version still hasn't unlocked the game's true potential.

At the time of its original release, Vanquish seemed like an attempt by a Japanese developer to capitalize on the success of Western shooters, though perhaps that shouldn't seem so strange after all. Director Shinji Mikami drew on that genre to redefine the action of Resident Evil in RE4, and there's no denying the quality of the end result regardless of your feelings on the move away from horror. Western shooters in turn drew on the pace of gameplay in RE4, moving to third-person cameras and building cover mechanics to slow down and add a layer of strategy to straightforward gunplay. The influence of Resident Evil 4 on games like Gears of War is undeniable, and maybe it's natural that Mikami would draw on the work of his own imitators for another game.

Vanquish is a cover-based shooter, one filled with no-neck space marines and so much testosterone somebody's liable to slip and fall on it. Yet it's so over-the-top that it leaps the border of self-parody and becomes genuine comedy, a ballad of chain-smoking tough guys so ridiculous that it's impossible not to laugh. The story might be even more ridiculous than Bayonetta's, if only because it abandons the supernatural world for a near-future military plot where the cyborg leader of Russia is holding the US hostage with an ocean-boiling, city-destroying, person-popping satellite superlaser. You're Sam Gideon, the most elite dude of dudes, who happens to be equipped with the nation's most advanced piece of military tech, a rocket-powered cybersuit.

That suit is where Vanquish sets itself apart. You can play the game just as any other third-person shooter, rushing from cover to cover to get good angles on enemies while avoiding as much incoming fire as you can. It's okay as simply that, since the guns feel pretty good and the armies of robotic enemies all explode in satisfying ways. But the real Vanquish takes place between the cover points as you utilize your rocket boots to slide around the battlefield, picking off enemies out in the open and using your own speed to avoid return fire. Take aim following a dodge move and you'll temporarily end up in slow-mo, giving you ample opportunity to line up shots on enemy weak points. This is all governed by a single heat meter—overuse your abilities and you're stuck helplessly waiting for your suit to cool down, with no slow-motion or fast movement available to save you from a bad spot.

Cover then becomes a quick break from the action for that meter to recharge. A literal smoke break, actually, since there's a dedicated smoke button that sees Sam light one up and distract enemies by tossing it away. You might not even notice that detail the first time through, and that's okay. Like Bayonetta, Vanquish offers some true depth that keeps the game fun at any difficulty, whether you're cautiously moving from cover to cover or constantly careening around the battlefield and making use of every option available to get an advantage.

The fast-paced action of Vanquish was let down by the performance troubles of its original PS3 release. The game often struggled to meet even its modest performance goal, and the lack of smoothness really lets down such a fast-moving game, which is a big part of why fans were so excited for the prospect of a PC port. The game does feel a lot better thanks to improved performance on PC, yet somehow it seems far more difficult than it should to boost around the stages without getting immediately mowed down by a hail of bullets. There's a reason for that, it turns out. It seems that incoming damage is tied directly to individual frames, meaning that the faster the framerate, the more difficult the game. The crazier parts of the PC gaming crowd are going to have a hell of a time on their 144hz monitors, and even the more standard 60FPS players are going to find the game far more difficult than it should be. You can lock down the framerate to get the difficulty back in balance, but then what's the point of a PC version?

That bug is especially disappointing because it forces you to play Vanquish in a dull, cautious way rather than as the frenetic action game it was intended as. After the better part of a decade, the game's still hamstrung by the circumstances of its release, making it tough to recommend what should have been the definitive version. Here's hoping for a patch soon. But even accounting for that, Vanquish is an incredible ride, one that stands out all the more from its contemporaries today thanks to its complete reappropriation of the cover mechanics that defined a generation of shooters.

Where's Platinum to go from here? That's hard to tell. Their days of all-original games are apparently gone, and given the failures of recent non-licensed titles it seems all the more likely that they're making their name as one of the best contract developers in the business—notwithstanding Mutants in Manhattan. With Bayonetta and Vanquish resurfacing, though, maybe there's a bit of hope that the company's original ideas aren't quite gone, and that the directors behind those cult classics might be able to build something with enough mainstream potential to keep money moving into those original ideas. In the meantime, these two games are terrific reminders of what Platinum is capable of, from perfections of decidedly Japanese genres to complete reinventions of Western ones, and if you've missed out on either it's worth diving in.


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