A growing importance is being placed on games to have more substance. The push for artistic recognition can be felt from all corners of the industry. For example, a number of independently designed games are using interaction to make you think and feel. Meanwhile, big studios are pushing for tighter, smarter storylines that mimick Hollywood production. As this movement gains steam, Bayonetta is giving it a purple-magic middle finger in defense of the way games used to be.
It’s not that there aren’t games like Bayonetta anymore (Gears of War is nearly as indulgent and absurd). The difference is that few games are as proud of their heritage. This is developer Platinum Games’ Tarantino-esque homage to the insanity of games the way they’ve been, and the way they probably won’t be forever.
Consider the game’s protagonist: Bayonetta is an eight-foot-tall dominatrix wearing pistols on her feet and a suit made of her own hair. She’s a witch who pays her debts to hell by murdering angels. She walks among the planes of Inferno, Paradiso, and Purgatorio at will, coaxing halo-wearing, winged creatures down from the heavens in order to toss them under a guillotine. She’s either gaming’s Hail Mary play for the objectification of women, an empowering heroine, or comical bait for anyone that cares.
Either way, she’s ultimately an excuse for over-the-top action, just as nearly every aesthetic ounce of this game is. There’s no religious statement to be made here – angels are just an excuse for the character designers to have a field day. Though, if god started spitting cherub-faced tentacles my way I’d probably start taking him (or her, in this case) a little more seriously.
Bayonetta’s world is the set-piece for some of the finest character-action this side of Ninja Gaiden. The combat is blindingly fast and includes a list of combos so expansive that you’ll feel like you’re making them up yourself. Then there’s your defensive move: a quick dodge that when executed at the last possible second slows down time.
Each element of combat is tuned to perfection and plays off of other elements in satisfying fashion. A well-timed dodge leads into a flurry of attacks, an air-launcher, another flurry of attacks, a giant heel made of hair to stomp the enemy down to the ground, and a flashy torture attack to finish them off. You can mix it up of course, but you’ll repeat these strings of attacks over and over throughout the game. Even over the course of multiple playthroughs the flow of combat remains unbelievably satisfying. Bayonetta nails that concept of “30 seconds of fun, repeated over and over” that Bungie popularized with the Halo games.
On the Normal difficulty, as long as you continue to push buttons, the game won’t really push yours. The challenge is fun, but ultimately more in line with the lighter experiences the genre has to offer. This all changes on higher difficulties, which introduce more active, demanding enemies reminiscent of the punitive Ninja Gaiden. It takes on the feel of a fighting game, where the key is to outwit your opponent and learn from your mistakes.
But it also offers these challenges without alienating less committed players the way Ninja Gaiden did. Two difficulty levels below the normal setting allow newcomers to enjoy the game with some of the technical elements stripped out, and several optional challenges throughout the game teach you the ins and outs of the combat system.
Each playthrough, regardless of difficulty, is a direct continuation of the last. You’ll keep all your cash, items, and unlocked abilities, with each step up in difficulty introducing new enemy patterns and gameplay elements. One of the more costly shop items introduces a parry system that spices up the combat in the higher difficulties. Bottom line: Bayonetta is an immensely replayable game.
The combat in Bayonetta is simply the finest the genre has to offer, so it’s a disappointment to find that many other elements of the game are heavily flawed. Cutscenes are a huge part of the experience, popping up frequently and often running several minutes. Some of them are hilarious and entertaining, but they’re far too hit-or-miss. Towards the end of the game, enemies ramble on for several minutes about utter nonsense. Even Bayonetta herself seems entirely bored by the endless monologues, so why should the player be subjected to them?
Level design is another weak aspect of the game. While Bayonetta has plenty of insane action set-pieces, the more exploratory areas are a mess. Levels are filled with invisible walls and yet the game is packed with a wealth of collectibles. It feels less like a treasure hunt and more like poking at the seams of the environments like some unsuspecting game tester.
Bayonetta is also littered with frustrating gameplay departures. Puzzles feel mindlessly easy, yet demand overly strict timing. Quick time events sprinkled into the lengthy cutscenes cause instant death and a huge score penalty. Then there’s racing and flying sections meant as amusing Sega tributes that go on far too long for how simple they are.
The addition of all these extra elements makes the game feel bloated and overdone. Bayonetta could have been entirely combat-focused from beginning to end, with an hour or two of cutscenes removed and it would have been a nearly perfect game. Instead, it’s a little trickier to recommend. The combat is stunning, but all the baggage is going to divide a lot of players on the game’s overall quality.
Bayonetta is strong evidence for a little more camp, a little more insanity, and a strict focus on fun in modern games. Its existence is a testament to the wacky genius that’s fueled this industry for years. But for all the pleasure this game has to offer, it does ask for a little pain in return. Its flaws are a reminder that the push for elegance, artistry, and a little more thoughtfulness in game design is ultimately a step in the right direction.