Our world, heaven, hell, and purgatory would all be equally hard-pressed to find something so impurely fun
Ridiculous is the first word that comes to mind when trying to describe Bayonetta. For the good and, in very rare occasions, for the bad, that adjective seems to apply to almost everything the title does. This is a game about an extremely sexualized witch who brutally murders violent angelic beings in order to satisfy the powers of the underworld, and who occasionally summons enormous demons with the goal of sending the heavenly creatures straight to hell. It somehow makes sense, while simultaneously being senseless, but that is the contradiction within which the game exists.
Bayonetta is blatantly built with the goal of delivering players battles that are as big and outrageous as possible. Every piece of the puzzle here has been obviously put in place to feed the combat, which is the purpose and main spectacle that Platinum Games set out to seek. That quest has been clearly fulfilled, for it is hard to find a game whose battles are this thrilling and satisfying; however, it has also left some gaping holes that stop it from reaching the full level of excellence that could have been had.
The titular character starts the game dressed as a nun praying beside a coffin whose deceased content has been provided by the local mob boss. As angels descend from Paradiso to carry the body away, she strips herself of her clothing, reveals her air-tight leather outfit, and proceeds to grind the good spirits to death.
That introduction alone serves to showcase two of the game’s greatest qualities. Firstly, Bayonetta lives for show: the battles’ starting points, as well as their climaxes, are downright epic. The wicked lady knows how to spring into action, and is even more skilled when it comes to ending the life of her foes in the most eye-popping ways. She will shoot them down, dismember them into nothingness, and – in almost full nudity – call mighty devils to smash them gruesomely.
Those visceral fireworks, as well as the poppy songs that accompany the combats, make it impossible to resist the overwhelming joy that comes with the fights against armies of angels. Everything is drowned in savage gore, but that sadistic demeanor is smartly alleviated by the tongue-in-cheek nature of the game. In the midst of the most cruel situations, Bayonetta acts with a light-hearted nonchalance, boasting humorously while killing seamlessly, and landing all her lines with a low-key sort of amusement. Instead of being disturbingly vile, the game’s heart comes off as entertainingly pleasing.
That flair for the spectacular, despite being mostly for the best, can sometimes get on the game’s way. The cinematic intermissions either in the middle or in the end of battles usually come accompanied by some quick-time events. Though most are harmless and surprisingly fun, some – namely those where reacting incorrectly can lead to a one-hit death – can get annoying.
The second positive attribute disclosed by Bayonetta’s opening is that the game does not kid around. It knows very well how to balance its storytelling with the action under which it thrives. Although combat is sometimes broken up by cutscenes, that division is very well-balanced. Players are never left anxious to take control of the character because not only are the cinematics enjoyable, whether they are meaningful or simply pointless fun, but they are also restrained.
Though they are entertaining, the cutscenes are closely tied to Bayonetta’s biggest issue. The game’s premise of a witch that has lost her memory and combats heavenly forces is intriguing, but it does not materialize into an engaging plot. Instead of going for an easy-to-follow storyline, Platinum Games aims for something much bigger and ends up bitting off more than it could chew. A quest of rediscovery of one’s past ends up being inserted inside a convoluted drama of four different realms (heaven, hell, the human world, and purgatory), two secret clans, and a man trying to control the universe. The result fails to satisfy both in its character-development and content.
The biggest part of the enjoyment to be found in the game, though, has its source right on the fantastic battle system that has been put together. Platinum Games has been able to strike the chord that all action games need to find, which is to build depth out of simplicity. The control system is very straightforward, as there is a button to punch, another to kick, one to jump, and – finally – a last one to dodge. Primarily, those are the actions the character can perform, but – with those four commands as its basis – the game constructs a combat system that is highly enjoyable and deep.
The amount of combos that can be executed by combining those four moves is immense, but the game loses no time to explain them to players one by one. Instead, it leaves everything up to experimentation during the fights, which creates a fantastic and rewarding learning curve. As a small brilliant twist, though, during load screens it is possible to navigate through the list of all possible combos and practice them at will. Therefore, the game turns something potentially boring into a valuable practicing opportunity.
As amazing as they might be, various combos are nothing new when it comes to action games. What truly differentiates the combat system of Bayonetta from the bunch are two elements: the torture attacks, and witch time. The former, which is a clear example of how this a game that is deeply in love with flashy massacre, can be unleashed once a magic gauge, which goes up when Bayonetta lands hits and down when she is attacked, is filled. Those moves show the witch making use of numerous torture devices (including a guillotine and an iron maiden) to deliver both huge amounts of damage and visual extravaganza.
Witch time, meanwhile, adds an intriguing risk-and-reward factor to battles. It works by slowing down time, and – consequently – enemies, to a crawl so that Bayonetta can smash away without worrying about being hit. However, activating witch time requires that incoming attacks be avoided at the very moment that separates a successful dodge from a hit. It ends up turning dodging into a game of chicken where players are constantly confronted with the decision of either safely executing an early evasion, or leaving the press of the button for the last second – hence risking a hit.
Making careful decisions during battles is important because Bayonetta is a challenging quest. Some bosses and a few minor angels are very hard to deal with, even after multiple encounters, and some battle sequences can be very demanding. The difficulty is further increased due to the fact that the game is not generous when it comes to money.
There is a store where various upgrades, weapons, and items can be purchased. Nevertheless, acquiring a considerable number of empowering new toys is hard because cash does not come easy. And even if it did, the game has a low and smartly determined limitation on the number of healing potions and other magical items that can be taken into levels, forcing players to truly care about their health.
Being concerned with getting killed has little to do with losing progress; the checkpoints are generally well-placed even if in some rare situations following a “game over” players are forced to replay through mundane segments only to get to a boss. That concern, actually, comes from the fact all of Bayonetta’s chapters are divided into segments, called verses, that award players with a score according to their overall performance, and dying certainly does not help the cause.
Such structure – along with dozens of achievements – makes the game very replayable, as it is nearly irresistible to try to get a better score on each of the verses in order to increase the rank one receives after completing a whole chapter. This alluring nature turns a game whose main mission can be a bit on the short side (the whole thing can be completed within ten hours) into something that carries a greater value.
Though it starts from an insane, yet interesting, premise, Bayonetta never really comes together as a wonderful tale. However, those who wander into an action game looking for deep reflections have certainly taken the wrong turn along the way. What the game delivers, and it does it much better than a large percentage of the titles that share its genre, is spectacular and ridiculous thrill. This is not one climatic explosion at the end of an action flick, this is a series of endless loud bangs that get more absurdly entertaining by the second, and the game never lets go off of that pace.
Everything, its dialogues, the sexualization of its titular character, its flashy combat scheme, its progressively outrageous enemy design, and its overwhelming gore come up to form a creature that is simultaneously brutal and light-hearted. This is blatant violence without a drop of guilt; it is heavy darkness coated in pop accessibility; it is wicked elegance; it is doing everything that is ridiculous and polemic for the sake of entertainment; and it is the chance for players to perform the most eye-popping moves and maneuvers with the press of a few buttons or the delivery of some timely combos. Our world, heaven, hell, and purgatory would all be equally hard-pressed to find something so impurely fun.