Bayonetta is a game where the left-shoulder button, on the Xbox 360 controller, has Bayonetta striking a pose and saying:
“Do you want to touch me?
Bayonetta comes from Platinum Games, a studio formed from remnants of Clover Studio. Bayonetta is preceded by Platinum Games’ first release, MadWorld for the Wii, out in early 2009 (a day before my birthday, even). Having never played any of Clover’s games, MadWorld was my only real experience with either Clover or Platinum Games’ works and, as such, my expectations for Bayonetta going in were rock bottom. MadWorld was a vile, repetitive, and thoroughly unenjoyable game for any play session lasting beyond five-to-ten minutes. In my mind, Bayonetta‘s sole hope was the direction of Hideki Kamiya, whose fingerprints are all over numerous major Capcom titles since the late nineties. Heralded as a spiritual successor to Capcom’s Devil May Cry series, Bayonetta received an abundance of pre-release attention and a fair amount of hype as the next great Japanese action game. As an additional strike towards Bayonetta, Devil May Cry was a series I found consistently uninteresting and unenjoyable and, especially true of Devil May Cry 3 and 4 (games which Kamiya did not play a role) which failed to live up to any aspect of the far superior 3D ‘reboot’ of Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden series.
This is my long-winded and historically informative way of saying that, going into Bayonetta, I knew with false, presumptuous certainty that the game would not live up to my favorite action game of this console generation, Ninja Gaiden 2. This would not stop me from buying Bayonetta without so much as a single clue as to how the game played. I’m a very optimistic consumer muppet.
Bayonetta is one of the few games in the last few years that I instantly knew was brilliant. It’s a game uniformly centered on a single mechanical concept and Platinum Games designed it to support that concept in every aspect of the game. Bayonetta is a game about flow. Gameplay segments are divided into verses which are filled with snappy J-Pop soundtrack, and a protagonist whose last line before the player receives control for the first time: “As long as there’s music, I’ll keep on dancing.” Every verse is an encounter (either combat, natural disaster evasion, or on-rails vehicle segment), and the time spent traveling from verse-to-verse is minimal. From this point on, if there’s not a cut scene playing, the player is constantly involved in some task. At the end of chapters, players take part in a shooting gallery for additional items/currency. Players remain active even during loading screens, where a slick combo list responds to player input to show what combos the player can execute from any given button press onward.
Combat is paced appropriately for the energetic J-Pop background tracks which accompanies it. The emphasis is placed on combos and the stringing of combos together. Bayonetta has an expansive move list across all modes of combat for all experience levels. Button mashing works well enough, but it’s very likely that players will quickly move beyond it due solely to a simple and reliable set of core input styles. The game is quick to instruct players as to the fact that one attack button defines one type/power/speed of move (punches/hand guns or other equipped weapon), another defines another type/power/speed (kicks/leg guns), and another is always the use of guns.
No matter what combination of hands and leg attacks, the player always feels like the buttons he/she presses will yield some sort of combo. Likewise, a slight delay between any two button presses will always allow for a slightly different combo than one where those two buttons are pressed sequentially. The difference between a new player and an experienced player is familiarity with combos and the timing and what combos chain well into others for maximum verse rank/score.
Combat effectiveness in Bayonetta is more about movement and dodging than the memorization of combos. A well-timed dodge will activate “witch time,” which is a state of action in which the world and its entities slow down but the player moves and acts at standard speed. Dodging is mapped to the right-trigger button and is not the very strictly timed-out trade-off as counter maneuvers in games like Ninja Gaiden or Assassin’s Creed; numerous dodges can be strung together with ease and the timing for an effective dodge is forgiving. Whether a dodge is successful or not is more about whether or not Witch Time is activated; merely avoiding damage is, often, the sole result of a poorly-timed dodge.
Getting damaged is the result of making no attempt to react to an enemy’s attacks or, for certain enemies (namely fire enemies), attacking with close-quarters attacks outside of Witch Time. Bayonetta is not one to annoyingly punish players during active combat. A side effect of this is that, often, there is very rarely a time in the game where dodging does not help the player. The worst the game does is to momentarily take control away from the player after four unsuccessful dodge attempts.
Beyond the basic modes of combat, namely the punches, kicks, and guns attached to all primary four limbs, Bayonetta also allows for a host of play style customization via arm/leg weaponry and three optional accessories. For my first play-through of the game, I largely stuck to the aforementioned standard weapons and used my alternate equipment slot to hold a sword (which behaved strikingly and pleasingly similar to Ninja Gaiden’s Dragon Sword). When I started my Hard play-through, however, I wanted to mix things up a bit. I used a whip for my arm/hand slot and my standard pistols for my leg slots in my first equipment slot and a sword and fire/ice claw boots (which can, alternatively, be used as fire/ice claw gloves). While the specialized techniques I purchased all had unique, but similar feeling attacks across all of these forms of weaponry, the feel and flow of combat was dramatically altered. It’s truly remarkable how much work Platinum Games put into each of these weapons and their effects on standard combat and further demonstrates their commitment towards allowing players to flow through the game in a style which personally suits them. During my normal play-through and now just a brief bit into my hard play-through, I have yet to come across a combat encounter which truly demanded that I use a specific weapon type.
Bayonetta’s boss enemies are a somewhat refreshing inclusion in the genre in that, in almost every case, defeating a boss does not rely on contrived executions of actions that are overly reliant on pattern recognition. It’s very apparent what players have to do in order to efficiently tackle a boss, but in most cases the process of attacking and damaging a boss was done using standard combos and attacks. There are exceptions to this where Bayonetta has access to a more powerful arsenal of attacks which constantly employ the Wicked Weave (powerful, hair-based attacks) or run a gauntlet up to an enemy’s weak point, but these are the exception. Where the game goes wrong is in the Japanese design habit of tasking players with defeating all of these boss enemies again later in the game. Never has there been a game in existence where the re-use of boss enemies from earlier in the game strung together as a late-game challenge felt like anything other than a cheap means of extending gameplay. This technique is used, in theory, to allow the player to feel like he/she has gotten to the point of a skill where taking on these once-feared foes is now trivial, but these psychological benefits do not outweigh the tackiness necessary to actually design such late-game encounters. Nor does a player’s presence at the end of the game necessarily imply that the player ever either enjoyed the boss battle the first time around or, in the worst case, revisit frustration in a particularly nasty boss battle (which Bayonetta does almost entirely avoid in its boss encounters).
One gripe I continually revisit when playing these third-person Japanese-designed action games is the evolution of encounters as players make their way through the game. With Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, and, although to a far lesser extent than either of those titles, Bayonetta I always feel like the early game encounters are generally more fun than those in the mid-to-late game. If a game’s combat system is enjoyable, needlessly complicating encounters with overly gimmicky/pattern-based enemies amidst unnecessarily “clever” level designs is showing a lack of faith in one’s own game design. If an encounter is fun for, say, thirty seconds, why throw as unnecessary complications into the mix? Fighting ninjas in Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2 was always more enjoyable than fighting crazy demons much like fighting the Covenant in the Halo games was always more enjoyable than fighting the Flood. Bayonetta doesn’t succumb to any major late-game missteps in the same way as these game but, rather, for a lengthy portion of gameplay around the 70% completion mark, tosses a series of boss battles and vehicle segments at the player for the sake of pacing and “variety.” These segments were, surprisingly, never “bad,” but they were unnecessary deviations from gameplay that I by no means wanted a respite from in this game; however, on the plus side, these segments never violated the pacing and gameplay flow.
Where Bayonetta truly breaks down is when it severs its excellent gameplay flow and pacing with unnecessary, poorly-placed, and surprisingly lengthy cut scenes. The story is at best entertaining and sometimes cute, but more often it is incredibly repetitive and slow with the information it provides players. There were numerous times where the cinematic director wants to remind players that Bayonetta is a cool, sexy, and incredibly talented protagonist who can execute insanely well-timed combat maneuvers with ease. In order to achieve this goal, the player watched scenes which extends upwards of one to two minutes straight where Bayonetta does nothing but kill enemies in cool/sexy ways. While this worked stylistically in the introductory cut scene, it quickly becomes grating as its quantity exceeds one cut scene. These could be forgiven, though, if the game didn’t pair such scenes with plot scenes which continually touched on the same three or four plot points over and over again. The insanity and quirkiness of the Bayonetta plot is endearing and well-fitting the universe and tone of the game, but the gameplay does not only disallow such gruelingly lengthy cut scenes but also discourages breaks in game flow in general.
Much has been made of the hyper-sexualized image and form of Bayonetta. Platinum Games is unabashed in their glorification of the female forms they have constructed. As far as I’m concerned, the prominence of the primarily-naked and suggestive Bayonetta imagery throughout the game does nothing if not support everything Platinum Games has constructed. Bayonetta is clearly a game designed by a male development team, but at no point do I feel that it was chauvinistic or demeaning. If anything, Bayonetta is a game which feels like it was developed by a team who is comfortable with the sexuality present in the game and in using that as a driving for for their protagonist rather than a marketing team. Platinum Games understands that their leading lady is as fictional and fantastical as the universe she exists within. For more along these lines, read: “Her Sex is a Weapon”, “Bayonetta”, and “If You Run Out of Ammo You Can Have Mine”.
I’m planning now to revisit Bayonetta a playthrough or two down the line when I have a more full grasp of the game’s various modes of combat and the items which the game didn’t seem to fully intend me to possess on my initial play-through. For now, Bayonetta is a one-of-a-kind action game with a superb execution of its paramount design tenet of fluidity.