Bayonetta is one of those games that, regardless of what you think of its quality, is always interesting to talk about. To make an analogy, a holy choir of orchestral angels descending from heaven would certainly be worth discussing, and even more so if they abruptly crash-landed after being swatted out of the air by a giant ponytail.
That said, there is something very upfront and in-your-face about Platinum Game’s hacky-slashy biblical comedy action thing. After all, it’s certainly not subtle. “Yes, our heroine has all the modesty of a sex shop. Yes, the characters are anime archetypes. Yes, there’s a story that’s utterly incomprehensible. Yes, the gameplay is pinched from Devil May Cry, along with most of the themes and concepts.” Hell, the idea of a highly-sexualised protagonist born with parentage in two warring factions a la Romeo And Juliet, cutting his or her way through monsters sent out from the Christian afterlife? As impressive as it sounds, it isn’t exactly new when Dante was doing it first, but the interesting parts are found in the presentation.
Which reluctantly brings me to the core plot – or perhaps I should say plots, the part of the review I should probably wade through first. Bayonetta is a mysterious witch (here redefined as stripper/dominatrix/gunslinger/occultist/hair stylist), who was found twenty years ago in a coffin at the bottom of a lake, with no memory of her life before then.
OK, Platinum Games, I’m sticking with this so far. It’s The Long Kiss Goodnight for people who thought Geena Davis should’ve been wearing less clothes. What else you got?
Well, Bayonetta is then attacked by angels on a regular basis, who want to kill her because… Err, actually that’s never very well explained. There’s a couple of throwaway lines at the beginning to justify their repeated presence, but it doesn’t explain much and raises more questions than it answers, which feels… Strange. The angels don’t seem to have any real bearing on the plot, as all the main villains belong to other factions, so they just frequently swarm Bayonetta like wasps at a picnic and she swats them away again. You’d think the divine armies of Heaven would warrant their own game, but here they’re just annoyances, something to be dealt with alongside the huge civilian casualties and excessive shampoo bills. Though I guess in that case I can filter the angels out of the plot synopsis I’m constructing in my head – is there anything else you need to tell me, Platinum Games?
Well, there’s a second witch called Jeanne, who is Bayonetta’s sister, but also isn’t her sister because of reasons. And there’s a younger version of Bayonetta who’s her daughter, and also not her daughter because she’s traveled forward in time but thinks Big B is her mother. And you meet her dad (I think), who takes only five minutes to convince you that he is the most insufferable person who ever lived, but then he informs you that he wants to build a new universe. Or destroy it, or merge the existing ones, or something like that. It’s not important right now. He’s resurrecting God by putting two eyes in a statue, except they’re not eyes, they’re jewels. Or they’re people, sort of. It’s probably not important.
Oh, and there’s a guy in a Doctor Who scarf who’s trying to kill Bayonetta because she killed his dad, but he’s also her love interest because we have no idea what tone we’re trying to set with this character. But Bayonetta didn’t actually kill his dad, and yet never feels the need to adequately explain this to him, leaving him in a state of mild trauma for all his life. But it’s kooky in presentation, so I guess it’s OK, right?
Erm, could I just ask-
Oh, and there’s a rival clan of sages who are based around images of the sun. And a guy from hell who makes weapons out of old music LPs. And a German city that somehow makes New York look like a petrol station. And a chubby comic relief character with a nice car. And a deity you punch into the sun. And a-
Wait, wait, wait! Who was the guy with the scarf again?
We won’t mince words anymore – Bayonetta’s story is a huge, throbbing weak point to match the ones that all the bosses seem to have. It’s utterly confusing, presented both too fast and too slow to make any real sense to those who haven’t spent the last five years drawing on their cell wall with blunt crayons. There’s whole story elements which seem to have no connection to anything else and the characters are too hooked on their own archetypes to really appeal to anybody.
Bayonetta is the perfect example of this. Aside from the sub-par voice acting, the only time she seems likable is when she drops the act of being some unflappable badass and just consents to behave like a human being. All the silly catsuits in the world can’t make me think that she’s anything other than annoying, especially when she’s utterly cold and unimpressed by the genuinely interesting people she meets in the first half of the game. There might’ve been an interesting character study in somebody who puts up a wall of exaggerated sexuality in order to hide their own weaknesses or insecurities… But director Hideki Kamiya was clearly more concerened with generating one-liners and reasons for her to flirt with Tom Baker’s Japanese nephew.
Which isn’t to say the story can’t be entertaining. It’s not well written or well-structured by any means, but there’s something so gleefully blasphemous about it that it never gets boring, to say the least. It’s especially fascinating early on, where the game is completely in love with its own ideas and pushes them to bursting point, with a fight scene in a graveyard that throws out all ideas of restraint and goes into what I can only think of as an “otaku frenzy.”
But it’s hard to appreciate that commitment to entertaining the audience, because whilst Kamiya knows what he’s doing when it comes to gameplay, when it comes to film and animation the directing talent on show is nothing short of awful. Do you remember that great slow-motion scene in the reboot Devil May Cry game, where Dante gets dressed as he flies through the air in a falling caravan? That scene worked becuae we could actually understand what we were seeing, and that seems to be a minor consideration here.
It’s actively frustrating. Bayonetta and Jeanne would be acting out some demented combat sequence/dance routine that leaves Heaven’s soldiers as smears of blood and feathers, but I couldn’t register any of it among an undisciplined flurry of camera angles, close-ups and quick-cuts. So when it inevitably ended on some action pose and a musical flourish (obviously intended as the point where the audience should’ve been cheering) I could only scratch my head and make a mental note to watch it again at half speed. This must be how my mother feels when she watches a Marvel movie.
But let me get off the hate train and step onto the praise platform. The gameplay is good, a more hyperactive version of Devil May Cry and featuring most of the same elements. Light attack, heavy attack, dodge, jump and fire pistols. Mix those options with some wobbling of the analog sticks and you got yourself a combo, my friend. No, we don’t expect you to know which one. Yes, it still feels deeply unnatural to pause in the middle of an attack to enact certain moves, but considering you can get along fine without it you probably shouldn’t worry.
I admit, I got through most of this game button-mashing like my life depended on it, and slamming dodge when anything looked at me funny. There’s a rather neat feature wherein evading an attack at the last second causes time to temporarily slow down to a crawl, allowing you to kick your attacker in the face with the power of bullet-time; and the capacity to shoot enemies with your feet is as enjoyable as it is memorable.
There’s also more powerful attacks which involve hair. No, I don’t understand it either. Apparently most occult magic is focused on the follicles, hence why all the witches’ most epic attacks involve their hair unravelling and reforming into giant fists, or shoes, or even monsters. The problem is that Bayonetta’s outfit is woven from that same hair, and oh no! The more powerful your attacks, the more her outfit visibly disappears. And I don’t mean she goes from long sleeves to short sleeves. At times it looks like she should be starring in that Dead Or Alive swimsuit spin-off series, her outfit reduced to a couple of tasteful strands of hair that cover up the most indecent parts. How inconvenient for our heroine in cold weather, but how fortunate for all the observing nerds who suddenly find themselves hotter than ever before.
Beyond that, it’s exactly what you’d expect. There’s some platforming, some basic puzzle work, a few collectables and optional challenges that involve killing people with a handicap (by which I mean certain powers are taken from you, not you kicking people in wheelchairs).
It’s also worth mentioning that with or without those restrictions, you’ll probably die regardless. Because for all Bayonetta’s breezy confidence, this is a blisteringly tough game that enjoys putting the players through their paces. I usually got spat out of combat with a score equivalent to what you’d expect a coma patient to achieve in any other game, so those of you looking for an easy power fantasy might come out the other side with your tail between your legs. As a veteran Dark Souls player I find myself used to such treatment, but it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that most who started this game didn’t find themselves getting to the end.
Mind you, there are times where being beaten feels less fair than it should be. Forget Bayonetta’s nudity, the final boss is outrageous enough to be sporting an instant-kill attack; and the game has a nasty habit of throwing random, fatal Quick Time Events at you without warning. It’s staggering the amount of times I’d be in the middle of some extra-long cutscene, when suddenly the game would shout at me to slam a button combination and before I could react I’d be looking at a GAME OVER visual. Points lost for that, I think.
What else? I guess the visuals are nice, if a bit basic. The game does what a lot of games do now and presents the angelic forces as a combination of broken porcelain dolls, ragged feathers and inhuman shapes, like Michelangelo’s David was crossbred with the toy from Annabelle and a dead chicken. But it doesn’t look bad among the European architecture of the setting and the music is rather good, including a recurring cover of “Fly Me To The Moon” and an even catchier synth saxophone number at the end.
Which brings me to my final point, which came back to me as I was watching Bayonetta dance alluringly to said saxophone number. I’d been thinking it for a while, and I couldn’t put it out of my mind. Shouldn’t this game be… Sexier? I know that’s an odd complaint, one that I’d normally rank alongside “doesn’t disgorge free ham from the disc drive,” but it’s different here. I’m from the school of thinking that generally doesn’t care what you do, as long as you do it well and without compromise. And it’s obvious that Platinum Games and Kamiya wanted Bayonetta to be as sexy as possible.
Spoiler warning – she isn’t, not in the slightest.
It’s hard to put my finger on why. Perhaps it’s the failing of the graphics to make her look sufficiently alive, let alone like a member of the same race as us. Perhaps it’s because her body proportions seem so exaggerated to the point of unreality. Perhaps it’s because she never actually seems to have genuine sexual interest in anybody, and it all comes across as highly forced. Whatever it is, our pointy protagonist doesn’t seem sufficiently human to elicit any erotic feelings. It’s like being asked to feel attracted to a standing lamp in fetish gear. A fairly subjective whinge, yet it’s hard to ignore. Everything about this game is hard to ignore.
But at the end of the day, Bayonetta is guilty, stupid fun, often making mistakes but rarely being tedious or annoying. It’s nowhere near as smart as it could or should be – there really feels like there was opportunity for self-aware satire here – but slicing angels into holy giblets is satisfying enough that I can recommend it to those who like their action games extreme, and featuring style over substance. Give it a go, but don’t expect titillation – you’ll come away dry and disappointed.
Bayonetta is poorly written but fundamentally enjoyable, achieving a weirdly hypnotic quality with all the insanity running throughout it. Flaws in the design do detract from the experience, but still leave a basic concept that is executed with enthusiasm and glee… Even if it ends up less erotic than boiled ham.