I first attempted to play Bayonetta several years ago after finishing Vanquish. It failed to impress me, and I did not even finish the prologue before quitting. It seemed as though the game was trying much too hard to answer the rhetorical question, “What would Devil May Cry look like if Dante were a girl instead of a dudebro?” Of course, the gaming industry has conditioned its audience to expect some sexploitation to accompany the gender-swap. At that time, I was also in a bad place spiritually, and defensively dismissed it as yet another overhyped gateway to sin.
PlatinumGames made the entire gaming industry do a double-take when it was announced that Bayonetta 2 would not only be a Wii U exclusive (forever and ever and ever, Amen, because Bayonetta 2 is published by Nintendo), but every copy of the sequel would also include a “definitive edition” of the original Bayonetta, running at an allegedly always-60fps. Most Bayonetta fans were livid, because many of them had long ago disregarded the Wii U as a failed, kiddie, et cetera, console. Meanwhile, Wii U owners were like:
Because the launch of the elusive Nintendo NX is nigh, we here at Geeks Under Grace would like to bid the Wii U farewell by reviewing any games that we may have missed in our prior years. As the editor of the video games department here at GUG, I did not want to risk “causing others to stumble,” by assigning the Bayonetta games to someone on my team, especially after overlooking the franchise as void of any fruit whatsoever, so I took on the assignment myself, fully ready as a critic in evisceration mode.
Upon further investigation, I may have previously judged too hastily….
Like The Binding of Isaac, Bayonetta is so rife with spiritually precarious material that it would be possible to write an entire article on its content alone. I will try my best write cogently where possible. On a thoroughly positive note however, the game’s Trinity of Realities, Purgatorio, Inferno, and Paradiso are all locations borrowed from Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of two epic poems that is mandatory reading material for anyone interested in how the occidental as envisioned heaven, hell, angels, and demons up to modern times (the other is Milton’s Paradise Lost).
Two rival clans of mages, the Lumen Sages and Umbra Witches, maintain respective affinities for polarities: light and darkness, the sun and moon, Paradiso and Inferno. I cannot even begin to explain the rank and file within the Hierarchy of Laguna, the legion of angels residing in Paradiso from which the Lumen Sages channel their powers. Again, one would have to research the extensive history of how modern depictions of angels came to be (and to be quite frank, the wikipedia article on the topic is woefully inadequate). Nevertheless, let it be known that PlatinumGames borrows from many sources for the design of its angels, resulting in the grotesque within the celestial. The Umbra Witches on the other hand form pacts with the demons of Inferno to gain their powers. As part of the contract, so long as the demon-bound Witch sends the halos of slain angels to Inferno, she can live eternally and delay the ****ation of her soul. In fact, these halos such a commodity in Inferno that in exchange for them, Rodin, proprietor of the Gates of Hell bar and club, is willing to descend into hell’s depths for weapons to augment Bayonetta’s arsenal. (Rodin is a/the devil) Bayonetta’s demonic sponsor is known as Madame Butterfly, hence, she casts a butterfly shadow, sprouts butterfly wings during a double jump, and strikes foes with arms, fists, legs and feet adorned with jewelry in likeness of the insect as a reminder of her obligations.
As an Umbra Witch, Bayonetta possesses such command of her hair that she clothes herself with it in a form-fitting outfit accentuating all of her…womanliness. However, when fighting bosses, players are prompted to initiate a finishing moves provocatively named “climaxes,” rituals in which Bayonetta recites an indecipherable incantation to summon an Infernal Demon from Inferno for the purpose of dispatching her foes spectacularly. Her hair becomes the medium in which the demon takes form, leaving her minimally adorned as her hair swirls strategically to censor her unmentionables as all this action takes place (also pictured at the beginning of this section).
Indeed, Bayonetta earns every bit of its “M” rating, but to its credit, the game does so with far more maturity than PlatinumGames’ first production, Mad World, could muster. One might be tempted to align Bayonetta comparably with games similar in genre and theme such as No More Heroes due to the blood, gore, and profanity (four-letter bombshells are popular mostly among Bayonetta‘s supporting cast; she notably drops one F— and otherwise prefers euphemism and innuendo), but the titular character is much too self-aware, and not in a fourth wall-breaking way such as Deadpool, but an feminine way unprecedented in all of video games. It was once, and now would be much too easy for me to denigrate Bayonetta simply because the Umbra Witch in question oozes sex like a cascade of honey. On the contrary, I must commend PlatinumGames for what it has accomplished; Bayonetta is cognizant of the fact that all of heaven, earth, and hell gazes upon her at all times, and literally struts about the screen with the knowledge that eyes will be glued to her incorrigible hips and rear. One of the key differences between her and other “video game vixens” such as Quiet from MGSV or any of the women in Dragon’s Crown whose sexuality is paraded in such a way that all other qualities are effectively muted, is that that Bayonetta’s sexual spectacles are not just for the purpose of being eye-candy. She exercises her sexuality as a mode of possession, control, and power; she is a “**** in Total Control of Herself,” expressing sex not merely as PlatinumGames designed her to, but simply because she can, and on her terms—not those of her onlookers. She gives the audience permission to look in a digital inversion of sexual power, and destroys her enemies with it.
Of course, all of this means that gamers should exercise caution when playing Bayonetta. The coquettish lead might be bewitching to hearts, minds, and souls that are sensitive to the visual orgasms on display here.
The trap is set at the graveyard, but the loudmouthed caricature of Joe Pesci named Enzo does not realize it as he blabs on incessantly about the recently departed “Eggman” to a nearby woman reading from “the good book” while clad like a nun in white. Just as he knocks off, a light appears from the heavens, and angels descend, apparently on a mission to guide the departed soul to paradise. However, the woman in white creates a portal to pass from the human realm into Purgatorio and intercepts the angels, slaughtering them. When she is finished, she crosses back over from Purgatorio and reminds Enzo that in exchange for Eggman’s funeral arrangement, he would provide her with information to find the second of a pair of artifacts on the black market called the Eyes of the World, a name that she vaguely remembers as important due to amnesia. He tells Bayonetta to go to the artificial city of Vigrid where the original seller could be found. There, she discovers that Vigrid is dangerously close to Paradiso in elevation, and the entire Hierarchy of Laguna bear down upon her in an assault, they too in pursuit of the Eyes of the World. After encountering what appears to be another Umbra Witch named Jeanne who jogs her memories, Bayonetta sets off in pursuit of this mysterious religious relic.
The payoff of Bayonetta’s…climax…falls short of the intrigue that the plot develops up to the point of the big reveals. I was anticipating something of more impact, but the game is so neatly restricted to its own fictional universe of cities and realms, I found myself shrugging at the idea that the ultimate villain would succeed. In fact, the the story suggests that only a balance of the two sides would be acceptable, and if only one succeeds, the world loses. Alas, that is not what happens, and the strength of the game is most certainly its gameplay.
Bayonetta fancies itself as an easily-accessible action game with an astronomically high skill ceiling, an accomplishment that should be the envy of the gaming industry. Players can choose from easy automatic, a mode that allows the game to be completed with doltish button-mashing, up to the masochistic “Non-Stop ∞ Climax” after completing hard mode. The basic punch, kick, jump, shoot, and dodge buttons are all accounted for, and combinations of them end in special attacks called Wicked Weaves which summon Madame Butterfly’s fist or foot to smash into foes into foes. Holding down a strike to delay the next input not only makes Bayonetta shoot her guns for more hits and points, but may also unlock another hit string. The combinations of combos in this game are as limited as the player’s imagination and skill, the latter of which is determined at the conclusion of each chapter through trophies ranging from pure platinum to bronze. Shamefully, I admit that I pilled up on the consolation prizes.
Even skilled dodging has benefits. Performing a “Dodge Offset” by starting a combo, holding down a button, and successfully evading an attack allows players to continue the combo without breaking sequence. This is useful for enemies with low vulnerability to stun, or are nimble enough to interrupt chains with an attack of their own. Players who perform a successful dodge at the last moment before an attack strikes will usually enter “Witch Time,” a perk reducing enemy move speed to half, allowing Bayonetta opportunity to assault her adversaries with little fear of retaliation for short intervals. On occasion, gamers will find themselves required to intentionally trigger Witch Time to solve puzzles or beating bosses bosses. I have also found that Witch Time accelerates the rate in which the magic gauge fills. To my knowledge, the magic meter is used for “Torture Attacks.”
Bayonetta showcases its flamboyance with every fighting technique, enemy, and chapter, though one of the coolest features of this game is the introduction of every member in the Hierarchy of Laguna via a freeze-frame vignette that is then enclosed into a book of lore. Every foe in the game, including the final boss receives their own special introductory sequence. Furthermore, when Bayonetta fills her magic meter, these enemies can be subjected to a unique “Torture Attack” depending on enemy type and position on the screen. She summons devices used to persecute her clan during the witch hunts; my personal favorite is the chainsaw used to split Harmony in half.
This is the kind of detail that demonstrates how much PlatinumGames care about polish, and is far more interesting than picking up lore randomly throughout the game—not that Bayonetta excludes the traditional way of finding goodies. There are bonus stages (called Alfheim), items, weapons, and Umbran Tears of Blood (which come in both collectible from achievement form) to be found throughout the game, though I suck and encountered very little. By the time I finished the game, I only found the Onyx Roses (shotgun) and Shuraba (katana) when there are supposed to be at least two more options as indicated by the holes in my inventory screen. Weapons and items can also be purchased at Rodin’s Gates of Hell bar club, but only if one collects halos. Because I am bad at the game, I did not have enough halos to purchase abilities and items as I invested primarily in restorative lollipops and witch hearts to expand my health.
There lies a catch-22: the number of items, weapons, and accessories combined with the rating system encourages multiple playthroughs, yet Bayonetta inadvertently taunts me and my inadequacy in the face of having to work to experience the game in full. This is a problem most likely alleviated by lowering the difficulty or simply “GIT GUD,” yet certain enemies like Joy make it impossible to fight without getting hit and properly time dodges, whilst enemies such as Grace & Glory absolutely annihilate me. While I have no qualms with quick time events, those featured in Bayonetta require split-second timing else players will find themselves at the continue screen. Luckily, the save and checkpoint system in Bayonetta is fabulously generous, allowing for games to be resumed even from a cold dead start at the last battle fought after Bayonetta playfully blows a kiss to break a barrier to proceed.
The juxtaposition of feminine charm with lurid violence, the abominable with the celestial, and the absurd with the sagacious, conceives a potent amalgamation of sights and sounds. I have played my fair share of games like Dante’s Inferno, God of War, and Diablo, games which which illustrate their interpretations of Inferno/Hades/Hell. Of course, they are all doom and gloom from character costumes to bosses to environments. As a change of pace, Diablo at times teases with meager previews of what heaven in its universe looks like like (Act IV of Diablo III is much too short). Bayonetta proceeds in this direction, content that the underworld has been done too often and too well, placing emphasis on the Umbra Witch’s transition from Purgatorio and invasion of Paradiso, a location that is as gloriously luminous as the sages who siphon their powers from there—even with the occasional frame rate dips below 60fps. It is this combination of features in PlatinumGames’ product that make it scoff in the face of every action game that has preceded it in a way similar to how Bayonetta curb stomps angle faces (or removes them entirely) while blazing through foes in action sequences tuned to her own theme is a long metaphor for this game’s competition. The jazzy 90’s-style feminine pop grew on me over time, after struggling to place “Mysterious Destiny” and “Fly Me to the Moon” in an identifiable genre. I was eventually able to recall “Felicia’s Theme,” “Morrigan’s Theme” (from Darkstalkers) and “Women’s Team” from The King of Fighters ‘95 as reference points. “Let’s Hit the Climax” is by far my favorite song however, followed by “Chapter Select” as a close second. The latter draws inspiration from “Statue of Time” from DMC, while the implementation of the former is a perfect compliment to Bayonetta’s spectacular boss finishers which make me feel like a hero, a magical Wonder Woman.
I could not have been more wrong in my initial rejection of Bayonetta. While I still could care less for the bizarre plot devices, overly extended cutscenes, and two driving/flying mini-games which play like demonstrations rather than a core feature, not since the beat-em-ups of the 90’s have I experienced such excellence in action game combat. If one finds themselves immune to the mythos of equalizing to the point of neutrality that which we traditionally consider good and evil, wanton torment of misshapen angels, and the enchantment of Umbra Witches’ general disdain for modesty, then I would highly recommend Bayonetta. It does not get much more mature on the Wii U than this.
The Bottom Line
The content concerns in Bayonetta should give modest gamers pause, but those who choose to endure will be rewarded with a game that fits squarely among the pantheon of all-time greatest action games.