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Bayonetta is prog rock.
When you listen to a classic album like Fragile by Yes, each track takes multiple ideas that could individually power an entire song, only to completely abandon them for the next motif twenty seconds later.
Bayonetta’s levels have this same sense of experimentation, iterating on a core set of character action mechanics – think Devil May Cry – to represent everything from a motorcycle sequence to a bullet hell shoot-‘em-up to a brief love letter to 2D fighting games.
It’s funny [a rarity in big budget games], it’s constantly surprising, it’s truly exciting and it plays fantastically. It has some of the most spectacular boss fights of any spectacle fighter and has more creativity in every single level than many games have over the course of an entire campaign, even a decade after its release.
Bayonetta was directed by action gaming veteran Hideki Kamiya, director of the original Resident Evil 2, Devil May Cry and ?kami, and developed by PlatinumGames, the legendary studio behind classics like Revengeance, Vanquish and, more recently, Nier: Automata.
It starts with theatrical flair, a spotlight shining down in an empty red void, before promptly putting the Umbran witches Bayonetta and Jeanne on the side of a clock tower falling off a cliff, where you fight off hordes of angelic monsters.
A voice over spouts out reams of historical information that go largely ignored over howling monsters and booming orchestral music. You clumsily throw out gravity-defying punches and kicks as Jeanne dances beside you, cutting through hordes with ease and grace, teasing at the finesse you will eventually develop over the 12 hour campaign.
The plot sees Bayonetta awakening after being trapped in a coffin under a lake for hundreds of years. Her clan has died out and her memory is gone, but a voice in her head and a tip off from lowlife mobster Enzo sees her journeying to the city of Vigrid in search of one of the Eyes of the World to try to restore her memory. Things immediately go sideways, and Bayonetta is left fighting to uncover a larger conspiracy at the heart of Vigrid whilst being hunted by angels, pursued by a swashbuckling journalist and accompanied by a mysterious young girl.
It’s telling that the first person credited in the opening sequence is cinematics director Yuji Shimomura. On a dime, the action shifts smoothly from B-movie banter into inventive and kinetic action choreography, reminiscent of action anime like Gurren Lagann and heavily inspired by genre classics like Devil May Cry 3.
The intricacies of Bayonetta’s wonderfully animated combat system are parceled out gradually, starting with the first and most immediately gratifying of the game’s many hooks: Witch Time.
A well-timed dodge [a perfectly poised frontflip or backflip] slows all enemies down for a brief period and charges your energy meter, letting you mash out a punishing combo. This gives combat a distinctive rhythm, where you carefully observe each enemy’s move set and attack patterns to table-flip the game’s frenetic, fast-paced combat into a slow-motion playground of hack-and-slash delight.
Bayonetta is full of lovely gameplay touches; for example, almost every move in the game can be extended mid-combo, pirouetting Bayonetta to a dramatic pose whilst she fires off a stream of bullets.
Energy can be spent to trigger hilariously over the top torture attacks and lets Bayonetta use her magic witch hair for ‘Wicked Weave’ attacks, launching gigantic versions of her fists, feet and weapon through occult portals with wince-inducing thunderclaps. Using these moves strips Bayonetta of most of her outfit, which is made from her magic hair: doesn’t exactly read great on paper, does it?
However, the game rarely feels gratuitous or leering, bar the odd lingering arse shot. Bayonetta is very much in control, using her body as a weapon and having a damn good time doing it. The story moves at a solid clip, with a campy mentality that Platinum completely embraces: the intro sequence features mobster Enzo pissing on Kamiya’s gravestone.
It’s when things slow down that the cracks widen. The voice actors are clearly having fun with the material [Hellena Taylor’s Bayonetta, doling out one liners and innuendos with a drawling schoolteacher’s purr, is a highlight], but certain lines and chunks of exposition are constantly repeated to the point of annoyance.
Some story elements are frustratingly under-explained and characters don’t always fully explain their motivations, occasionally seeming to do things just to advance the plot to the next crazy sequence. It makes a certain amount of bizarre ‘rule-of-cool’ sense by the end, and you’ll have far too much fun watching the wonderfully choreographed cut scenes to care, but it’s no Shakespeare.
Enemy designs are varied and visually arresting, grotesque golems with tails and talons sprouting out of their statuesque religious figures. Every enemy type is smartly designed to test or subvert your knowledge of the game’s combat systems. For example, the first few chapters are mainly populated with ranged and melee bruisers, telegraphing their slow attacks with audio cues and a dramatic visual flourish to acclimatise you to combat.
By the second chapter, you’re dealing with enemies like Dear and Decorations, a huge floating statue head orbited with a gang of protective sub-heads. This encourages you to use your crowd-control attacks, stylish moves where Bayonetta free-aims her guns like Neo in The Matrix, to take down the small fry and get at the main course.
Elsewhere, a recurring double act of hulking birdlike angels with elemental claws, Grace and Glory, are easily the game’s most unrelenting and hard-hitting enemy. It feels initially impossible to cut through the chaos of their combined assault. However, many of their attacks leave them hanging in mid-air briefly; timed right, you can punish one with mid-air combos whilst keeping an eye out for ranged retaliations from the other.
Later on, a ‘gold’ version of these enemies cannot be slowed down with Witch Time. This simple change gives a whole new dimension to the encounter and forces you to engage with your transformation abilities [a panther and crow] to bob and weave in thrillingly kinetic real-time.
Perhaps Bayonetta’s most remarkable achievement is the constant variety and novelty of every single combat encounter and set piece. It’s a rarity that you enter a combat arena, have a normal fight and move on. More often, you’re climbing up a vertical tower at a 90-degree angle whilst dodging debris, fighting a three-stage mini-boss on a crumbling cliff side or throwing debris to slow down a rampaging golem.
Time manipulation is also cleverly integrated into the game’s setpiece design; one early fight takes place on top of a moving plane, briefly held in stasis moments before crashing. Far from disposable, these elements make every section of every level unique, memorable and exciting, thanks to the high level of polish poured into every single detail.
Every moment is also sold with highly polished presentation. Some late game environments set in the angels’ realm of Paradiso are genuinely quite beautiful, and I could write an entire article about how wonderful the in-game music is from lead composer Hiroshi Yamaguchi.
[‘Fly Me to the Moon’ re-imagined as a jazz-funk J-pop showstopper is easily one of the musical highlights of the last gaming generation.]
Bayonetta’s secret is simple: it’s a top-notch platformer.
A blue beacon signifies where Bayonetta will land at any given moment, a wonderful touch that feeds into the ‘perfect information’ design ethos that keeps the player responsible for every moment of success and failure in and out of combat.
Of all things, Super Mario Galaxy feels like a major influence. Bayonetta fights on spheres, the sides of buildings and on top of gigantic bosses, the crazy and shifting perspectives making levels feel like roller-coasters.
Bayonetta can chain her panther and crow movements together with mid-air dodges and gravity-defying forward dashes to cover huge distances with style. Whilst the game never challenges with genuinely difficult platforming sections, the strong traversal mechanics facilitate some jaw-dropping boss fights.
Suggested Reading: The Plumber Goes Cosmic | Super Mario Galaxy at 10.
Every single one is an intricate, multi-layered encounter against huge, monstrous angels. You’ll often find yourself weakening them down before dodging obstacles to climb on top and hack off a gargantuan limb like Shadow of the Colossus on steroids.
In a genius piece of game design, features from almost every boss encounter are introduced in the level before. For example, Lustita, a gigantic airborne creature with four huge faces sprouting tentacled monstrosities, uses hyper-aggressive plant growths to smash down onto your platform.
These plants were introduced as environmental obstacles in the level before, and unknowingly let you practice and get used to their attack patterns in isolation before encountering them in the chaotic boss fight itself.
Touches like this are everywhere in Bayonetta’s levels; magic statues around Vigrid can be used to trigger a lightning bolt, which Bayonetta can use to enter witch time for certain puzzles. However, this is later re-purposed in a water flooded combat arena versus two flying serpents; here, the statues allow you to chain combos on the water’s surface.
Quick-time events are an unfortunate relic that pepper boss fights with moments of instant-death bollocks, but the game’s generous checkpointing counteracts most of the frustration.
I won’t spoil anything, but the sheer scale and splendour of the final boss is something I haven’t seen before or since, and hammers home the point: Bayonetta is a prog rock masterpiece.