I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I don’t have the strongest history with the works of Hideki Kamiya, the director and creator of Bayonetta. Whether it’s Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, or Okami, these are all games that I have bought and played over the years, but oddly enough, I’ve never finished a single one of them.
That all changed recently when Bayonetta 2’s impending release on the Wii U inspired me to fire up the original on the Xbox 360. It’s a game that is adored by fans, and its sequel became one of the most talked about and controversial exclusives on Nintendo’s newest console. Bayonetta is often described as the perfect action game, so I had to see for myself what it was all about.
Now that I’ve played through it, I understand why it has such passionate fans. I can also see why it not being on Sony and Microsoft consoles this time around has angered so many players.
At its core, Bayonetta is a case study in deep, accessible gameplay. It’s a game that can be enjoyed both by those who just want to experience its story and spectacle, but perhaps more importantly, by those who want to take the time and effort to master its intricate combat system.
And what a combat system it is! Different combos can be performed effortlessly through a seemingly endless string of punch, kick, and firing combinations, and buttons can be long-pressed to maximize combo output. A feature called Witch Time can be activated while dodging enemy attacks at the last second to slow things down and give the player an opportunity to further build up their combos and score, and without taking any damage.
Combos can also be interrupted and continued through the game’s innovative Dodge Offset system, which can dramatically increase a player’s performance once its timing and use have been mastered. The game doesn’t do a good job explaining this, and while I’m not there yet in terms of fully grasping its depth, it’s one of the more addictive aspects of Bayonetta’s advanced gameplay techniques.
The game takes place over the course of 18 Chapters, including the Prologue and Epilogue. Each one is broken down into a group of Verses; some Chapters only have a few Verses, while others can have many. Not all of them are along the critical path, however, and the player must explore each Chapter to find them. It took me approximately 15 hours to complete, and I missed a lot of those Verses.
Much time will be spent in the game’s numerous cutscenes, which are long-winded and could have greatly benefited from a more aggressive story editor. Speaking of Bayonetta’s story, I found most of it to be nonsensical, but I suppose it did a serviceable job of giving the cast motives to keep moving forward.
The characters themselves are excellent, however, possessing strong personalities and energetic voice work. The only character I did not care for was the Chapter 16 boss, who simply will not shut up. For those who have played Bayonetta 2, they actually poke fun at this in the game’s opening Chapter. I guess even Platinum thought they went overboard!
Visually, Bayonetta looks good, with a game engine that does its best to run at 60 frames-per-second. It slows down quite a bit throughout, but not enough to be a detriment to gameplay. Cutscenes run at half the framerate — possibly for cinematic purposes — but it can be distracting seeing the performance change so frequently. Don’t ignore those cutscenes, though. You have to stay on your toes, since quick time events often occur during what are otherwise non-interactive cinematics.
The game also exhibits an excessive amount of screen tearing, which is an unfortunate blow to its visual presentation. It should be noted that this does not occur in the 2014 Wii U port of Bayonetta.
Animation is superb, however, and although some of the character models show their age, they convey realistic emotion through their facial expressions, movement, and dialogue. Bayonetta herself is fluidly animated, with beautiful and sexy attacks that flow together seamlessly. Her hair-based Wicked Weaves and Climax finishers are particularly noteworthy, as they are huge, screen-filling creations that bring to mind the memorable Summons from the Final Fantasy series.
The color palette of the game tends to be dark, with lots of grays, browns, reds, and greens. It suits the story and mood of the game, but I thought they were much more drab than they needed to be. Environments exhibit a good variety throughout — with some truly memorable ones — although you will find yourself running down boring, barren hallways more often than you’d like, as well as solving rudimentary, slow, and sometimes vague puzzles. These all feel like holdovers from the PlayStation 2 era, and can slow the game down to a crawl.
On the audio side, Bayonetta is an absolute stunner. The soundtrack is an energetic mixture of vocal pop, smooth jazz, and grandiose choral and classical arrangements. They give the game its texture and atmosphere, are all of extremely high quality, and elevate the game’s action to the next level.
Not only that, but with Platinum’s partnership with Sega — and Kamiya’s love of old Sega games — Bayonetta is graced with arranged music from classic games such as Space Harrier, After Burner, and Out Run.
Sound effects are not only well done, but are essential to performing well in combat. Enemies have subtle visual and audio cues that will telegraph an incoming attack. With so much action and chaos going on around you, sometimes you will have to let your ears do the seeing for you.
Minigames and platforming are also a part of Bayonetta’s gameplay, but they can slow the game down, be completely frustrating, or are so long as to overstay their welcome. It’s unfortunate that Platinum drew the driving/flying stages out the way they did. These would have been better served as a medley of the different game styles combined into a single chapter. As it is, they end up feeling out of place due to their vastly different gameplay, and overindulgent due to their excessive length. Platforming is often vague, with Bayonetta falling to her injury or death frequently. Thankfully, it doesn’t occur too many times throughout.
Boss encounters, on the other hand, are intimidating and exciting. Most of them have an intuitive feel that makes fighting them very fun and satisfying. Couple this with Bayonetta’s finishing moves and these become some of the game’s most enjoyably visceral sequences.
In terms of replay value, Bayonetta brings it. Not only are there a wealth of items and secret battles to buy and discover, but there are also challenging hidden stages that will test your skills and mastery of the game’s techniques.
Its ranking system will also have perfectionists coming back over and over again to attain all of the game’s Pure Platinum awards, which essentially requires the player to get through each Chapter with a high combo score, low time, and zero damage. Not an easy feat, and definitely not for the faint of heart at the game’s highest difficulty of Non-Stop Infinite Climax, where Witch Time is disabled and enemies are stronger. Accessories can help out tremendously, but button mashers will not get far beyond Normal mode. Bayonetta requires dedication, concentration, and mastery to extract everything that it has to offer.
In closing, Bayonetta is one of the best pure action games I’ve played in a long time. Its combat system is highly satisfying and possesses splendid depth. Although there are frustrating aspects, including gimmicky minigames, instant-death quick time events, performance issues, and a glut of unnecessary cutscenes, the foundation is rock-solid, and is a game that action fans should not miss.
- Graphics & Presentation: B
Nice animation, effects, and mostly 60fps action. Performance often takes a hit, and screen tearing is prevalent. Worlds are constructed well, but colors are dark and bland. Cutscenes can be painfully long, but some of them are exhilarating and extremely stylish.
- Music & Sound Effects: A+
One of the best action game soundtracks I’ve ever heard. A wonderful mix of vocal pop, jazz, and classical, you’ll be singing “Fly Me To The Moon” long after you finish the game. Great sound effects that actually matter during gameplay.
- Gameplay & Controls: B+
A combat system that puts most to shame; it’s fast, fluid, deep, and intuitive. Upgrades, new moves, techniques, and accessories add to the game’s wonderful variety and complexity. Significant filler muddles Bayonetta‘s focus, though, with the non-fighting levels, shooting galleries, puzzles, and half-baked platforming.
- Value: A
Pure Platinum chasers will have their hands full for weeks, if not months, with a system that rewards perseverance and dedication. Lots of hidden items, battles, and challenges to discover will keep completionists coming back for more.