Bayonetta 2 begins with shopping. The game’s eponymous witch is buying a few last-minute Christmas gifts, when a fight kicks off with a bunch of angels and Bayonetta’s friend Jeanne is accidentally cast into hell. So typical.
Soon afterwards, Bayonetta is atop a jet fighter, then doing the splits upside-down while knocking seven shades out of the heavenly host, then jumping on to an express train while being chased by a brutish angel. After smashing that to pieces, Bayonetta then smacks up a gigantic rogue demon while flying around a skyscraper. Such a torrent of extravagant set-pieces would be a great climax for any action game. In Bayonetta 2 this is just the prologue.
Japan’s Platinum Games has a well-deserved reputation as the best developer of 3D action games on the planet, and the original Bayonetta set a new standard for the third-person brawler. Five years later, Bayonetta 2 does it again, though this is an example of refinement rather than revolution. Its beating heart is the witch herself, a saucy beanpole who combines speed, grace and endless contortions with the sheer truck-stopping power of Superman. She can fling herself over a flailing sword one moment, and slide beneath a clumsy hook the second, before slamming down her giant boot with the force and precision of a sub-orbital rod.
The nature of third-person beat-em-ups is often misunderstood. Bayonetta 2 is a linear game with 15 chapters (plus post-completion extras) that will take probably 15 hours to finish once. But completion is where games like Bayonetta 2 really get started. This genre is all about mastering a combat system and gradually cranking up the difficulty as you do so, learning the ins and outs of an incredibly complex move-set and the different styles inherent in its various weapons (I’ve unlocked eight, and there are more). Bayonetta 2 is not “about” finishing the story or being blown away by the set-pieces, visually astounding as the latter often are – it’s about becoming better at playing to the extent that combat becomes almost a performance.
Fighting the system
The foundations of Bayonetta’s fighting system are simple: two attack buttons, a gun button, a dodge and a jump. From these unfold layer after layer after layer of subtlety, with fractional timings, held buttons and quick wiggles of the control stick utterly changing the course of a particular combo. Going too far into the specifics risks making this seem more intimidating than it is, because the beauty of Bayonetta 2’s combat is how it flows from basic one-twos into longer and longer strings of moves without your ever having to think about it too much. It is a system that’s enormous fun to play with and, by virtue of this, is always teaching more as you play.
One part of it needs special mention: witch time. Activated by dodging at the last possible moment before an attack connects, this causes time to slow to a crawl as a stylised filter appears over the action. This is your opportunity to land the big shots, find respite amid a hail of incoming attacks, and line up the next flurry of blows before heaven or hell can think twice.
What’s beautiful about witch time is that (like most moves in Bayonetta 2) it fulfils multiple roles. It is a part of the rhythm for each drawn-out engagement, offering both miniscule breathers in the eye of the storm, and the opportunity to pick and choose where you’re going to fly back in. In a game built around wonderful systems, this one glues everything together.
In terms of what Bayonetta is fighting, the enemy design is ever-so-slightly less impressive than in the original, but only because the universe was already so comprehensive and fully-formed. Certain changes seem unnecessary – for example, the heavenly enemies in Bayonetta had symmetrical designs, which fits the idea of “order”, but the first big one here has a giant serpentine arm on its right side. The newly introduced denizens of inferno are a much happier fit for experimentation, with their forms wavering between corruption, industrial-robotic, and prominent digital stylings. The return of a few old favourites makes this a lineup with both spectacular grotesques and a wide variety of other types that are great fun to fight against solo and in groups.
It does feel like there are fewer “normal” fights throughout Bayonetta 2’s campaign, with the breaks between set-pieces short. This is not a problem, though, because the set-pieces are great and just about live up to the original’s over-the-top craziness without repeating the same tricks. Also, there is a series of magnificent arena battles post-completion that stretch your abilities to the fullest. Added to this is a co-operative online mode which allows you to play any of 52 battles with a partner and compete for the highest score, something of a dream for aficionados of this kind of action.
These details matter. Bayonetta 2’s campaign gets within touching distance of the original’s sheer imagination, but its structure is far superior – Bayonetta’s biggest problem was that it didn’t offer experienced players a way to simply enjoy the combat system outside of story mode. This means it’s extraordinarily difficult to choose between the two titles but, as luck would have it, the definitive version of Bayonetta is included in the sequel’s special edition. That particular purchase is probably the greatest action game package in history.
The reason of the witch
It would be remiss to skate over Bayonetta herself, a character that has received significant criticism for allegedly pandering to a male audience. The criticism centres on the fact that Bayonetta has unrealistic proportions, and sometimes the camera lingers for a few seconds on her groin or some exposed flesh – usually while she’s booting some giant monster’s face off. Bayonetta’s voice actor is also pretty smouldering.
This is obviously a topic with no right or wrong take. For my part, Bayonetta is certainly sexualised, but she’s also smarter, wittier and tougher than every man in the game by a distance. Describing the character as simply sexist removes it from any context of her in-game actions: rather than spoiling the plot of Bayonetta 2, let’s consider what she does in the first game. Among other things, Bayonetta kills every angel in heaven, demolishes the archangels in increasingly elaborate battles, lays the smackdown on the (male) Lumen sages, and rides a motorbike up the side of a launching space rocket. At the end she punches God into the sun. I’m not saying this completely excuses the titillation, but I missed the bit where she does his laundry.
Bayonetta 2 is another Wii U classic, another brilliant production from Platinum Games, and an exceptional debut for its first-time director Yusuke Hashimoto. It is not just that the core fighting system is so great, but that the game’s construction lets players pick and choose the parts they most enjoy, and delight in discovering new secrets as they do so.
The sheer polish applied to every part of Bayonetta 2 is something every major studio should aspire to: the exceptional and wide-ranging soundtrack, the huge number of unlocks, the Nintendo easter eggs, the “making of” materials, and the unlockable characters that bring their own style. Not a single thing has been held back. In this second adventure, Bayonetta over-delivers in every regard, and it will be a long time before another fighting game threatens her crown.
This article was written by Rich Stanton, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 14th October 2014 11.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010