It’s rare to have a game prove its greatness in the loading screen. But Bayonetta did. While waiting for the level to load, some dark programming magic allowed you to practice different attack combos, with a counter to show which moves you hadn’t tried yet. It was a unique take on how a game could encourage exploration; instead of poking around the map, you were sifting through the game’s system.
Bayonetta has always been a willfully cinematic game, where the goal is to tear through enemies and look great doing it, so the sequel revels in inventing weird-looking monsters and nifty-looking places to kill them. But there’s equal beauty in its gameplay. Most fighting is controlled by two buttons, with combos created by a careful synchronizing of the player’s hands and the character’s body. The result is a kind of action rhythm game, at once visceral and balletic.
The game’s best mechanic is the Witch Time system: Timing a dodge just right lets you execute longer combos, and build up magic that can be spent for special finishing moves. The system forces the player to step back and observe, and the reward for keeping your cool is both combat victory and a procession of hilariously elaborate special attacks, including summoning a brightly colored killer butterfly. Besides being groovy to look at, the system means there’s more to fights than a binary win/lose state; each battle ends with a score based on the smooth elegance with which the foe was dispatched, so there’s incentive to go back and dance through each fight more gracefully.
Bayonetta 2 picks up on a cheery Christmas Eve. Bayonetta is shopping for a dinner party when horrid creatures start tearing up the street and kill her classy biker sister, Jeanne. Our heroine sets off to remedy this inconvenience by kicking ass through the world of light, the world of darkness, and the world of chaos, which is, of course, Earth. On the way she’ll reclaim Jeanne’s soul, stick a well-manicured thumb in the eye of the immortals, and be home in time to whip up a piquant desert.
The questing storyline means the levels are more expansive than the previous game’s gilded corridors, but that’s not always a good thing. Too often the player ends up wandering through the map looking for treasure, which dilutes the glorious velocity that characterizes the series. But the small racing challenges are a nice interruption to the punch-ups, and it provides more chances to enjoy the cheerful grottiness of the game’s well-realized world.
Any discussion of the game’s visuals means engaging with the most characteristic and most problematic aspect of the game: the constant sexualization of its lead. The camera is unapologetically leering, frequently zooming in toward her crotch or eavesdropping on the little orgasmic moans she makes after a particularly titillating spot of ultra-violence. It’s understandable that some players feel like the game is, to quote Iroquois Pilskin, “a relentless barrage of steaming tawdry nonsense.”
But the campy hypersexuality feels joyful, rather than oppressive, because the character’s overdetermined gender presentation is an expression of her power rather than a contrast to it. Bayonetta loves butterflies, hearts, and flowers, and they’re how she kicks ass, literally blasting valentine-shaped holes in whatever stands in her way. Unlike the Tomb Raider reboot, where Lara’s womanly sensitivity is what keeps her from becoming a killing machine, Bayonetta is all of a piece; her prominently displayed genitals are echoed in the labial gaps she tears in reality to pummel hapless foes. It would be going too far to call the game feminist; like the Wonder Woman comics, it’s very much a man’s fantasy of female power. But she’s neither a damsel in distress, nor a de-gendered “cool girl,” and the game is blessedly indifferent to any obligation to give its tough gal a gooey center.
There’s an interesting musical contrast throughout the game: Each monster is introduced with a conventionally brooding orchestral score, but as Bayonetta triumphs, their ponderous horns are drowned out by cheery Japanese pop music. Bayonetta has always played like a Japanese answer to God of War, with aesthetic hyperbole mirroring the way small controller movements translate to massive destruction. But it jettisons GoW’s echt-American macho self-pity in favor of a very Japanese tone of insolent stylishness. Bayonetta is not just beating her lugubrious foes; she’s having a better time than they could possibly imagine.