Appropriately, if not intentionally, the Bayonetta games are about dichotomies. It’s about heaven and hell, light and dark, purity and depravity, being male and female, and all the ways in which humanity gets tossed around the chaos of reality trying to even keep up. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the games require a reckoning with how one of the most overtly sexualized characters to ever grace a video game is also one of the most powerful and empowered characters to ever grace a video game.
Bayonetta is, as far as she knows, the last of the Umbra Witches, an all-female sect of hyper-powerful pagan warriors who, 600 years ago, lived in the city of Vigrid—a hardly veiled jab at Vatican City. They resided alongside the Lumen Sages, a sect of devout theocrats doing the work of the Almighty on Earth. After a major war broke out between the clans, Bayonetta was sealed in a coffin that was sunk to the bottom of the sea. She wakes up 500 years later with amnesia, and a heavy debt to pay to the infernal forces that gave the witches their power—a debt that she goes about paying off in dead angels.
If Bayonetta wasn’t who she is, 2009’s Bayonetta and its 2014 sequel would be even easier to peg as the brainchildren of the people behind Devil May Cry. Bayonetta’s gameplay continues the good work started by that series, a very distinct evolution of third-person combat, with heroes using flashy, hard-hitting acrobatic attacks against tough, unforgiving enemies. It’s a style that encourages near-limitless innovation in how to mix up your punches, kicks, magic, and gunplay even in the middle of a long string of attacks.
However, even compared to Ninja Theory’s more audacious take on Devil May Cry, the Bayonetta games are unshackled from anything resembling restraint. Combo finishers spawn massive hands and feet from demonic portals that send foes rocketing across the battlefield. Every defeat creates a lightshow of sparkles and blood. Bosses fill up screens with their attacks—and thanks to the Nintendo Switch’s horsepower, said attacks no longer tank the game’s framerate. Gravity and realism are stomped into irrelevance as players are forced to do battle while walking up walls and ceilings, surfing through massive tidal waves, even while falling or flying at terminal velocity.
The enemies are beautiful blasphemies, with angelic beings representing cardinal virtues like Joy, Inspiration, Harmony, and Bravery—rendered as twisted perversions of Catholic Renaissance art. Think David Cronenberg recreating the Sistine Chapel. Later stages in Bayonetta 2 eventually take our heroine to Hell, where the demons are wretched, wormy masses of claws and perpetually tortured flesh. The massive, ornate environments where angels and demons reside follow suit—impossible structures befitting the alien, preternatural glory of God and the horrors of her infernal counterpart.
Standing in opposition of both sides is Bayonetta herself, a wild-card agent of chaos who undercuts the grotesque majesty of it all, just as Devil May Cry’s Dante did. But Dante’s brand of try-hard cool has always been the weakest thing about that series. And Platinum Games is in agreement considering how many less-than-gentle jabs Bayonetta’s comic foil, Luka, takes at Dante. Bayonetta, however, is a character with commitment to an unapologetically extreme mélange of female-centric traits, in all the ways characters like Dante are committed to being unapologetically, extremely male, and hers is ultimately the most revelatory presence in modern gaming.
Bayonetta is weaponized Girl Power, where lipstick, makeup, fashion, trashy Europop, and, yes, even unapologetic sluttiness have all been rendered as an unfathomable force that can tear down Heaven, up to and including God. Even Madama Butterfly, Bayonetta’s demon familiar that gives power to her strikes, feels like a living, hellish embodiment of haute couture, like an H.R. Giger drawing of Heidi Klum. This is a game series where a woman tears off a dinner-party dress to murder Heaven’s best Christian soldiers on a fighter jet, all while striking a pose to a bubblegum-pop cover of “Moon River.” It speaks volumes that this scene represents a subdued moment in this series.
It still feels wildly incongruous that this series wound up as, ostensibly, a Nintendo exclusive property considering how hard it works to earn that M for Mature ESRB rating, and yet, after the series spent eight years bouncing around gaming platforms, it finally feels like it’s found a true home on the Switch. In a year, the system has built its rep not on pushing a 4K TV to its visual breaking point, but on delivering games that force players to imagine what’s possible—say, Can I set this tree on fire and make my character feel warm? or Can I take over this enemy and become a dinosaur?—and discover to their delight that so many of the answers to these questions are “yes.”
To wit, both Bayonetta games run at 60fps, but still display at a comparatively horrifying 720p that looks jagged as hell on a 4K TV. Yet, the number of games running at a high resolution that let you do what Bayonetta lets players do, to be who Bayonetta is, and play as the games play can be counted on one hand. Even then, none of those games can be carried around in your pocket, accessible for that hit of blissful power when and wherever you want as Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 absolutely deserve to be.