I’m sure it’s harder than ever to impress gamers these days. Some of us have played hundreds, if not thousands, of games covering nigh-infinite situations and themes. It’s usually not enough for a game to have cutting-edge visuals or grand environments or even a remarkable story, because so much of it has been seen before. And yet there are still games like Bayonetta, games that find the cracks in that shield of cynicism and get right to the heart of delight. It’s the kind of game that if you’re not fist-pumping and grinning like an idiot by the end, you really haven’t been paying attention.
Bayonetta is the last of the Umbra Witches, a sect of moon-powered sentinels maintaining balance in the world. Their holier-than-thou counterparts, the Lumen Sages, wiped the Witches out hundreds of years ago, leaving Bayonetta to sort out the forces of light on her own. The Sages have something cooking and it’s got the heavenly host all riled up, leaving our heroine the perfect excuse to wreck some halos across what feels like a small, magic-powered European nation. Delving deep into the country of Vigrid, she’ll uncover the truth about her past and her part in all these divine machinations.
And, of course, she’ll tear the shit out of any angels that get in her way. I’ve heard the term “spectacle fighter” coined for these kinds of third-person action games, and it’s a ridiculously accurate moniker. Bayonetta is armed with four guns for a start (two strapped to her stiletto heels) and bears an entire catalog of combination attacks that punch, kick, shoot, and slam enemies into submission. She also has magical attacks powered by her clothes, which are in fact her hair, which in fact peels off of her to form giant limbs and creatures to annihilate her foes. And we haven’t even touched on her torture attacks, alternate weapons like swords and ice skates, and extra special moves.
The enormous arsenal available certainly spices up fights, but it’s the pace and mechanics of combat that make this such a spectacle. Bayonetta is lightning-fast and plenty of her enemies can match her speed, but her dodge move helps even the odds. Dodging attacks at the very last second triggers Witch Time, a slo-mo mode where you’re free to wail on your foes as hard as possible. She also comes equipped with a double-jump and wall jump, along with a full suite of aerial attacks, dives, and launchers. It won’t be easy landing all those attacks and juggles on the wily angels surrounding you, but learning the cadence of the game and weaving in and out of crowds to pick them apart is immensely gratifying.
I’m actually going to harp on this a bit more because it’s the very core of Bayonetta’s appeal: The combat is so incredibly, impossibly fun. Every aspect of it, from the speed to the variety to the controls to the feedback, is designed to make you feel like a veritable god of destruction. Starting out you’ll be quickly overwhelmed by the massive, numerous enemies in your way. But learning your capabilities, finding ways around their defenses, and matching the speed of engagements will eventually turn the tables and have you eager for the next fight. It’s doubly satisfying as a player to reach the same level of confidence Bayonetta has when sizing up her enemies and regarding them as little more than toys to be broken and discarded.
I touched on the story a bit earlier, but honestly it’s not one of the strong points of the game. There’s a lot going on with ancient factions and double-crosses and maternal figures and legendary gems that gets hard to follow, especially in light of the hugely over–the-top cutscenes. Not to be outdone by the actual combat, the cinematics have Bayonetta gracefully gunning down whole flocks of angels, hitching rides on missiles, driving motorcycles up the sides of collapsing buildings, and even crazier shit as you get late in the game. I’ll give them credit for never really showing anything that you can’t do yourself, because there are some odd interludes where you get to drive motorcycles like that one sequence in Final Fantasy VII, or ride rockets in a strange approximation of Space Harrier that goes on a little too long.
The takeaway here is that there’s a ton of stuff bolted on around the combat that doesn’t always improve the game. The story and characters are heavily tinged with anime tropes, and while I grew to love them it can certainly rub the wrong way. Breaks in the combat aren’t always the down-time you need, especially if it’s an alternate gameplay mode that doesn’t fully match the tight controls and expert pacing of the main course. And the level design is very much in that Japanese vein of heavily curated arenas that keep you on track with invisible walls and sometimes frustrating secrets. For some folks, this might make for too much baggage to really enjoy the core experience.
If it doesn’t, though, you’re in for one hell of a ride. Your enemies are some of the most creative designs to come out of religious iconography, taking liberally from the the Old Testament concepts of terrible alien angels with too many eyes and appendages. The bosses in particular are towering monstrosities of glory, some as large as buildings, and all absolutely incredible experiences to battle through. Everything ramps up in intensity to a conclusion that far surpassed my expectations on all fronts, being grand and intense and emotional and hilarious all at once. That’s what Bayonetta does so well, combining so many disparate elements into a circus of violence and wonder that’s hard to ignore. Even after finishing it I don’t feel done with it, because I don’t want to be done with it, and I think there are few things I can say that give it more praise than that.