Have you heard of Bayonetta? Probably, as this is like the fourth time it’s been released. Bayonetta is a divisive and extremely silly third-person fighting/adventure. The player controls Bayonetta, who is a mega-combative, sassy, sexy fetish witch with amnesia. Together, you go on a ridiculous but very on-rails quest. It was developed by PlatinumGames, and Sega published it on 360, PS3 and PC in 2009/10. Nintendo then put out a Wii U version in 2014. And now, here we are in 2018, and it’s arrived again, fresh and divisive as ever, on the Switch.
This was my first time playing Bayonetta, which means I’ve only managed to play the story once through. In turn, this means I’m going to have much difficulty parsing it succinctly for you because frankly, I understood very little of what was going on. Because it is, like I said, EXTREMELY SILLY. Instead of trying to describe the plot for you, here are a bunch of key terms that I picked up: Umbra Witch! Lumen sages! Heaven, hell, purgatory, demons, angels, 500 years, “Little One,” “eyes of the world,” “The Creator,” arms dealers, journalist, “Vigrid,” “you killed my father.” It’s one part Dante’s Divine Comedy, one part insane gothic-futurist fantasy, and one part violent anime.
Bayonetta herself doesn’t remember where she comes from or seems to understand much of the conflict she’s entering into, so at least there you’re in the same boat. The narrative slushes through overly long cutscenes which, nevertheless, still don’t effectively convey much of what’s going on, probably because the story is really complicated extremely silly. Some marginally helpful background details can optionally be picked up in scattered text fragments that you’ll find throughout the game. The main upshot is that Bayonetta has to kick/punch/slash/shoot her way through hordes of angels and/or demons (hard to say which) and a series of bosses escalating in size and difficulty, all the way through to a suitably long and audacious finale.
And at the very least here, Bayonetta has a great combat system. It centres around tried-and-true two button kick’n’punch combos, with a side-serving of sidearms and a shot of magic. But actually, it’s really all about a dodge-button – evading an attack at the last possible moment sends Bayonetta into “Witch Time,” which is a short period where the rest of the world goes into slow motion while Bayonetta gets to wail on them. At “Normal” difficulty, I found it challenging enough to become frustrating occasionally, but otherwise, it felt like a fair test of skill. So much of it became about watching for enemies to telegraph their attacks, and learning the timing to evade them. At it’s best, this feels fluent and addictive.
Occasionally though – often enough for it to become an issue – I’d find myself betrayed by a stuck camera and unable to see an oncoming foe. At other times you’d come out of a cutscene to find a monster already four-fifths of its way through an attack on you, which, likewise, felt unfair given how vital dodge timing is here – and the fact that it would wipe a third of your health. Unfortunately, it’s even rougher around the edges outside of the combat sequences. The quieter exploratory sections are tarnished by clumsy invisible walls. Other parts still have you running face-on towards the camera to escape a cascading hazard, getting you to dodge obstacles you literally can’t see. There are also, just for variety I guess, a few sequences where Bayonetta rides a motorcycle (or in one case, a missile) – these are uniformly long, tedious and repetitive.
Bayonetta does have a very distinctive aesthetic. The environments are ambitious and wide-ranging, transcending the corridor-centric layout of the game, sustaining the silly plot (how silly? extremely silly!). And it looks good on the Switch, which in turn looks good on the TV – I’m endlessly impressed by how this console surpasses its technical limitations. Bayonetta-the-character, though, is a bit trickier to outright praise. She’s a witch, sure, but she’s also a fetish/bondage librarian. She’s dressed in a leather/latex clinging suit (which is actually made of her own magical hair). During combat, you can build up a magic-meter which allows you to perform (bondage-inspired) “torture attacks” for massive damage. Then at the end of boss fights, you press X and A to “climax,” at which point the camera swoops low to watch Bayonetta’s hair-clothes come off for her to summon a massive demon (made of hair?), leaving a naked witch reaching towards with just a few strategic threads left in place. Yep.
It’s cringe-worthy – but just maybe (depending on where you stand) cringe-worthy enough that it goes full circle. You could build a case either way. On the one hand, the camera is suuuuuuper overtly objectifying throughout the game, frequently focussing on Bayonetta’s chest and crotch. On its own, perhaps this may not be a problem, but it’s a portrayal enmeshed in a culture and industry where treating female characters primarily as sex-objects and prizes to be won by the player has always been the status quo. On the other hand, Bayonetta is perhaps the most powerful female protagonist in games, ever, and at least her character seems to be in on the joke (in so much as a video game character can be). These aspects of her character seem actually developed and make sense as much as anything here does. And the game is so camp, so over the top, so, yes, extremely silly, that Bayonetta’s outrageous flirtiness and the sleazy camera-work almost seem acceptable by association. I think, overall, I’m more uncomfortable with it than I am cool with it, but it’s a more complicated issue than meets the eye (so to speak). However, I don’t know if it’s my argument to make, and I’d rather point you to where others have considered this issue in more detail   .
Bayonetta is a distinctive, sometimes-fun hack ‘n’ slash game with a bonkers story and interesting visual aesthetics. The core fighting mechanics of the game are excellent, but they’re let down by a suspect camera and some clunk choreographing. It’s also padded out with many less-good filler sections and a lot of tedious cutscenes, and these are ultimately what’s putting me off giving it a whole-hearted recommendation. I am (sort of) looking forward to spending some time with the sequel, which also launched last month on the Switch, and seeing if it fares any better.