In the first fifteen seconds of the game, you’re treated to a slow-motion shot of Bayonetta that -- of course -- pans straight down to her crotch. Barely a minute later, you’re commandeering and piloting an angelic mech to wreak havoc on your foes. And in one of the earliest cutscenes, she kicks an incoming jet well above a spread of skyscrapers. Seems like a reasonable start, yes?
Seriously, though. Chances are you don’t need me to tell you how good Bayo2 is (my personal answer being “absurdly good”). It’s gotten high marks all over, and proven that the wait was worthwhile. If not for Nintendo, there would be no Bayo2 -- and now more than ever, I’m glad that the Big N extended a helping hand. Granted I’m not 100% sure if I like it more than Metal Gear Rising or The Wonderful 101, but that’s a moot point; those three can stand shoulder-to-shoulder as a trinity of awesome games. I don’t have any problems leaving it at that.
But there’s more to say about Bayo2. MUCH more. So let’s get to it…oh, and THE SPOILERS REMAIN CAST! So, you know, watch out for spoilers.
If you’re reading this, then chances are high that you’re aware of some of the controversies surrounding games and gamers right now. I’d rather not dwell on it if I can help it, but I will say this: I’m the type who’d prefer to blame the products and not the people who create them. If there’s a problem with the culture, it’s because there’s been a push (however slight) toward those opinions and conclusions from the media its fans consume. There’s no one-to-one correlation, mind, but some of the stuff out there can’t possibly be -- for lack of a better word -- enlightening.
Obviously (and hopefully beneficially in the near future), one of those controversies is about how women appear in games. When you take even the shallowest look at recent fare, it’s hard to say “nope, no problems here” with a straight face. A lot of people -- rightfully -- shout that games need more female protagonists, but I’d think that they mean we need GOOD leading ladies. It’s easy to go way, way, WAY off the rails. Shittiness is gender-neutral.
I don’t think we should underestimate the presence of female characters in general, because if we’re solely counting protagonists, then we exclude heroines like Chun-Li, Elizabeth, Tali’Zorah, Yukiko,
and mai waifu Makoto Sako. Don’t get me wrong, though; coming up with a comprehensive list of female leads shouldn’t be doable in the span of a minute. Getting that much-needed and very-welcome diversity shouldn’t be this hard. And it isn’t hard, because the Bayo games -- and the titular character -- make it look easy.
I’ll be honest. I played the first game, but never got to finish it; other stuff got in the way, and my brother traded it in on the (justifiable) grounds that I’d never touch it again. So the reason I’ve talked more about, say, Lollipop Chainsaw’s Juliet more than Bayonetta is because even if they’re on the same axis (supra-sexy asskickers!), I feel more comfortable thinking about the nuances of that zombie-slaying cheerleader than the hair-slinging witch because I’ve finished Juliet’s game a while ago. It’s not that I don’t recognize Bayonetta, though; I just needed time to analyze the character and figure out if she was more than just Sexyhair Q. Crotchsplayer. And believe it or not, Platinum’s latest has given me a strong answer -- a healthy glimpse into her character.
Believe it or not, she might be more nuanced than we give her credit for.
Well, maybe “nuanced” isn’t the best word to use. Close enough, though.
Here’s the setup. Bayonetta’s out shopping one day when suddenly the city falls prey to an attack from angels -- angels, presumably after the infamous Umbra Witch, and likely set in motion thanks to the unrest between the angels in Paradiso and the demons in Inferno. Bayo dispatches them, naturally, but the fight goes awry when her demon summoning goes wrong and forces her pal Jeanne to take a mortal blow for her. Jeanne’s body and soul get separated, and Bayo hatches a plan. She’ll go straight to hell and retrieve Jeanne’s soul, all too wary of the fact that the clock is ticking. And there’s the nasty business of a potential war between heaven and hell and a struggle to control chaos itself, but whatevs.
At times it feels like the story is just an excuse to pit Bayo against both angels and demons, and the central plot/rescue arc gets somewhat diluted by having to play escort to the new kid on the block,
a much more talkative Wonder Black Loki. On one hand, their story gets dragged down by amnesia being used again (come on guys, you used that last time!), and it takes a while for the demon side of the war to get in gear. On the other hand, Bayo and Loki actually get to have some good moments together, and build on both of their characters -- the former more than the latter, naturally. That’s a good thing, without question; there’s genuine proof that she’s more than just a sexual object. But I'll get to that.
What’s surprising about Bayo2 is that there was genuine effort put in to try and make the world feel more involved in the proceedings. As usual, the fate of the world is at stake, but the interesting thing is that the main conflict occurs almost entirely away from human eyes. Higher powers -- our favorite witch, angels, demons, and the odd-rival or two -- are struggling to either have their plans come to pass, or have their individual missions go the way they want.
So while my knee-jerk reaction near the endgame was to call out the cast/story for trying to introduce the “evil of human hearts” and “let humanity decide its fate” (because humanity at large is damn near invisible throughout the game), it ultimately works because these higher powers are competing to have their views superimposed on the mundane realm. Good guys and bad guys alike are more or less gods, so it’s only natural that they’re speaking on behalf of…well, life in general. So the scale is there, but as-is, Bayo2 keeps the struggle personal. All things considered, that’s how it should be.
Stepping back a bit, I was honestly shocked -- and even impressed -- by the game’s world. The expectation is that the story’s nonsense (and it kind of is, in all frankness), but there are dozens of files you can find that flesh out the concepts and conceits of the canon. Pick up a book floating in a stage, and you can read quick blurbs from adventurer/journalist Luka that’ll tell you plenty of interesting little tidbits. Granted a fair share of it gets explained in the story, but if you’re not quite sure what the hell these people are babbling about, you’ve got the resource you need. Or you can just enjoy some flavor text; the enemies you fight get recorded as well, so you can read up on them at your leisure. Apparently one of them wields a Valiantium Blade.
This bleeds into the gameplay a little, but I can’t ignore just how expansive some of these stages are. And they’re intricate, for that matter; the visuals and art design alike come together to make for some very impressive locales. One of the game’s very first areas made me want to forgo combat entirely and just run around to see the sights. And it’s a good thing, too, because there are plenty of hidden trinkets that’ll help you in a fight. Portals to special challenges are well among them, but in some cases you have to scour areas to grab pieces of LPs. If you do, you can put them together and earn a new weapon. If you don’t…well, you don’t get that weapon. Ever. And I suspect you’ll want them, if not need them.
It’s a good thing I missed almost all of the weapons!
Well, enough of that. Let’s get to what matters.
There are four important things to note about Bayonetta’s character, so let’s see how fast I can run through them so I can get to the gameplay. The first and most obvious is…
1) Bayonetta is overflowing with charisma.
You can say a lot about Bayo, whether you like her or not -- but at this stage, I think we can all agree that if there’s one thing she isn’t, it’s bland. She wouldn’t have two games (and hopefully three someday) to her name if not for her boisterous character -- that spirit and spark that constantly draws the eyes of observers. Role, dialogue, animations, design, and more come together to scream out loud “everyone, look at me!” And it works. And part of the reason for that is…
2) Bayonetta absolutely loves what she does.
It’s very telling when, after reproducing the pose on the box art, the camera zooms in on Bayonetta’s smiling face. A part of me wants to argue that this game deserves a TENOUTTATEN just for having a character who knows how to smile (and show emotions, and just plain react to shit), but my takeaway is that she’s not doing what she does -- fighting as stylishly as possible -- for efficiency’s sake. She’s doing it because she’s having fun. And if she’s having fun, which she so clearly is for a good 75% of the game, then the player’s more likely to. Given that “having fun” is arguably the whole purpose of, you know, a video game, I’d say that the only way you could have a game like Bayo2 is with a character who’s nine heads tall and feelin’ fine.
But those two facets are surface-level things. Where’s the nuance? Where are the hidden depths? Well, you can chalk it up to interpretation, but if you ask me, there’s more going on to Bayo than being Lady Struttinstein. Speaking specifically…
3) Bayonetta NEEDS someone to watch and enjoy her.
There’s a scene somewhere in the middle of the game where Loki -- eager to get to the top of Plot Mountain and shove off to heaven -- decides to split up with Bayonetta. Now, up to that point Bayo’s almost exclusively given Loki guff, give or take the inevitable “resident expert fighter learns to love and appreciate a forced younger charge” routine. But what’s really striking is that when Loki’s about to leave, Bayo trips over some of her dialogue -- stuttering and coming up with a quick excuse to keep him around. I pretty much did a double-take, because it seemed so out-of-character.
Except it wasn’t.
One of the files reveals that in order to be an Umbra With, it requires not just inborn potential, but rigorous physical, magical, and likely mental training -- and making pacts with demons, but let’s set that aside for now. Essentially, everything that Bayo can do in the game isn’t just because “protagonist powers, lol”. It’s because she worked for it, and she wants people to know it.
Or to be more precise, she needs people to know it. Remember, this character does the vast majority of her stunts completely invisible to the naked eye; without anyone to recognize and ravish her, all her bluster doesn’t mean a damn thing…outside of a broken back, considering her standard posture. Without people watching her, what does she have? Nothing. Just an empty world to do stripper poses in. That’s why she values the people around her, be they brats or bumblers.
I’d go so far as to say the Bayo games break right through the fourth wall. If she can’t show off to others, then she’ll just show off to you.
But even beyond that, there’s still…
4) Bayonetta isn’t invincible.
I mean that in the obvious sense, i.e. Bayo gets knocked around her fair share of times throughout the game (and let’s not think too hard about how many times the player might get knocked around). But think about the point I made earlier, and the other points too. Ask yourself this: what kind of person would someone have to be to actively thrive on getting attention in any way possible, up to and including activating holy machinery by doing a pole dance? Either a person who SERIOUSLY feels comfortable in her skin, or someone who’s so vulnerable that a good percentage of her act is…well, just an act.
It’s a little sketchy to attribute things like parental abandonment, isolation, and a desperate search for an identity and purpose to one of the few female leads in the modern-day gaming canon, but it’s still plenty possible. Still, those are arguable aspects of her character -- weaknesses that don’t necessarily make her intolerably weak, but instead make her more human. As it should be, because A CHARACTER SHOWING WEAKNESS IS NOT A FAILURE STATE. You can have your badass hero/heroine and give them something more to think about than the next big setpiece.
I think that part of the reason why amnesia gets used as a plot device again is to help Bayo bond on a deeper level with Loki. After all, she was suffering (and debatably still does suffer) from amnesia in the first game, to the point where she didn’t even recognize the past version of herself trotting around her ankles. It’s a basic parallel, but it works. More to the point, even if the space-time shenanigans of the first game have put Baby Bayo back where she belongs -- at the cost of potentially creating a stable time loop where the girl gets her inspiration -- the little girl is still a part of the woman. Maybe more than she, or we, care to admit.
Bayo may be a cocky joker, but like the Dante of old there are still things that matter to her -- and maybe even more so than any other action game hero. Losing Jeanne genuinely shakes her, and with good reason; she’s at risk of losing one of the few people who can stand beside her in terms of power, among many other things. She acts like the men in her life are an inconvenience at best, but even Enzo the walking punchline gets a little love from her. It’s a given that she bonds with Loki, and plays the role of big sister, but in turn she ends up playing the loyal, starry-eyed child on more than one occasion -- sometimes trying to be cool, and other times slipping up. Dropping the façade, but picking it back up before she can get too sentimental.
So in my eyes? Bayo may earn some scorn and have her detractors (and rightfully; no one forced the devs to push a character with sex woven into her persona just as thoroughly as her hair), but I don’t have any problems saying she’s a legit character. If only for a moment, we’ve got one leading lady who’s earned and DESERVES respect.
We’re this far in and I haven’t even started on the gameplay. So let’s do it.
The Bayonetta games forgo the typical “light attack/heavy attack” setup you see in a lot of action games, at least conceptually. You’ve got jump and shoot buttons, but your primary attacks correspond to Bayo’s arms and legs -- and the weapons you equip to each. So as soon as you’ve got a healthy collection of weapons, you can (and have to) think about what sort of witch you want to make. Unless you WANT to lose at the menu screen, of course.
So what are you after? Do you want range? Pressure? Crowd control? Single-target damage? Combo potential? Synergy from weapon-to-weapon (and thus button-to-button)? The default weapons are solid enough, and there are universal techniques you can buy from the shop, but it’s important to know what you want and what the situation calls for. You’ll need to be more than just competent to fight the Lumen Sage, a guy who makes Vergil look like a half-crushed snail.
The game’s biggest conceit has to be Witch Time, without question. Pull one of the triggers and you’ll send Bayo into a dodge animation to get away from whatever’s trying to slaughter you -- BUT if you dodge at just the right time, you’ll temporarily slow down time and earn the right to wail on slowed-down foes. It’s good that you’ve got tons of offensive options, but the quality of a defensive one is what sets a good action game apart from a bad one.
The Witch Time system incentivizes (if not forces) the player to pay attention to what’s going on; watching those enemy cues and telegraphs offers up rewards on every level. Refusal to pay attention leads to certain death…theoretically. The window for dodging and avoiding damage is pretty lenient -- Witch Time less so, I’d say -- so you can get out of a lot of bad situations if need be. I suspect that it’s more than possible to cheese your way through some fights just by dodge-spamming.
But if my guess is right, you won’t want to.
So, Bayo2 isn’t exactly what I’d call an easy game, but (at least on the normal difficulty) it isn’t as hard as you’d expect. That’s a good thing in some cases; my playthrough left me with three deaths total, all from non-combat sequences, so it’s safe to say the game doesn’t punish you just for existing. On the other hand, there’s a part of me that thinks I shouldn’t have gotten through the game at all. I’m the panicky sort with the nerves of a drugged-up gerbil, so I’d bet half of my Witch Time activations came from my frantic attempts to get the hell out of trouble. Couple that with a healthy stock of items, and it can turn fights into battles of attrition instead of skill.
Here’s the thing, though: you can make battles into tests of skill. Because you’ll want to get good.
This is a game that feels good. Very good. Chalk it up to a set of intangibles, but there’s a level of finesse and impact alike that makes for a satisfying game from one fight to the next. The dodge/Witch Time mechanic is likely the cause. After all, just think about it; lesser games make the player invincible just ‘cause, as if it’d be impossible for a player to enjoy it if they aren’t effectively invincible. In Bayo2, however, you’re not invincible -- but with enough skill, you can MAKE yourself invincible. That’s the clincher.
Once you get into the flow of combat, you DON’T want to get out of it. But any hits from enemies will jettison you out of the zone you’re bound to enter. As it should. Think about it; there’s an insane amount of evidence that paints Bayonetta as this stylish, untouchable beauty who’s an ace at the fine art of ass-kicking. That can carry over into the gameplay, but only if you earn it.
And on a deeper level, you’ll want to earn it. You want to engage in those systems, and create your own beautiful combos, and torture your opponents into oblivion. If you don’t -- if you get knocked around on a regular basis, or just bank on the same mashed-out combo -- then you don’t feel like the Umbra Witch you’ve been shown.
But when you do engage, everything clicks. Everything. It’s surprising how many times I got some momentum going and found my flow -- and it pretty much did turn me into Bayonetta. I wasn’t scrambling around for my life; I just kept up an unstoppable offense, walloping foes into a dizzy state so I could take the fight to the skies.
And I didn’t even have to try to spam dodges; I’d seen most of the enemy’s attacks before, and even the slightest twitch told me when and where I needed to dodge. And I did, and managed to string one period of Witch Time to the next -- without stopping my offense, and without getting my streak broken.
So arguably, this game will help you achieve enlightenment. Just for a little while, though.
If I had to point out some drawbacks to the gameplay, then I could (however grudgingly). For one, there are quite a few sequences where Bayo sprouts wings and has a midair fight -- and while they’re cool as all get out, the tradeoff is that you often lose some of your most vital/trusted techniques.
On top of that, while the enemy design is really cool -- and I love the reveals for each new enemy -- sometimes their designs aren’t exactly conducive to telling what sort of attack or even limb is coming right at you. And in usual Platinum tradition, the camera could use some work. It’s not unworkable, but there are moments where it hampers you.
All things considered, those are just minor complaints. So let’s round out this post by mentioning something else positive: the challenge stages.
Like I said, there are portals littered throughout the game that you have to find. Go through one, and you’ll have to clear a fight with some special stipulation -- don’t get hit, beat everyone in the time limit, etc. But those simple rules are important, because they A) teach you how to play the game, and B) teach you how to play the game better.
Clearing some of these challenges doesn’t always come down to pure skill, but an application of knowledge -- as it should be. Need to keep your combo going? String some gunshots into the mix (with the added benefit of adjusting the camera on the fly). Can’t quite beat those enemies in time? Shave off a few seconds by learning which moves will put Bayo right where she needs to be.
The challenges expose the depth without saying a single word beyond “okay, do this thing”. One of the more notable ones is “don’t touch the ground”, and takes place on a set of tall, destructible pillars. It’s this challenge that teaches you just how much aerial fidelity Bayo has; on top of her double-jump and float, you can use a number of her techniques to go higher or pressure midair foes -- and multiple times.
On top of that, a challenge like that (and others) can make you say “All right, I’ve blown this challenge twenty times now. Maybe it’s time to try a new weapon.” And doing so will open up whole new possibilities for your game plan. Again, that’s how it should be. You should be free to experiment, and given the tools needed to craft your own perfect style. The game definitely deserves praise for offering that freedom.
And it’s that very freedom -- and its style, and its effect, and its quality, and everything else that make the game what it is -- that practically begs for more than one playthrough. (That’s setting aside the unlockable modes and characters, of course.) In the same way that Bayo will boot a helpless angel into the torture device du jour, you’ve got more than enough tools -- and more importantly, reason -- to find ways to dominate your foes. And when you do, you’ll find yourself with a game that rewards you damn near every step of the way. No doubt about it.
By the way, the end credits feature Bayonetta pole-dancing to the tune of “Moon River” while an old-timey movie filter is superimposed atop the screen. But you know what? I ain’t even mad.
All right, so who wants to guess what Bayo's hair will look like in the next game?