Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Bayonetta 2

WiiU

Description:
Bayonetta 2
Bayonetta returns without Hideki Kamiya at the head. Though it's missing some of the spark and innovation the Devil May Cry creator is known for, it's still one of the best entries in a genre Platinum has essentially claimed for its own.
Review:

More happens in the beginning of Bayonetta 2 than in most other game's whole run. It's almost a cliche, people have been saying that since the first one came around, but there's no more succinct way to put it when the first battle takes place atop a fighter jet at mach speed and the first boss is a giant dragon King Konging around a skyscraper, who Bayonetta fights by sprouting wings and taking to the skies. By the end of the game every level could be the last level, each is so dense with grandiose proclamations, magnificent set pieces at the gates of heaven and hell, and colossal bosses. This game does not shy away from spectacle.

It's not just posturing. Whether it's flipping out of the way of a building-sized sword or chucking a frozen-solid foe into a gaggle of encroaching enemies, Bayonetta balances its scope with skill, its gracefulness with heft. Even the quickest attacks resound with impact. Everything has a tangible weight, everything has a visceral speed. Bayonetta is about the crunch, the satisfying pause of Witch Time--the game's signature, time-slowing dodge--screeching the world to a halt, a payoff for prowess that never gets tired. Few mechanics in any game in any genre reward success as tangibly as Witch Time does. Activating it is addicting. The thrill of doing it right the first time will make you want to do it right every time.

You dodge not just because you have to, but because the squeeze of the button perfectly syncs with the effortless cartwheel on screen, because of the split second of nervous tension that gives way to internal applause as the world blurs to a purple standstill, not because the game is popping up a giant warning sign saying "counter now!" or "dodge here!" Brief are the moments where the game seizes control so a cutscene can do something that mechanics don't allow for. Bayonetta is about putting the onus of cool on you. It doesn't lock the opportunity for flashy finishers behind upgrade trees. The gigantic spectral swords and red-hot chainsaws that appear during Umbran Climaxes (the new super mode, Devil Trigger by a more explicit name) are operatic on a scale other games reserve for their final bosses. And if you don't like those, you can reserve your magic bar for Torture Attacks, Quick Time Events where Bayonetta summons a sawbladed treadmill into existence with a snap of her fingers and kicks an enemy into it for instant death or gigantic damage while everything else on the battlefield quakes with terror. Torture Attacks are gratuitous as any God of War murder sequence, but considerably briefer, and considerably more cognizant of its inherent silliness.

Many of the weapons are familiar. Instead of fire claws that switch to electric claws, it's fire maces that switch to ice maces. The whole game is familiar, really, not much has changed and there aren't any significant new systems to learn. But familiar hardly matters when you notice those maces also spit ice and can freeze an enemy rock solid, after which you can summon a giant hand to pick them up and throw them at an approaching demon, whose set of seven katanas you can steal upon his death and temporarily use to rack up beaucoup combo points. Chainsaws that double as ice skates, twin swords that summon giant bats, every weapon is boundary bursting. Each one is almost an entirely different playstyle unto itself: a whip that yanks and ragdolls smaller enemies, a bow that fires poisonous dragonflies. There are best choices for most situations, but the game has a way of making every weapon you use feel like the best weapon, right down to Love is Blue, the new starter set of hand and foot-mounted guns, which retain the same breakdance and Chun-Li kick combos that culminate in a massive stilettoed foot descending from above to crush your foe.

Though The Wonderful 101, Platinum's other Wii U game, has a more welcoming, kid-friendly look, this game's comparatively simpler systems give a lot more leeway. Bayonetta 2 makes sure you feel rewarded for your effort, no matter your skill level. There's touch controls and easier modes that make the game playable across a wide range of reaction times and physical ability and there's Infinite Climax difficulty for those who want to push themselves to the limit. Normal difficulty here is noticeably easier than in the first game. Novices willing to learn simple evasion and comboing techniques will find this game welcoming, veterans will probably be comfortable starting on hard difficulty. Bayonetta 2 can played by almost anyone with interest, and yet retains all the crunch and precision that defines the series. And, like most Platinum games, Bayonetta barely bothers to mention techniques crucial to high-level play. Here it's Dodge Offset, where holding down an attack button while you dodge allows you to continue your combo on the other side. Since Bayonetta's strongest attacks, the screen-clearing Wicked Weaves, come out towards the end of her combos, learning how to keep strings going with Dodge Offset is basically essential to any play above normal, and yet the game's full mention of the technique are two sentences buried in a supplemental file you might not even notice you have. Bayonetta 2 welcomes play at all levels, but to really excel you'll probably need to glance at an online FAQ.

There are tons of trinkets to find: witch hearts to increase your health, moon pearls to increase your magic, Golden LPs that combine to unlock new weapons, secret missions for stat upgrades and optional enemy encounters, some that hide upgrade pieces and some that have no purpose other than the fight; but the fights are what you're hungry for anyway. The cash reward for a good grade at the end of each Verse is just garnish for all the frantic energy the game imbues into dispatching enemies with sword, bow, or shotgun scythe. Some items are almost impossible to find without a guide, most frustrating when you've got 2/3rds of a weapon in your inventory and you have no earthly idea where the last piece could be, knowing that the game is toying with you, hiding it on a floating rock somewhere you need to use a combination of panther dashes and flying crow form to reach. But this backtracking and pecking around is less bothersome than you'd expect. It's nice to have a world to hunt and peck around in between fights, and Bayonetta moves so quickly and with such precision that exploration is its own pleasure. The yowl that sounds when you shift into panther form is as satisfying when you're checking the nooks and crannies of a level as it is when you use it to close the gap during a fight.

When playing Bayonetta, I often find myself asking "why do I feel like this is okay?" Because it's weird. It's a game about a hyper-sexualized woman whose strongest attacks leave her nearly naked, though in that censor-friendly Sailor Moon way. Many games meant to titillate a male audience do so by stripping clothing or control away from a distraught female character. Bayonetta radiates poise, Bayonetta is having fun. Where so many games evoke eroticism by sexualizing situations of vulnerability and weakness this one makes sure you know Bayonetta is the one in control. Whether that be in the cutscenes or when you're hitting combos to unleash gigantic flaming hydras. She moves effortlessly yet purposefully, her walk animation an exaggerated catwalk strut, her run a ninja sprint, and both are equally imperious.

This is a game with its aesthetic on lock. Bayonetta exudes style--her double jump summons a pair of butterfly wings, her dash turns her into a coursing panther, the screen is constantly filled with pink and purple sparkles. This game doesn't construct the usual safe segregation between a catered-to male player and the object of his lust. Bayonetta is a character to engage with. Something about her inspires identification, not just objectification. While she's bashing enemies on the screen and you're the one holding the controller you can't help but feel like you are her. What's more, you'd rather identify with this indomitable, vivacious woman that you would a grumpy sadsack Kratos any day of the week. It's not as if the game is breaking new ground; school teachers and dominatrixes are their own fetishes, two of the overstuffed boxes games will cram their female characters in, and Bayonetta plays deeply into both. But while you might diminutize characters all the way from Lara Croft to Zelda as "girls" without even thinking about the connotations of the term, the word doesn't even come to mind when talking about Bayonetta. She is a woman, her looks and actions actively resist infantilization.

This is just scratching the surface of a bigger conversation needed to unpack the complexities of the imagery and characterization present here, both positive and negative. The frequent crotch shots and pole-dancing special attacks undermine my experience of the character, but there's meat on this game's bones. The fact that Bayonetta is ecstatic, her mid-fight double entendres steeped in orgasmic language in a way that continually focuses on her pleasure and joy, suggests she's not just a dominatrix meant to titillate a male player. Bayonetta's sexuality and sexualization provides occasion for considering nuance and meaning rather than just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Most important, for me, is how this game always feels like it's having fun. Bayonetta herself is making the jokes, she's not the butt-end of them. Even as she winks at the camera, which is pretty much always, she does so sincerely. Its over the top, anime-absurd cutscenes are silly enough to make you roll your eyes, but the second you do you're right back on board, because Bayonetta just did something like headbutt a meteor or fly a plane with her feet. It's absurd, it's dumb, it's campy, but it's so sure of itself it's hard not to buy into it. There isn't a bad character in the bunch, not even the annoying ones like Luka and Enzo, whose irritating personalities are tuned to the perfect pitch. With so many games focused-grouped into a non-denominational personality, Bayonetta is what it is whether you like it or not. Neither Senran Kagura nor Tomb Raider nor Oneechanbara nor Dead or Alive, Bayonetta has a look and an attitude and an absurdly posh accent that claim you. She acts with such unconcerned flair it's almost impossible not to like her.

Whenever Bayonetta 2 shows you something enormous, you can be sure there's something bigger just around the bend. This game never gets smaller, only expands, to the point where its Big Bang Bonus is both an appropriate cosmic reference and lame middle-school humor. The spectacle is always exciting and everything is the spectacle: shooter sequences where you fire giant fists in place of homing missiles, rival battles atop flows of boiling magma while your bound demons wail on each other in the distance. This causes some issues, just like in the first game, where the scope becomes so huge that you spend an entire boss fight as a postage stamp-sized speck surfing a tidal wave the size of a city. The camera can be a pain, and Bayonetta's only concession is to make enemies less aggressive when they're offscreen. The game is usually more forgiving when you're in the middle of an frenzied melee or a titanic boss encounter, but sometimes you're left with nothing to do but spam dodge and hope for the best.

Not much here is completely new, but the first game was essentially the pinnacle of the genre so who could complain about ten more hours of new looks, new locations, and new armaments? Iteration is an issue with sequels, sure, but where most big releases barely warrant a single play of their five-hour, strictly-linear game, Bayonetta gives you reasons to play it over and over. Unlockable Link and Samus costumes, with Master Swords and Morph Balls, remind you Nintendo published this. In a way, you feel you should almost thank them, because no one else was willing to take the plunge and actually release this thing, and release it so completely, with the entire first game in the same package, and without the spectre of DLC on the horizon making you question how much they left on the cutting room floor to meet some timeline or quota.

Did they leave anything on the cutting room floor? There's new techniques to learn, harder difficulties to unlock, currency to rack up by placing bets in online co-op, and stuff to buy with all that new cash. Accessories unlocked through feats and challenges summon defensive butterflies and tiny demon familiars, automatically regenerate your magic gauge when it runs low, and some plain let you cheat and go through the game as the infinite powerhouse you never doubted you were in the first place from the very first level, from the very first cutscene. It'd be nice if we could get a Bayonetta 50% less about zooming the camera into her crotch, and sure, we could do without a second game rolling credits over a strangely dispassionate, out of character, animatronic sexy dance, but Bayonetta's bread and butter is somewhere in that dissonance. For some, no amount of dense mechanics or subverted expectations overcome the allergic reaction to the character design, to the game's look, and to its sexual themes. Bayonetta is larger than life, and so are you when you're playing it: someone who can do anything they want, because Bayonetta can do anything she wants. Iteration may be a problem with sequels, but the bigger problem is that two fifteen hour games, and the insane amount of content and extravaganza between them both, just make you hungrier for the next one.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : A
Graphics : A-
Sound/Music : A-
Gameplay : A+
Presentation : B+

+ Same fun and frantic gameplay, tons of unlockables and difficulty for replay
Not a lot new from the first game

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