Bayonetta: Creative Energy Refined (Review)

If there were ever a game that dripped from every seam with the energy, confidence, and creativity of its entire development team, it would have to be Bayonetta.

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Bayonetta is a 7 year-old game, plain and simple. There’s no avoiding that fact when it comes to talking about this game from a critical perspective in 2017. However, with its recent fantastic PC port, I got to play this gem for the first time just a few weeks ago. I hope to offer a fresh perspective, that is to say, a retrospective, on this game, the precedent it has set, and perhaps even the politics that keep it a hot-button issue to this day.

Despite this, the good side of Bayonetta and the consistency of its quality far outweigh the downsides, most of which superfans might slag off as downright picky. I can’t help but disagree with this narrow-minded perspective, however, as I think its flaws are rarely talked about, since politics often derail the discussion of the game itself before it can go anywhere nuanced.

Ah yes, the politics of this game. It pains me that I can’t write an honest review without addressing this in some aspect. If I don’t address it enough, one side of this neverending debate will call me a misogynist pig for not drawing attention to their pet issue, and yet still the other side will lambast me about being a filthy SJW cuckold if I talk too much about their pet issue and not enough about the game. Because of this, I will dedicate a balanced handful of paragraphs about the politics right here and now. I invite you to skip everything between the next two screenshots if you’re one of those types who has an infarction anytime somebody brings politics into your precious videogames.

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The reality is Bayonetta herself is a hypersexualized character. I don’t think you could make an argument for the contrary. She shows off her body to the camera in nearly every cutscene (and quite a lot during gameplay), her dialogue is dripping with sexual innuendo that hints at her very exaggerated personality trait of being a sarcastic dominatrix. The real debate here is not whether or not she’s a sexualized character, but with what intent she was sexualized in this way? Does her sexuality have actual depth? Or is it just a shameless marketing ploy to court prepubescent teens into buying the game with the pretty lady on the front cover?

To the people who think that Bayonetta’s sexuality has no depth, that it’s only a tool used by the developers to entice sales to young boys who haven’t yet discovered there’s already plenty of internet porn to look at, I ask that you go play the game. It’s a fun game with great gameplay, you’ll probably really enjoy it. Seriously, I am absolutely convinced that anybody who thinks the presentation of Bayonetta is nothing more than a cheap marketing tool has never played this game.

From the opening cutscene it is evident that sexuality is a core part of Bayonetta’s personality. She eschews bombastic confidence and dominance with every dialogue line. A trait which is, commonly, associated with ancient tales of witches. and their seductive power. Oh yes! The developers did their homework on what makes witches tick. Everything eschews that theme, right down to the beauty mark on her chin. Bayonetta does not feel forcibly sexualized, sexuality is a core part of her character, and I think that’s something rare and beautiful in the games industry today.

I would go so far as to call Bayonetta herself a sex-positive reaction to this prudish attitude that women in games can’t have a sexuality. In fact, the lead designer who produced Bayonetta’s first concepts (A woman herself), said that they wanted to make an action game with a female protagonist, one that both men and women alike could identify with, look up to, and adore for years to come.

There’s also the fact that everything that is Bayonetta is an absurdist parody of itself. Bayonetta’s sexuality is a response to, rather than a continuation of, the trend of supercilious badass action girls who exist in the games industry merely as eyecandy. Bayonetta knows about her sexuality, the game knows about her sexuality, and they constantly play it up for goofy laughs, rather than for shameless ogling of the character. Indeed, Bayonetta would not be Bayonetta without her sexuality. It’s a core part of the game’s unique personality and I would consider its quality lesser were she totally sterile and devoid of sexuality from the get-go.

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Now that we’ve gotten the rough stuff out of the way, it’s time to talk about the gameplay. Oh yes! The gameplay! This is the game that practically invented Platinum’s signature gameplay style, and I would argue it’s one of the most refined iterations of that style to-date. Combos effortlessly flow in and out of one another, every connecting hit bringing with it a satisfying kineaesthetic jolt that sends a warm audiovisual tingle up your spine. The combo list would drop to my feet were it written down, and every combo or technique had its own situational uses. Add ontop of this a stockpile of weapons that mix up the style and effects of your various attacks, some of which are quite difficult to get, and you have an arsenal of variety that can carry this game for easily over a hundred hours.

While Bayonetta has several difficulty settings, it also allows you to choose your own difficulty level in another way – its excellent combat rating system. Bayonetta is not merely about beating the bad guys and the boss at the end of the road, Bayonetta is about honing your skills to a razor-sharp edge such that not even the nastiest of the bosses can lay even a finger on you. From the simple bronze awards that denote your above average completion of a particular fight, up to the gold medal which shows your mastery, up to the coveted pure platinum – stating you have the skill to rip apart a fight in mere moments without so much as your side being menacingly brushed by an enemy. Those that seek out gold or higher in every fight will have a meaty, exciting challenge on their hands that is sure to last them far longer than the game’s initial short length. With a scale of progression that is constantly sliding upwards no matter what play-through you’re on, and a skill ceiling lodged somewhere in the clouds, you’re encouraged to replay every fight over and over until you know it like the back of your blood-stained, sweat-soaked hands.

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But that brings us to the bad of Bayonetta, and there is a lot to talk about here. More than I’d like to admit, but this game unfortunately suffers from some of the less timeless tropes of its time. The first thing is the quick-time events, which are mostly fine. Momentary quick-time events in the heat of a fight that trigger contextual abilities can really benefit a game (See: Resident Evil 4), and I’m pleased to say that a vast majority of Bayonetta’s QTEs are exactly that. The problem lies in a few sections that have instant death QTEs that flash by the screen so fast they might not even fall under the scope of human reaction time.

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This isn’t an ‘I’m bad’ complaint. I’m serious! the vast majority of sudden QTEs took me several tries to hit, simply because they happen so quickly you cannot reasonably react to them on your own, you have to execute them on prediction, and this creates a lot of unnecessary, frustrating deaths (which subtract from your level score!) on your first several runs through the game. Indeed, if you want to do a permanent-death run of this game keeping a laundry list of important QTEs to not miss in your head might outweigh the difficulty of executing well on the fights!

There’s also the issue of the mashing QTEs. And as somebody with arthritis in my hands, don’t do this developers. Please. Or at least have an option to make them easier. Bayonetta requires a downright inhuman level of mashing to get the maximum damage/score bonuses, and again, you need to be predicting the QTE to get that maximum in the vast majority of cases. One playthrough had my hands aching for two straight days, and I can’t imagine what my hands would feel like after an attempt at getting medals on bosses, which absolutely requires perfect mashing scores.

Another entry into this laundry list of Legos in my foot would have to be the camera. The camera is, mostly, well-executed and very functional. In an age where camera control wasn’t always perfect, Bayonetta executed very well. However, the camera just zooms too far out for a large majority of the fights that take place, making reading enemy attacks a huge grievance as somebody who does not superglue my eyelids to my monitor.

These are not the only dicks in my cereal, however. The item system is downright awful, as is the entire journal interface. It took me several minutes to figure out how to properly equip some new shotguns to my character, and crafting items requires way too much time! In theory, having a cool little interface where you hold a button to pour ingredients into a mixer then spin the right stick to mix them is a cool idea – in practice it’s incredibly clunky and time-consuming. Not to mention it’s required. The healing items you can buy are very limited, and a first-time player will find themselves breaking benches in the very first chapter for hours to gather enough healing items for their first attempt at a run on the game’s highest difficulty. I just do not see the need to restrict healing items when the game already gives you two huge incentives for not taking damage in the first place. Indeed, taking enough damage to even die once will negate the entire score earned from a casual run-through of some of the earlier levels, earning you no rewards. Ontop of all these reasons, healing items don’t prevent you from dying in the context of your score, as your death count is based on how much damage you take, not how many times you died. In the end, the crafting system is an overly-stylized, time-wasting chore. Spending monetary resources on healing would have been the better option, here

The next grievance I have is a small one, and that is that witch-time gets contextually disabled in some fights. Witch-time will slow time when executing a perfect dodge, which already puts you at risk as the timing is very, very tight. There’s one notable fight against some of the fast-moving, claw-wielding angel enemies who love to fight you in pairs, where witch-time is totally disabled. This leads to a constant trading of hits and endless frustration, and disabling it is entirely arbitrary, a fight 20 meters back up the steps I came from had witch-time enabled. I don’t throw around the often useless, overused term ‘artifical difficulty’ very often, but this definitely evokes that kind of reaction from me. On a quest for rankings, this fight is the bane of your existence, constantly taking trades you shouldn’t and deaths that could’ve been avoided had the game not thrown up a mechanical middle finger. This level alone (which disables witch time a few times and introduces one horribly-designed enemy) is the main reason I shy away from attempting all-gold or higher runs. It’s just unreasonable to expect a good performance on some of those sections of the game without 10s, maybe hundreds of hours of practice.

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The last thing to talk about in this little whine is the Shmup level. Isla Del Sol. Oh yes, don’t think I forgot about the shmup level. While it’s a little overlong the visuals and mechanics of it don’t really disappoint. That’s not my issue. My issue is that it’s the most disgustingly motion-sickness inducing thing I have ever done in a video game. More so even than the decoupled lab section of Alien: Isolation. I don’t get motionsick that easily, relegated to very low framerates, high input delay time, and low field of view, I’m reasonably lucky that games don’t generally make me sick, but this is something I had to stop my stream for a minute to handle. The rocket leans left and right whenever you fly in those directions, and the camera is attached with 0 smoothing to the back of it. Not to mention, to dodge, you spin the rocket, and that spins the entire camera. You are doing this basically constantly to invulnerability frame your way through enemy projectiles. Even thinking about it makes me sea-sick. Suddenly this breakfast doesn’t look so appetizing anymore.

What doesn’t help the game’s case is this entire section happens just before Jeanne’s fight, without it being a seperate level. The vast majority of the game’s bosses are relegated to their own level, so you can practice their fight easily without trudging through any extra fluff. So, if you want to fight Jeanne, or even practice her fight, you must go through this entire godawful shmup sequence again. Every single time. It downright boggles my fragile little mind that somebody thought bolting the game camera to a fast-moving spinning and swaying object was somehow a good idea. This is in stark contrast to the game’s earlier vehicle section, a level called Route 666, which has you jumping from moving cars to battle enemies and riding a motorcycle at incredibly high speeds. This section did not give me any of the same (literal) headaches that Isla Del Sol did.

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It may seem a lot like I’m focusing on the negative here, and admittedly, I am. I criticize because I love the core gameplay and the vibrant, absurdist personality behind this treasure of a game so damn much. Additionally, it can be seen that Platinum learned from these mistakes. The flying Shmup sections in Nier: Automota of recent fame do not have any of the motion sickness-inducing issues that Bayonetta had. Additionally, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance has a very creative health system that involves executing a difficult aim-based QTE to heal, and consequently makes you take more damage per hit, an extremely well-executed system that invokes an excellent combat pacing curve of tension and relief.

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Despite all the niggles that are to be had, it certainly didn’t slow me down. With the exception of the shmup section, none of Bayonetta’s flaws were apparent enough that they took me out of the experience it was trying to create. Indeed, were it not for these issues, the game would easily be handed a 10 from me for its incredibly creative, engrossing universe brimming to life with goofy, inspired absurdist humor and memorable character after memorable character. Managing to start a game fighting on a falling clock tower and still  appropriately riding the spectacle creep right up until the end where you smack the final boss into the sun, is a feat in and of itself. This gets a hardy recommendation from me, especially if you buy the PC version, which is absolutely the definitive way to play the game.

8/10

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