Fashionably Late: Bayonetta

Bayonetta 1

Technically, reviewing this game is almost a cheat on my part, since I’ve actually beaten Bayonetta before. Well, I’ve beaten one version of the game before; namely, the PS3 version.

Some of you just spontaneously groaned and facepalmed on reading that sentence. For the rest of you, a bit of explanation is in order.

You see, at the start of the 7th console generation, Sony bragged that the PS3’s Cell processor made it the most powerful console on the market. And on paper, this was true; the Cell was a beastly chip at the time it was released, and Sony achieved some impressive results with it in their first-party titles.

However, harnessing the Cell’s potential took a lot of time, effort, and coding wizardry, and on top of that, Sony’s documentation for the processor was apparently both badly translated and massive. By comparison, the Xbox 360’s Xenon processor, while ostensibly less powerful, was much easier to fully utilize.

Xenon was a pretty typical PowerPC chip, an architecture most developers were familiar with by that point. This meant that not only was the Xbox 360 easier to program for, it meant that programming for the PS3 and fully utilizing the Cell meant practically reprogramming the game from scratch, or the next best thing.

Third party developers releasing multi-platform titles had a decision to make. They could effectively build two completely different versions of the same game, using two different teams, when building one version that already cost millions of dollars. Or they could build their game for the Xbox 360 and brute-force code the game to run on the PS3 with minor modifications, albeit looking and performing noticeably worse than its 360 counterpart.

Another factor to be taken into account was that there were more 360s in peoples’ homes for most of the 7th generation than there were PS3s.

So guess which option third-party developers and publishers chose?

No worries. It's not like we paid a lot of money for the system or anything.

No worries. It’s not like we paid a lot of money for the system or anything.

Yep, brute force coding…

Platinum Games didn’t even work on the PS3 version. That was handled by a B-team at the game’s publisher, Sega, who had never worked on a PS3 game before. Even before the PS3 version released, it was apparently clear that there were problems since Sega requested (and received) staff from Sony to help finish the port.

The resulting port was a mess, with frame rates that frequently dropped well below 30 fps (I’ll explain why this is such an issue later), worse textures, even more screen-tearing than the 360 version (which has plenty to go around), and horrendous load times due to the PS3’s sluggish Blu-ray drive. This issue was resolved with a patch that installed large portions of the game to the PS3’s hard drive, an exploit that a lot of PS3 titles used to get load times under control. And because I only owned a PS3 when the game came out, this was the version I got.

In spite of all the technical issues, Bayonetta’s quality shined through, and it quickly became one of my favorite titles of the last generation. So, when the long-delayed, recently-resurrected sequel was released on the Wii U, along with a port of the original that promised to be the definitive version of the game, I jumped at the chance to play Bayonetta the way it was meant to be experienced. And I was not disappointed.

Bayonetta is a third-person action brawler developed by Platinum Games. Platinum, made up mostly of refugees from Clover Studio after Capcom bought them up and subsequently shut them down, have since made a name for themselves releasing frequently violent, over-the-top stylized action titles, not unlike Grasshopper Manufacture. And Bayonetta played a big part in cementing that reputation.

Oh, and like the last game I reviewed, Bayonetta is an M-rated title that makes the most of its rating. So, you know, be warned.

Groovy.

Groovy.

Bayonetta is, appropriately enough, about Bayonetta, a witch who is a survivor of a long-extinct clan called the Umbra. Bayonetta was sealed in a coffin, sunk at the bottom of a lake, and awoke prior to the events of the game with barely any memory of her past. All she remembers is that she’s a witch, she needs to kill angels on a regular basis to satisfy the various demons she has contracts with, and the secrets to her past involve a pair of gems called the Eyes of the World.

When one of her business contacts, a Mafia stooge named Enzo, gives her a tip that one of the Eyes is located in the isolationist, theocratic city of Vigrid, Bayonetta travels there in search of the truth, leaving a trail of maimed angels in her wake. Along the way, she must contend with Jeanne, another witch with ties to Bayonetta’s past; Luka, a journalist who blames Bayonetta for the murder of his father; and a little girl named Cereza who claims to be Bayonetta’s daughter.

Bayonetta’s world revolves around a Trinity of Realities–the Human World, our world; Paradiso, realm of the angels; and Inferno, realm of the demons. In between lies Purgatorio, a sort of parallel dimension to the Human World where the denizens of the three realities can mingle if they have the magic to do so.

Ages ago, two clans of magic-users oversaw the Trinity and maintained balance among the worlds; the Lumen Sages, aligned with the Light and the angels; and the Umbra Witches, aligned with the Dark and the demons. However, war broke out between the two sides and the Umbra were driven almost to extinction by witch hunts, orchestrated behind the scenes by the Sages, leaving Bayonetta as one of the few surviving Umbra.

If this description makes the game sound over-wrought and melodramatic, it’s really not. From start to finish, Bayonetta has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, with hilariously over-the-top moments throughout the game, a wicked sense of humor and more references to other games than I can count. Hell, the game quite literally opens on one of the minor characters pissing on a gravestone bearing the name of the director, Hideki Kamiya. If that doesn’t tell you how seriously Bayonetta takes itself, I don’t know what will.

Bayonetta 10

Thought I was kidding? You should really know better by now.

That’s not to say the game is shallow; while the prospect of a game where a demonically-aligned witch butchers angels may sound like a high school goth’s fantasy, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Thematically, Bayonetta makes it clear that Light isn’t necessarily the same as good, and Darkness isn’t necessarily evil.

The angels of Bayonetta aren’t the beautiful creatures of Renaissance art; they’re much closer to how angels are actually described in the Bible: monstrous, inhuman creatures that look like something out of a nightmare. They come in a variety of forms, from eagle-headed winged humanoids to gryphon-like beasts to flaming wheels and cherub-faced giants. And they’re as prone to cruelty and violence as they are to benevolence; in short, they’re not creatures that you’ll feel bad for beating up, but rather monsters wearing a guise of holiness. Given the dark turns religion has taken throughout history, even modern history, I think that’s an idea that’s eminently relatable for most people.

Funny enough, for such a potentially controversial theme, the nature of Bayonetta and her antagonists hasn’t really drawn any controversy that I’m aware of. Rather, there’s another elephant in the room that I should probably address before continuing with the review–the game’s extremely overt sexuality.

Bayonetta is represented as an openly sexual character; she’s got a very dominatrix-like personality, using sexuality as a lure and a weapon, and gleefully tormenting and torturing her enemies in combat. She wears a skin-tight bodysuit which is made of her hair, the same hair she uses as a magical medium to summon demons from Inferno to attack her enemies. As a result, Bayonetta becomes partially or fully nude as she summons these attacks, though the more “explicit” regions of her anatomy are always obscured through camera tricks and carefully-placed swirls of spiraling hair.

Like so.

Like so.

This overt sexuality may make some players uncomfortable, and I can understand that. I think it’s important to be aware of this aspect of the game going in, and I’m not going to call anybody a prude for refusing to play it on those grounds. But what does bug me some is the controversy that’s come to surround the game and the character in recent years, namely the accusations that the game is exploitative and anti-feminist, and that Bayonetta is objectified.

This debate is interesting to me, because I don’t remember hearing much of this talk five years ago when Bayonetta was originally released, but it seemed to swirl around quite a bit with the recent release of the new edition and Bayonetta 2.

My personal theory is that ideas of feminism and sexual exploitation and objectification in games have come much more to the forefront of our minds. Recent ugly incidents like the #GamerGate affair and harassment of female game developers, feminists, and critics like Anita Sarkeesian have brought the issue more to the fore. People are now talking about these ideas with regard to gaming much more than they were before.

And don’t misunderstand me, I think that’s a very good thing. I think video games as a medium and the games industry both have serious, deep-seated issues with women and female characters that need to be addressed if we’re ever going to go forward as a medium, an industry and a fandom.

However, I do think that the sudden surge of reflection, introspection and examination has prompted overreaction on the part of a number of people. Rather than examining how a game portrays its female characters from a sexual standpoint, they take the position that any confluence of female characters and sexuality is a bad thing, and that’s simply not the case.

Female characters are sexually exploited and objectified when they are portrayed in a sexual manner that has nothing to do with who they are as characters. These are the characters whose sexuality is never addressed, but nevertheless are running around a battlefield in outfits that would make a stripper blush, or who pose provocatively apropos of nothing, or whose anatomy the camera visually fondles completely out of context with anything else that’s going on.

Like so.

Like so.

Bayonetta, on the other hand, is open, aware, and in charge of her sexuality. Any time she’s on display, fires off an innuendo-laden quip, or gets naked, it’s entirely of her own volition. She makes it clear that this is the case, and she’s clearly enjoying herself.

In short, Bayonetta is empowered by her sexuality as she’s portrayed in the games, not reduced by it, and is in fact elevated above other characters by it, including every single male character in the game. Nor is her sexuality her only character trait, or even her defining character trait. And her design, which has often been mistakenly identified as a male fantasy, was in fact created by a woman.

In short, Bayonetta is a female empowerment fantasy. I’m not saying that the solution to poor representation of women in video games is to make every character like Bayonetta  (that presents problems of its own), but she certainly isn’t an anti-feminist character.

In fact, I’m of the opinion that she’s one of the most pro-feminist characters in gaming to date, and the game is one of the few I’ve ever played that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Now, whether you’re comfortable with the sexual focus of the game is another matter, but accusing it of being anti-feminist is just plain inaccurate.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk a bit more about the game itself.

Bayonetta, as I’ve mentioned, is an action brawler, so the gameplay revolves primarily around melee combat with groups of enemies. Each level in the game consists of a series of encounters with foes who must be defeated to advance. This could result in a very dull game if handled incorrectly, but Bayonetta’s combat gameplay is complex, rewarding, and punctuated by moments of sheer, awesome insanity.

Bayonetta has three primary means of fighting her enemies; punches, kicks, and guns. She can string chains of punches and kicks together to create combos, which not only do more damage than individual attacks, but also stagger enemies and keep them from recovering in between blows (though tougher enemies are much harder to stun). These combos can also culminate in Wicked Weaves, attacks where Bayonetta will conjure demonic fists, kicks and weapons to smash her foes for huge amounts of damage (and which result in the aforementioned partial nudity).

Of course demons wear stilettos. Why wouldn't they?

Of course demons wear stilettos. Why wouldn’t they?

By default, Bayonetta is armed with her bare hands and feet, as well as four pistols called the Scarborough Fair. She wields a gun in either hand, and two guns strapped to each shoe, which enables her to extend any punch or kick by holding down the attack button, resulting in a burst of gunfire (no idea how she pulls the trigger on a pistol strapped to a high heel, though). As the game progresses, Bayonetta can also recover Golden Angelic Hymn LPs, which she can trade with the game’s shopkeeper, Rodin, for a variety of new weapons, ranging from the fairly ordinary (katanas, whips and shotguns) to the downright bizarre (magical ice skates and grenade launcher tonfas).

These weapons, when equipped, will alter the properties of Bayonetta’s attacks in a number of ways, but most of her combos and the dynamics of extending attacks will remain the same. And whatever weapon she has equipped, Bayonetta can always shoot at her opponents with the press of a button; gunfire doesn’t do much damage on its own, but it’s great for extending combos and hitting foes that are just slightly out of reach until you can close the distance with them.

On the defensive, Bayonetta has a lot of movement options; she can lock the camera onto a foe and guard against their attacks, she can run around the battlefield freely, she can jump and double-jump to evade or follow an opponent into the air to continue an attack. But her single best defensive strategy, and probably the core defining mechanic of Bayonetta, is her ability to dodge.

With the press of a button, Bayonetta will somersault out of the way of an enemy attack, avoiding damage. It’s not difficult to dodge most attacks, but the real trick is waiting to dodge until the last possible instant before Bayonetta is hit by an attack. If you can manage that, Bayonetta will enter a state called Witch Time, where her enemies are either stopped in their tracks entirely or dramatically slowed down for several seconds. The opening provided by Witch Time allows Bayonetta to deliver some truly punishing combos to her helpless foes, and a feature called Dodge Offset allows Bayonetta to continue a combo she started prior to a successful dodge, enabling her to dish out even more pain.

Bayonetta, being a witch, also has other magical powers at her disposal. As she attacks her foes, her magic gauge will fill with power. Once full, Bayonetta can execute a Torture Attack on her opponents, an unblockable attack that will either kill an enemy outright, or deal massive damage to it. These Torture Attacks involve Bayonetta conjuring some sort of instrument of torture out of the blue and using it to savagely maim her foes, from Iron Maidens to guillotines to serrated pommel horses, and the attack animations include a mini-game that asks the player to hit a button as quickly as possible, awarding them with a bonus of Halos, the game’s currency, for a good performance.

This angel's about to have a very bad day. And several new holes.

This angel’s about to have a very bad day. And several new holes.

There are other uses for accumulated magic, mainly in the form of effects granted by magical talismans available for purchase from Rodin, but these items cost so many Halos it’s unlikely a player will be able to access them on their first playthrough of the game. Also, just as Bayonetta’s magic meter grows by hitting enemies, it depletes whenever she takes damage. Combined with the Witch Time mechanic, this results in a game that greatly rewards players for avoiding damage, and punishes them severely for getting hit, even beyond the risk of death (despite being a pretty tough lady, Bayonetta can’t actually take that many hits before it’s Game Over). Thus, having the game run at a high framerate isn’t merely a cosmetic concern, it’s a major factor in how well the game plays.

The rest of the gameplay mostly consists of moving from the stage of one enemy encounter to the next, but that’s not to say it’s filler. There are often branching paths and hidden areas in the environments that conceal items, upgrades and challenge rooms called “Alfheims,” where the player must defeat enemies under certain conditions (i.e., within a time limit, using only a certain number of punches or kicks, taking no damage) to win a prize.

The path is also sometimes obstructed by a platforming segment, or a basic puzzle that needs to be solved (such as assembling the pieces of a key to open a door, or using Witch Time to move through a gate before it closes), but the bread and butter of Bayonetta is the combat, and that’s as it should be. There are a few other level types to break up the variety, including a motorcycle chase with the theme from Afterburner in the background (why they didn’t use music from Outrun or Hang-On is beyond me), and a flying shooter level that’s one giant homage to Space Harrier. For the most part, however, Bayonetta sticks to what it’s good at; fast-paced, brutal combat.

On the subject of items, in addition to equipment, there are a number of consumable items that Bayonetta can acquire in her quest, either by finding them in the environment, purchasing them from Rodin, making them by combining Concoction ingredients (also found in the environment), or winning them in the shooting gallery-style “Angel Attack” mini-game that occurs after each level. These items can heal Bayonetta, restore her Magic,  temporarily boost her attack power, make her momentarily invincible, resurrect her from death, or deal damage to enemies. There are also permanent health and magic upgrades in the form of Witch Hearts and Moon Pearls, which can either be bought whole from Rodin, or assembled from pieces found in the environment or won in the Alfheims.

The game grades players on their performance, awarding them a medal after each encounter, ranging from Bronze to Platinum or Pure Platinum depending on how much damage they took, how many combos they performed, and how long the battle took. Each level is also given a grade, based on the player’s performance in each encounter, as well as how many times they died and were forced to continue, and how many items they used (each consumable item is worth half a death); the player’s overall grade drops one whole level per death, which not only affects the award they get, but also the bonus in Halos that is paid out at the end of the level, so if you’re a player wanting to unlock those expensive items in Rodin’s shop, you’ll have to learn the game’s mechanics inside and out to get those high scores.

You want statues like these, you gotta work for them.

You want statues like this, you gotta work for ’em.

The normal levels are also punctuated by levels consisting of boss fights with massive angels, the Cardinal Virtues. These battles are massive, multi-stage fights that will put a player’s skills to the test and featuring some spectacular moves and finishes that would put God of War to shame. Though ironically, these boss fights are often very easy to get good scores on, since much of the challenge of Bayonetta’s levels comes from running the gauntlet of multiple enemy encounters while avoiding damage. The bosses don’t provide nearly as much of an endurance test, with the exception of some of the later battles, which can be absolutely grueling.

On the subject of Bayonetta’s spectacle, many of the coolest things in the game happen in cutscenes and usually involve Bayonetta absolutely wrecking an enemy in some completely improbable and hilarious manner–or avoiding certain death with style. Many of these scenes are included as the capstone to a fight with a particularly difficult enemy, where Bayonetta initiates a “Climax” and summons a gigantic demon (one of the instances where she will be fully nude) in a manner that plays out similarly to a Torture Attack writ large (including the button-mashing mini-game).

However, this brings me to one of the few truly annoying parts of the game; the quick-time events. Many cutscenes in Bayonetta feature quick-time events, where the player must press a particular button at a particular time to avoid instant death. Quick-time events have a bad reputation among most gamers as being needlessly frustrating and unfair, and I have to say that, in most cases, Bayonetta’s QTEs fit this description to a T, especially since few of them utilize the controls in the same intuitive fashion as the rest of the game.

To the game’s credit, if you fail a QTE and die, the game will let you continue right before the event happens, so you can try as many times as you need to pass it. Unfortunately, the deaths suffered during QTEs count against your score at the end of the level, which is very, very frustrating when you’re trying for a high score, especially when you’ve been doing well at the actual gameplay.

Thankfully, Platinum seems to have learned from player feedback, and though QTEs do show up in subsequent games of theirs, they usually control in the same fashion that such an action would in the main gameplay (i.e., the button to punch punches, the jump button jumps, etc.), but it’s still an issue in this title.

There’s plenty of content to experience here, with several levels of difficulty, and much of the equipment only available to unlock after the first playthrough. If you enjoy Bayonetta, there’s certainly a lot for you to do beyond simply beating the game (which takes roughly 10 hours from start to finish, not counting re-tries from dying), though the challenge of the game might prevent a lot of people from reaching 100% completion.

Expect to see this screen. A lot.

Expect to see this screen. A lot.

Visually, the game is a treat to behold. As I’ve mentioned, the game’s cinematics are absolutely bonkers and perfectly encapsulate the over-the-top aesthetic behind the design. The characters are all well-designed and visually striking, as are the various monsters. The levels are all well laid-out and make for great environments to run around in; with a wide variety of settings ranging from old-world cities, to craggy mountains, to modern skyscrapers and even Heaven, you’ll rarely if ever get that “been there, done that” feeling.

I will say that, in terms of the environments, the game’s color palette is a little muted; funny enough, I never really realized this until playing the sequel, but the world of Bayonetta has a washed-out, sepia feel to it. This just makes the colorful cast and monsters stand out even more, so I’m inclined to think the designers did this on purpose, rather than simply copying the “brown is real” trend of early HD games. Still, it’s one of the biggest things that changed from Bayonetta to Bayonetta 2, so it’s worth pointing out.

The sound design is equally strong and eclectic. The music is an odd mix of J-Pop/Techno, slow jazz and very grandiose orchestral pieces (complete with God Choir) that somehow fits the game’s oddball tone perfectly. The game also has a kind of musical theme going on; Bayonetta’s signature guns are called the Scarborough Fair, after the folk ballad of the same name, and the flowers named in the song’s refrain (each gun being named after one of the four) all have thematic significance to Bayonetta’s character as the story progresses.

Also, the song “Fly Me To The Moon” is a recurring motif, with a J-Pop cover being used in many scenes, Bayonetta herself singing the song at points, and an early recording of the song (sung by Brenda Lee) that plays over the game’s credits. I’m not sure why this song was tapped, other than the fact that it seems to have some pop culture cachet in Japan (it was used as a closing theme for Neon Genesis Evangelion), but it does work rather well here…though if they wanted to use a tune popularized by Sinatra, I can’t believe they missed the opportunity to go with “Witchcraft.”

The sound effects and foley work are spot on, even for the most esoteric things (it can’t be easy to decide what the sound of an angel being crushed and impaled by an Iron Maiden must sound like), and the voice work is spectacular. The game’s cast of characters is fairly small (Bayonetta spends most of the game “between worlds” in Purgatorio, so she doesn’t encounter many people in person), but each one is perfectly cast and each performance makes the character memorable and props up the story, which might be a little weak otherwise.

The stand-out performance is definitely Hellena Taylor as Bayonetta. She carries the game with easy grace and really helps cement Bayonetta as a rounded character. Whether she’s purring a line like the cat that ate the canary, or displaying genuine shock, sadness or anger with surprising understated weight, it’s her show from start to finish and she makes the most of it. Other notables include veteran Grey DeLislie as rival witch Jeanne, Dave Fennoy as Rodin, and Yuri Lowenthal as intrepid journalist/wannabe ladies’ man Luka (in a rare instance of Lowenthal not playing a supremely punchable asshole).

Case in point.

Case in point.

The Wii U version also has a few additional features that weren’t available in the original game, aside from the improved graphics. There’s an optional touch and motion-based control scheme utilizing the Gamepad’s touchscreen and gyroscope for those who want it, but I haven’t yet tried it out, so I can’t speak to its quality.

Additionally, there are several included Nintendo-themed costumes that players can dress Bayonetta up in that alter the game in minor ways; they’re not game-changers, but they’re certainly fun extras. Also there’s an added Japanese language track (kind of an odd choice, given that the English vocal track predates the Japanese), but when the English vocals are this good, why bother?

Bayonetta is easily one of the best action titles released in the last 10 years. If you can get into the game’s over-the-top, graphic sense of style, there’s a great experience to be had, with tons of humor and challenging gameplay.

It’s not difficult to track down a used copy for the PS3 or 360 for relatively cheap (though again, I do not recommend the PS3 version). If you buy the Wii U version, you will get Bayonetta bundled for free with Bayonetta 2, and you can play both games for the price of one. It’s easily one of the best values in retail games right now, so if you have a Wii U (and if you don’t by this point, you should strongly consider it), this is definitely the option to take.

Well, I’ve been playing a lot of modern titles for a while, so I think it’s time I stepped back and went retro for my next review. Let’s go for a demonic trifecta…