As is the great curse of every artist, the critic gets the last word. For the burlesque dancer Bayonetta, the Omnitient Critic grades her revue on a six-point scale of dirty Stone to Pure Platinum. It’s a good thing that her routine was so incredibly well choreographed that she can test it against her newest dancing partner, the mysterious and powerful Lumen Sage. The purity of the battle system comes alive against an evenly matched opponent and the vast armies of Paradiso and the hordes of Inferno, on the path to save the soul of a lost friend. So let’s look closer at our provocateurs moves and understand why they steal the show.
I’ve remarked about how the combat uses base units of kicks and punches to create attack strings, but it’s so crucial to the dance metaphor that those points must be repeated here. With the strings being conceptually similar to dance phrases, the metaphor carries to the music-like rhythm of the inputs, as different moves rely on rests between the beats. Through these strings, the combat accommodates a massive gap of performer’s ability.
Of course, the dance is an integration of mechanics and systems designed, as most action games are, to overcome the challenge of depleting your opponent’s hit points before they can deplete yours. The combat was cleverly constructed with layers of complexity that evolve the players understanding of it. At its most basic is the automatic mode that attaches Bayonetta’s full repertoire to a single button, letting them feel amazing while exhibiting the potential of the systems available if they put the effort into exploring it.
And to genre newcomers, it can seem overwhelming, what with the initial thirty three combos the player has access to. But when those moves are built on between three and six attacks, it has more than enough flexibility to just mindlessly pummel the dozen new angel types in your way. That those strings end by summoning gigantic fists and feet of the Wicked Weaves with a full range of profiles that can launch the enemy into the air for a juggle or face first on the ground to interrupt their attack, the player is incentivized to learn its intricacies, but it’s not required to up front. The dodge and its accompanied slow-mo Witch Time connect the offense to the defense, letting Bayonetta offset her attacks without keeping her from reaching the end. The simplicity of the combo strings keeps the bar for execution low, so the player can divide their attention between planning their offensive several seconds into the future and watching for the plainly-stated enemy tells.
Even though I don’t possess the vocabulary to adequately express the elusive ‘feel’ that makes a mechanically well-made game fun, I do know that the act of hitting a button is fundamentally satisfying and that mastering the controller can be blissful. So when the enemy flashes its attack, responding to it successfully can be exhilarating. The characters on-screen reaction plays off that rush, exemplified by the bat transformation added to the dodge. If executed at the moment of impact, the effect add a ‘squishy’ friction that causes her to disperse in a plume of shrieking bats before activating Witch Time and providing an opportunity to barrage the foe with attacks.
A significant part of the reason that Bayonetta is so satisfying is because of the fluid animations she’s given. It’s so easy to make a game like this feel rigid and keep moves that connect player to enemy behind an upgrade, but our Umbran Witch’s hip-hop grooves are so fluid and responsive up front that you always feel in control. According to the Platinum Games blog, Bayonetta 2 has something like three and a half times as many animations as the first, a number that has gone into not only Bayo’s flyin’ fists and rapid kicks, but in the tactile way enemies take those hits. It deepens the perception of the attacks impacts and further characterizes your foes. The smooth controls allow you to always put yourself in a tactically ideal position.
The versatility of the two-attack combat extends effortlessly into the weapons. For the love of God, look at all the options: dual swords, bow and arrow, whip, scythe, fire/ice throwers, sledgehammer, dual chainsaws, katana, and a fucking Chain Chomp. There is a wide variety of attack patterns, speeds and ranges to be equipped to your punches and kicks. Considering that many can be doubled up and that two loadouts can be swapped on the fly with a pull of the left bumper, there are a staggering number of possibilities for those that wish to experiment. I don’t know of a game that gives the player more options.
Bayonetta’s attacks are small beats in the larger rhythm of the battlefield, each of the confined arena’s dividing the pacing of the levels. Platinum Games used its expertise to design a set of complementing enemies that can create flexible, dynamic combat scenarios that keep the ground and air game exciting. New to Bayonetta 2 is Umbran Climax, the blitz mode that turns every attack into a Wicked Weave, but, unfortunately, it steps on the great break in the flow that came with the torture QTE’s. Even if it was only a moment, slamming on that button prompt was a chance to mentally refocus in the middle of the sometimes grueling combat. The fights all end by presenting your grade, based on the variety of attacks, speed, and damage received.
The first game set a high standard for ridiculous, over-the-top spectacle, and though the second doesn’t match Asura’s Wrath’s exuberance, it still delivers. This is nowhere more true than in the boss battles, giant, multi-part set pieces. Sadly these can also be the most frustrating sequences in the entire game, as they’re turned almost entirely into flying on-rails sequences that severely reduces your maneuverability, slowing the gameplay down and, especially in the case of the first of these battles, hurting the very replayability the game relies on.
The player can get through most of the games content with little more than an intuitive grasp of the game systems. That’s not the case for the hardest difficulty. This requires a full understanding of the rhythmic nuances of the combo strings, necessitating patient, calm inputs in the face of aggressive, hard-hitting enemies. The trade-off to the skilled application of presses is shorter recovery times and larger attacks. Now that you can move quickly and anticipate your enemies, the next last step is to efficiently execute the shorter moves to do more damage quicker, and conjure your Wicked Weaves sooner. If Bayonetta is theater, ∞ Climax is her figurative Broadway run.
Bayonetta’s second show proves that she’d learned a lot over the four years that came between them. The first featured one of the most fun, best playing games of the type that’s ever been created and it only got more fluid here. The combat system is so good that it demands repeat performances, perfect for chasing that Pure Platinum trophy. Bayonetta 2 is its headlining star’s grand return to the stage, deserving of a standing ovation.
DEVELOPER: Platinum Games
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.