Bayonetta is a witch. But she’s not your average witch. In fact, she’s not like those old crone stereotypes at all. Bayonetta’s proportions would make Barbie cringe, and her skin-tight clothing accentuates each and every curve. As the titular star of Platinum Games’ breakout title and its newly released sequel, her look is all eye-candy. Little is left to the imagination, especially since her clothing isn’t really clothing at all: it’s hair. But as she struts around like a runway model, you wouldn’t know it. It doesn’t look like hair. But witches in this alternate universe use their hair as a weapon, and when it comes time to take down foes, Bayonetta prioritizes power over modesty.
Which means that as you swing Bayonetta’s swords and shoot bullets from guns attached to her high heels (seriously), that hair covering her body attacks enemies. Portals appear and giant high-heels made of hair stomp on enemies and all kinds of crazy things happen until her enemies eventually explode into sprays of light and/or blood.
It’s surprising, then, that Nintendo published Bayonetta 2. This is an unabashedly Mature (though if we’re being honest, more “immature”) game that is being released exclusively for the Wii U. Although the original title was a moderate success on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, its publisher, SEGA, passed on the sequel. Nintendo stepped in, making this the first M-rated game the company has published since Geist in 2005 (and only their third ever).
And while some were excited that Nintendo was giving Bayonetta a chance at all, others were irate that they wouldn’t be able to play the sequel without purchasing a Wii U. Boycott campaigns began immediately (a full two years before the game’s release) and petitions were launched to have the game released on other platforms. You can always count on the vocal minority to raise a racket when something like this happens, but the efforts were both nonsensical and futile.
The other controversy is harder to ignore: sexism.
Is Bayonetta sexist? The realistic answer is “probably,” though not maliciously so. Bayonetta is a strong female protagonist, and in that sense she stands nearly alone in video games. She is a badass who can take down any opponent that stands in her way, regardless of gender. But she’s also undoubtedly a character meant to appeal to the 18-34 male demographic that is so popular with game companies. There is no way to really justify the constant (clothed) closeups of her crotch and breasts. These moments are not “empowering.” They’re voyeuristic, and any thinkpiece you might read condemning them won’t be unfounded. But it often feels more like something from a Japanese stereotype than anything explicitly offensive.
I imagine that some Japanese equivalent of the phrase “Go big or go home” was uttered frequently during Bayonetta 2’s development. This game is the very definition of excess.
Here is a title that, in its prologue, tasks players with fighting a horde of angels on top of a moving jet. For most games, that would be crazy enough, but that’s really just the start. When the jet becomes boring, it moves to the top of a speeding train, but a tentacle-armed enemy comes and begins to destroy the bridge that the train is crossing. And once that monster’s been taken care of, Bayonetta fights a gigantic dragon from Hell (that she summoned with her hair, mind you) as it scales an enormous tower like an overcompensating King Kong.
And then you get into the game.
An encounter like this would be found in the final chapters of most games, possibly even as a conclusion. But not Bayonetta 2. Screen-filling enemies like the aforementioned dragon come early and they come often. There’s basically nothing to the game other than combat, so whenever you’re in control of Bayonetta, you’re probably within 60 seconds of another encounter.
As might be expected, this comes at the expense of narrative. This is a story that needs to string together a giant enemy after wave of smaller enemies after wave of smaller enemies after a giant enemy and does so across hours. And while there are cutscenes that ostensibly explain the grander narrative, nothing really makes sense. If anything, Bayonetta’s distracting character designs (and the camera’s obsession with “sensual” close-ups) means you’re often paying more attention to how your character looks than what she’s saying.
And sometimes you’re just focused on the fighting. In its opening moments, the game throws you into a battle. Before you even learn which buttons do what, you’re facing off against angels. You may be invincible in that sequence, but you’re undoubtedly paying attention the game’s fundamental mechanics, as you should be.
Problem is, there’s narration running through the entire scene. And to be perfectly honest, I caught none of it. I have absolutely no idea what they were talking about, and though later story sequences wrest control away from you to show either animations or static images over dialogue, the whole concept is so convoluted.
Halfway through the game, I was fighting an enormous manta ray sort of thing while on my way to Hell. After finally beating it, Bayonetta summoned a different Hell-beast (she calls them “pets”) with her hair and as she stood around—hair swirling exclusively around the only parts of a woman that apparently count as “nudity”—it destroyed that manta ray demon thing and dragged it into oblivion.
I hadn’t the faintest idea what happened. But so what? That didn’t make the sequence any less awesome.
Because the thing about Bayonetta 2 is that gets all of the basics right. Attacking and dodging at just the right moment (and then attacking some more during the “Witch Time” slow motion that follows) feels exciting in exactly the way a game like this should be. It feels right, and it feels good. Even without the ridiculous characters and epic settings, this would be a game that anyone interested in quality action would want to play.
So everything beyond that is gravy, and it’s that extra something that makes it stand out. And although Bayonetta is fan-service incarnate, there’s more to her character design than her ridiculous proportions. To run extra fast, she transforms into a black panther. In danger of taking damage? Pressing the dodge button at the right time causes her to temporarily burst into an invincible flock of crows.
You may read all that and wonder, “Why?” But the answer is simple: “Why not?” Why not fight a dragon scaling a tower or a battle a male witch-of-sorts as two giant beings duke it out in the background of the screen? These two events may not fit into a cohesive narrative, but then it’s really just a story to get the player from points A to B to C, all of which are fantastic battles that rest comfortably on the brilliantly tactile feeling of simply playing the game.
There doesn’t need to be a rhyme or reason to it as long as it’s fun and it keeps escalating the action to crazier and more ridiculous heights. Bayonetta may not always be fully-clothed, but she delivers in spades.