Bayonetta (2009)

I feel the need to preface any review of character action games with the fact that I am not particularly good at these games, and I rarely gain any level of mastery of their systems. I think it’s important to state this because character action games often thrive when you put in the time to really master their systems, so I frequently miss out on deep mechanics. That being said, I believe that Bayonetta is the most approachable character action game that I have played. I enjoyed the Devil May Cry series, but I often felt that I was just scratching the surface of what was possible in those games. But in Bayonetta, I felt much more comfortable executing combos and performing advanced techniques.

Before diving into the complex combat mechanics of Bayonetta, it should be no surprise that I need to mention the character design. There has been no shortage of controversy surrounding the gratuitously sexualized main character. The game’s director, Hideki Kamiya has made it clear that he wanted Bayonetta to be a sexy character. She has the build of a supermodel, regularly gets into sexy poses, makes plenty of innuendos, and even goes almost fully nude when utilizing her witch powers.

While I’m typically grossed out by hypersexualized characters in video games or television, Bayonetta is not the typical character that serves as eye candy. She’s an undeniable badass who toys with her opponents. She is totally in control of her own sexuality. She has a cheeky personality that pokes fun of her angelic opponents and their puritan values. I think this is fine and even a subversion of a common misogynistic character type. However, I think Bayonetta takes the sexual aspects too far in many places. While she is meant to be a sexual character, there are many sequences and scenes that are clearly meant just to be eye candy for the player. Zooming in on her assets while she sensually dances objectified her rather than empowering her.

While there’s no doubt that Bayonetta is a badass and sexy character, the game’s actual story absurd. Story has never been a central aspect of character actions games, and I can’t fault Bayonetta too hard for its nonsensical story when it is clearly not the focus of the game. But there are a ton of cutscenes, cinematics, and exposition dumps that get in the way of actually interacting with the fun parts of the game. I suppose a nonsensical and over the top story is better than a boring, monotonous one. But I wish Bayonetta was paced more evenly instead of leaving all of the story to the very end of the game.

The real appeal to character action games like Bayonetta is obviously the action. Weaving together complex combos, juggling enemies like they are ragdolls, unleashing powerful attacks, and looking stylish while doing it. While I like to say I’m not good at these kinds of games, Bayonetta felt extremely approachable for players who are inexperienced in the genre. There are a few key traits to Bayonetta that I believe makes it so easy to get into. Those being simplistic combos and the emphasis on dodging.

I’ve always had a really time hard in Devil May Cry games trying to learn all the different combos. You had a single attack button and had to combine directional inputs and correct timings in order to execute combos. Not to mention style switching and changing weapons. Bayonetta has two attack buttons, punch and kick. Hitting these buttons in different orders will result in different combos. Between load screens, you can play around in practice mode and look at the long list of all the possible combinations. Learning a few simple combinations can take the player a long way.

It was much simpler for me to just memorize “punch, kick, punch” then having to learn a bunch of directional inputs and timings. Bayonetta does a fantastic job emphasizing the use of the combos because the final attack of each combo is an extra powerful hit called a Wicked Weave. The player is taught that finishing combos is vital because so much of the power is in the final attack.

Another interesting thing about the combos in Bayonetta is that each individual attack is meant to be held. Bayonetta has guns attached to her hands and feet, and when you execute a punch or kick you can hold down the button to shoot. This does not break combos, and it does a surprising amount of damage. I quite like this feature because it discourages simple button mashing, and instead gives the player some brief moments to think about what they’re doing. I don’t have to frantically hit buttons to pull off combos, and I can take my time and am rewarded for it.

The biggest separator between Bayonetta and Devil May Cry is the emphasis on dodging. Bayonetta has a dedicated dodge button, and it is obvious that it is vitally important. If you dodge right when an enemy attack is about to hit you, you’ll activate Witch Time. This temporarily pauses time, allowing you to unleash some big combos on powerless foes. I love this feature as an inexperienced player as it really allows me to try out some cool attacks. Also, it just feels badass to dodge a hit and the last second and get rewarded with a few seconds of Witch Time.

Dodging in Bayonetta has a slightly more advanced mechanic tied to it called dodge offset. If you execute it properly, you can continue your combo right where you left off. Dodge offset is definitely something that takes some getting used to, but it is a vital trick to learn if you really want to master Bayonetta. Considering that much of your damage is part of the Wicked Weave at the end of a combo, maintaining that combo is important. This is a brilliant addition as it allows players to achieve higher mastery while utilizing and combining the core mechanics of Bayonetta: combos and dodging.

While I did not master Bayonetta myself, I can say there is plenty of complexity for those who do really want to dive deep. A long list of combos and unlockable attacks, dodge offset, a few different weapons to try out, and unlockable accessories. The accessories and magic meter are things that you are unlikely to even tinker with in your first playthrough. Similar to Devil May Cry, you will be graded at the end of each chapter if you want to challenge yourself. There is plenty of content to try, and it will take plenty of times to really master Bayonetta if that is what you are looking for.

While I do think Bayonetta herself and the other characters in the game look superb, unfortunately much of the environment design is pretty drab. Bayonetta is from the era in gaming where everything was dull brown and grey. The set pieces themselves were spectacular, but the environment was just boring. It’s odd because the character and enemy design is fantastic. The enemies all adhere to the angelic theme quite well. Bayonetta is a really well thought out character, and all her animations are fluid and graceful. The game looks really good outside of the dull environments.

Hideki Kamiya is known for his love of old school arcade games, for better or worse. Both Bayonetta and Devil May Cry were inspired by sitting in an arcade and trying to reach a high score on a game you’ve played many times before. But Bayonetta has some strange arcade gimmick levels that just abysmal. There’s one where you ride a motorcycle down a highway and another where you ride atop a rocket. Both of these levels are obviously throwbacks to old arcade games, and both are awkward, break the flow of the game, and just go on for way too long. It’s only two levels but the game really doesn’t have many levels in total, so these levels are particularly painful.

Another frustrating relic is the reliance on Quick Time Events (QTEs). During cutscenes, a button prompt could flash for a half a second and if you miss it, you instantly die. During certain fights, you have to mash a button extremely quickly or you will take significant damage. And when finishing off a boss or using a special Torture Attack you have to mash a specific button. QTEs are rarely a fun feature in games, especially in the case of Bayonetta because they have tight timers. If you don’t know the QTE is coming or what button to press, you can’t possibly react quick enough. It’s not a big deal for veteran players who are seeking high grades as they known when one is coming up, but it often feels like a cheap and unavoidable death for first timers.

Overall, I think Bayonetta is my favorite character action game. While it has its flaws like the annoying gimmicks, poor story, and drab environments, the combat is just too good to be brought down. Beginners can make use of simplistic combos and Witch Time. Advanced players have plenty to master like dodge offset, various weapons, and special accessories. While she is a controversial character who I think is overly sexualized, it’s undeniable that Bayonetta is one of the best designed and memorable characters in gaming. If you like action games, do yourself and favor and give Bayonetta a try.