If reports are to be believed, the first major casualty of Sega Sammy's restructuring of its loss-making videogame business is an unannounced sequel to 2010 Platinum Games brawler Bayonetta, the 11th game ever to receive an Edge 10 and without question the finest game of its type seen this generation. Bayonetta 2, a Spong source claims, has been cancelled while still in pre-production.
It's worth stressing that, at this point, nothing has been confirmed: Sega declined to comment, and director Hideki Kamiya told one fan on Twitter to ask the publisher. Producer Atsushi Inaba has hardly helped, tweeting an image showing the protagonist with Robert Burns from Vanquish and a hastily mocked-up Bayonetta 2 logo, and in the absence of any confirmation or denial from Sega, it's not looking good. If rumours are true, and Sega has indeed cancelled the game before a line of code has been written, it would be a crying shame.
Admittedly, calling Bayonetta the best thirdperson brawler of the current generation of consoles is to damn it with faint praise. This, after all, is a genre that peaked in the PS2 and Xbox era. There are almost too many to list: Ninja Gaiden Black, Bujingai: Swordmaster, Genji: Dawn Of The Samurai, Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition and, of course, the peerless and much-missed Clover Studio, with Viewtiful Joe and God Hand. The previous generation of consoles was, in many ways, defined by experiences like these, and in years to come we may well look back on those as the salad days when the Japanese action game was at its peak.
Bayonetta aside, this generation has seen nothing but misfires. Tomonobu Itagaki's Team Ninja swan-song Ninja Gaiden 2 felt phoned in; Devil May Cry 4 suffered from its drift in focus away from Dante, its dual protagonists seemingly designed to justify the recycling of environments. These days the Japanese videogame industry is in the depths of an existential crisis, striving to appeal to western tastes and wallets (and, if possible, to get Keiji Inafune to shut up). Ninja Gaiden 3 was dumbed down for what Tecmo doubtless saw as the greater good, but the resulting work served only to alienate the series' long-standing fans while failing to ignite interest in its target market. While preview coverage of Ninja Theory's needlessly subtitled DMC: Devil May Cry has been increasingly positive in tone as development has progressed, make no mistake: it's a western game, made by the west for the west. Bayonetta, by contrast, is about as Japanese as modern videogames get.
Put the set-dressing – the visual style, those faintly cringeworthy boss finishers – to one side. Forget the litany of homages to Sega and Capcom's past, too, and the fantastic soundtrack, if you must. Concentrate instead on the mechanics. Bayonetta made a thoroughly hardcore pursuit more accessible with Witch Time, a dodge that, when properly timed, slowed down the action. It meant progression was about more than just frame data, more than avoiding an attack and getting a few cheeky hits in before your opponent could recover. One well-timed dodge slowed everything down, giving beginners a chance to take off half a foe's energy bar, to experiment with the combo system, without fear of reprisal.
Your first playthrough is just the beginning. On subsequent runs through its generous campaign, you'll discover Dodge Offset, which enables you to keep a combo going while dodging incoming attacks simply by keeping a button pressed. That's the gateway to a combo system of staggering depth, one that has kept Saurian – the west's finest player of Japanese action games and a man so highly regarded he helped write Bayonetta's strategy guide – refining his strategies to this day. Literally: he posted a YouTube video of the second Jeanne fight while this was being written. Switch the difficulty level to Hard and it becomes a genuinely different game. Spend 100,000 Halos on the Moon Of Mahaa-Kalaa bracelet and you can parry enemy attacks, turning the game into the Street Fighter III: Third Strike of your dreams.
If Bayonetta 2 is off the table, all that fans of the true Japanese action game currently have to look forward to is Platinum's own Anarchy Reigns. While we have absolute faith in the studio's system design, this will be its – and its genre's – first online game, and one suspects it will be the first for a reason. These are games which often require inputs accurate to a single frame of a second, and players of this generation's numerous online-enabled fighting games will know only too well the effect of the slightest latency on games that require such precise timing. Platinum is also working on Metal Gear Solid Rising: Revengeance, of course, but we're yet to see what the studio has done with it since it was handed the project and the suspicion remains that it is a Metal Gear game first, and a Platinum title second. Itagaki's current project, Devil's Third, is being made for THQ, a publisher with its own well-documented financial problems which may well force compromise upon the former Team Ninja head's singular vision.
Sega's decision is understandable, of course. It has pledged to focus on sure-fire successes, on established IPs, and Bayonetta simply isn't as proven a commodity as a new Sonic, Total War or Football Manager. From a business perspective, a sequel to a game in a niche genre, with a divisive art style, which was well-received by critics but only sold around a million and a half worldwide, might not make sense. There's an argument too, of course, that one Bayonetta was enough, that its wonder would only be diluted by a sequel, especially one made for a publisher with a laser focus on its bottom line. But I'd rather find that out for myself, and the game's reported cancellation has me fearing for the future not just of a series, a studio and a publisher, but of an entire genre as well.