Bayonetta is nearly flawless. We’re not talking about the witch herself, though that’s also true. Bayonetta is the kind of game you dream of playing, the kind of game every platform needs, and the kind of game any developer with ambition would fantasise about having on their CV. From start to finish its intricate and intuitive fighting system is a masterclass, and it even finds time to reclaim vehicle levels. This is about as good as it gets.
A thirdperson action game from the same school as Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden, Bayonetta has just memorised the best bits and burned down the building, its combination of seamless animation, sensory cues and riotous imagination setting a new standard. Bayonetta herself is perhaps gaming’s most capable protagonist, panther-lean, crushingly strong and irresistible in motion. From her first backflip out of angels’ reach to the last cosmic blows, the player is in hands that only rarely waver.
The fighting system isn’t revolutionary in its elements, but their combination and execution breaks new ground. Offensive moves are either punches or kicks which automatically string together, your understanding of the process helped by the loading screens which display your inputs as you control Bayonetta. It’s easy to learn the basic moves, but they all share a certain rhythm to their execution which means that, after a few hours, you’ll be instinctively using combinations you didn’t know were there for sure, but suspected might be. As for the systems of Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry, Bayonetta simply includes them: a sword comes with Gaiden’s charge move, while a pair of bracelets produce a convincing cross between Dante’s Royal Guard style and SFIII’s parries, a whip channels DMC4’s Nero, and a pair of ice skates even bring a touch of Ice B Mario’s momentum to proceedings. The audio cues and half-second beats are soon hardwired into the brain, teaching you the way to fight rather than drilling you with processions of rote combos.
The enemies don’t just stand around while you’re admiring the view. Their blows are signalled by chimes that build to a fine pitch as they connect, as well as an eyefocusing light on the offending weapon. Dodging a blow at the last minute activates Witch Time, which makes everything slow down and allows a moment to line up a massive boot over a forehead. They’re simple rules which in practice produce the greatest battles videogames have yet seen: in one level, angels mix up their attacks to confuse your timing, feinting you into their cohorts’ blows, and you’re battered relentlessly from wall to wall. You restart, neatly sliding by the first outstretched blade to activate Witch Time, smash down into the group with a giant stiletto that emerges from a portal, kick sideways with another demonic leg, pop a straggler with the shotgun strapped to your boot, and drop-kick the last into an iron maiden you’ve conjured up. And these are the most basic of Bayonetta’s moves.
She’s certainly something, moving with the poise of a ballet dancer and hitting like a boxer, the joy of controlling her moves matched by their beauty in execution, every connection part of a deadly whole. Her sheer brutality can dominate much bigger opponents, and you’ll find yourself slapping rhino-sized creatures about the place just for the fun of doing it. And then everything ramps up: finishing Normal unlocks Hard mode where you begin anew, powers intact, and fight through the same environments against remixed enemies. It’s where Bayonetta transitions from the great to the legendary, where the difference between a perfect round and a restart is nothing less than total concentration. Every element of the game is hypnotic in motion, and it’s difficult to recall another thirdperson actioner that feels so worth mastering.
The story concerns a heavenly battle, a setup for inspired enemy design and jokes about videogames past and present. The basic angels are androgynous and floaty, but soon you’re facing off against bear-like hulks with ripping mechanical claws, huge tigerish beasts with riveted mouths, and city-sized monsters with gears whirring in their joints. The environments are similarly inspired, a weird world of feathers, leathers and natural disasters where Bayonetta feels entirely at home. Taking hints of perspective from Super Mario Galaxy and scale from God Of War, Bayonetta makes Heaven a much more suitable hunting ground than you’d think.
Then the cherries on top, the plentiful bosses which represent developer Platinum at the very top of its game. You will believe a woman can fly, surf, run up walls, catch cosmic debris, summon giant fists, sprint up rockets, dropkick giant faces and finish off every single move with a bang. Platinum pinches ideas in places, but they’re almost all scene-stealers. That the expected end-game gauntlet is a pleasure tells its own story.
As well as casually dismissing pretenders to the fighting crown, Bayonetta still has time for vehicle sections that are actually worth their place. They’re part of a defining characteristic: this is a Sega game, and specifically a Yu Suzuki tribute. Not only are cutscenes interspersed with arch references (Sonic’s nemesis, Dr Eggman, is being buried in the opening moments) but Bayonetta herself announces “This is my fantasy zone!” while casually riding a missile and moving into a Space Harrier re-run. There’s a great Hang On-inspired motorbike scene, and a few other treats we won’t spoil. There’s a generous helping of Clover in here too, not least the constant God Hand references and Bayonetta’s dash morphing her into a panther version of Okami’s Amaterasu.
So, what does it do wrong? There are too many cutscenes, and they’re too lengthy in duration, although a selection are among gaming’s finest. The infrequent QTEs catch you off guard, and aren’t helped by annoying loading times, while the rare puzzle simply feels like a genre hangover. It’s also a little distracting to have the game breathe new life into the genre while continually slapping itself, and Japan’s game development scene, on the back, as it shouts: “Hey, I’m breathing new life into the genre! Did you get the Eggman joke? What about the klutzy male lead who looks like he’s from one of those American games? That was funny, right?”
But Bayonetta is funny. It even threatens to be tender in places, though quickly thinks better of it. It’s a beautiful and graceful fighting game that lets imagination loose, and winks before slapping Dante, Kratos and every other hero back to the drawing board. Above all else, it’s proof that you can never have too many great ideas – or do too much with them.
Bayonetta is one of very few games awarded an Edge 10. You can find the rest here.