Bayonetta marks Hideki Kamiya’s return to the genre he first visited in Devil May Cry following his departure from Capcom and Clover studios. It’s also a fantastic showcase for Mari Shimazaki’s character design. These elements make for an enjoyable tits-and-ass hack-and-slash, but there’s a weight of creativity behind the crotch-shots and stripper poses. One which can be easy to overlook.
The plot seems woven entirely from gaming tropes, yet the characters and plot twists aren’t dissimilar from AAA and indie titles which present them in a deathly serious manner. Bayonetta is noteworthy not because of it’s cliché character and story, but because it utilizes them as a gleeful parody of a genre which Devil May Cry arguably spawned.
The protagonist herself is a last-of-her-kind amnesiac witch at the business end of a supernatural conflict. Players make their way through a string of set pieces while dishing out abuse to weird asexual angelic beings. Bayo’s introduction (in which Bayo slaughters a cemetery full of angels) lays bare the game’s intentions by turning the sequence into a pole dance routine choreographed to a cover version of Fly Me to the Moon.
A pop standard from the mid 50’s would be an odd choice for most games, but it’s a perfect fit for Bayonetta. Fly Me to the Moon contextualizes her as a burlesque performer, someone who walks the fine line between trash and glamour. The game is loaded with kink and innuendo, yet still balances that out with genuine humor and wit.
In terms of gameplay, action is broken up with some puzzle and treasure hunt elements, but at its heart the game is a brawler. Players proceed from arena to arena taking on mobs of enemies, usually ending in fighting a gigantic boss battle. Bayonetta is enjoyably more versatile than a typical hack and slash protagonist. Properly timed evasive maneuvers activate the time-slowing Witch Time feature. This allows players to reverse enemy attacks and deal devastating combo damage. Combat strikes a nice balance between button mashing, acrobatic evasion and special moves. Controls are tight, responsive, and there’s an ever-expanding library of moves and weaponry.
Bayonetta is also beautifully animated, both in her attacks and her ass-swaying swagger. It’s a combination which gives her genuine presence. Well executed battles feel like dance routines, especially when punctuated with the gory mayhem of climax and torture attacks, which summon chainsaws, dragons and guillotines to punish cowering foes.
Integral to this is the character and costume design by Mari Shimazaki. Her designs feel like an amalgamation of male and female power fantasies. The passion and flair of her art makes a refreshing alternative to generic tough girls with a tank-top-and-short-bob aesthetic.
Environments range from gothic noir to fairytale fantasy and serve primarily as a backdrop for combat. They aren’t quite as noteworthy as the character design but they’re varied, and often rather pretty. Cut scenes have a much more cartoonish quality but still convey the same cheeky sexuality, as do the lighter moments of the soundtrack.
For a game so excessive in its action and presentation, every detail has a purpose. Normally character design would be less noteworthy, but Bayonetta’s design is a fundamental part of how the game plays. Central to this are her gun shoes.
A number of moves incorporate the mechanism, including a handstand which holds enemies back with suppressive fire. Beyond that, Bayonetta’s footwear provides a central metaphor of the game: weaponized femininity. Bayonetta’s powers and abilities work in tandem with her feminine aesthetic, mirroring the value and function these attributes hold socially.
She unlocks sealed areas by blowing a heart shaped kiss, gains butterfly wings when performing a double-jump and her magic attacks are hair-based. Such attacks temporarily deplete Bayonetta’s clothing, giving players both titillation and some insight into Bayo as a character: her power comes from being so damn brazen.
Femininity has real purpose and function within the game. It would be difficult to imagine a more blatant illustration of feminine power than Bayonetta summoning a demonic stiletto heel to grind opponents into groveling oblivion.
Bayonetta does not mark the point at which games became art, but it may mark the point at which games became a John Waters movie. It’s cheeky and sometimes grotesque parody, but one that’s consistently charming.
Bayonetta is sexy, transgressive, and fun in a way that seems subtly important to gaming. There are plenty of poker-faced titles with aspirations of high art or social worth, but few which play so freely with ego and identity as Bayonetta.
A game which took itself seriously would lack the delicacy to depict a sexually deviant witch punishing the hypocritical forces of heaven with the same sly subversion. Or to meld it so seamlessly with over-the-top action gameplay.
The premise (a beat em up starring a dominatrix) borrows something from Poison of Final Fight or leather domme NPCs of Streets of Rage. Accordingly the series has developed a notable gay and female fanbase. Despite being a solo affair Bayonetta makes an excellent party game because her exhibitionism is so fun to watch. This isn’t an adult title, yet it’s a game in which players can dispatch enemies using stripper poles or beat them senseless in sadomasochistic torture devices.
Bayonetta is genuinely funny, the graphics hold up well for a game first published half a decade ago, and the experience can be tailored to both hardcore completionists and casuals alike. It’s an excellent opportunity to sharpen one’s reflexes while indulging in the fantasy of drag queens, ratchet bitches, and foot fetishists alike of high heels which double as firearms.