Leggy brunettes in costume as the naughty-witch title character of Bayonetta were popular attractions at videogame trade shows last year. That figures, as Bayonetta makes a natural “booth babe,” designed to roil unrequited testosterone. Her game encourages players to gape as it pokes its camera at her curves, or lingers on her lips as she glides her strawberry lollipop in and out of her mouth. When you execute a combo attack, Bayonetta’s outfit melts away, leaving a sliver of covering. It’s an unspoken tease that sums up the pubescent fantasies underlying this game: Maybe if you do really well, she’ll let you see everything!
Bayonetta is an all-out power trip, with frenzied mêlée combat that condenses control of multiple guns, body blows, shape-shifting magic, and evasive moves into just three heavily used controller buttons. The simple, smooth attacks will draw comparisons to the God Of War series, but those games have a sense of dramatic pacing. In the bombastic Bayonetta, every other battle is built up as Armageddon, which makes it tough to get your bearings. The bizarre clash-of-worlds backstory, seemingly concocted by a coked-up L. Ron Hubbard, doesn’t help. In spite of hours of cutscenes, only this much is clear: Bayonetta is an outcast witch trying to reconstruct her past, and hoo boy, she sure has to fight a lot of angels to do it.
The crazy thing is, when Bayonetta eases off the bluster, it can be transcendent. In mini-boss encounters, the control scheme clicks, and you fall into a graceful dance of dodges and parries. Side quests throughout the game hone your technique by imposing limits on Bayonetta’s tactics—forcing you to defeat an archangel with a set number of kicks and punches, for instance. Mastering one of these challenges is so gratifying that it can feel like all your past gaming was practice for that moment. And at least on the 360, the visuals are immaculate—there isn’t a pixel out of place on your cherubic attackers.
It’s tough to assess a game that swings so wildly between two poles. In its more focused portions, Bayonetta is kinetic bliss that makes hand-to-hand violence into an act of love. But too often, the game devolves to its button-mashing, raunchy norm, adopting the puerile sensibility that is making Japan a less relevant voice in a slowly maturing medium.