One of Bayonetta 2’s many virtues is that it introduces itself accurately and succinctly. Pressing start on the game’s first section introduces the game’s titular witch via a slow panning shot from her neckline to her crotch. Under player control, she then mauls a dozen seraphim, jumps into robot armor, and murders some hulking cherubs riding on the back of a house-sized demonic manta ray. Her world’s bizarre creation myth plays in the background the entire time, seemingly without reason. Five minutes have barely passed, but Bayonetta 2 has already expressed itself fully—here is what it is, here is what it will be teaching, here are the bizarre tics of personality that you have to push past.
It is a confident approach, and for a game like Bayonetta 2, it is also the only approach. This is a game that takes some central ideas—ultraviolence, religious iconography, female eroticism—flattens its palm on the sliders, moves them all the way to the right, and then breaks them off; we won’t be needing those again. Watching these maxed-out themes play with and bounce off each other is fascinating nonsense that gets stranger as the game progresses.
Bayonetta herself is an Umbra Witch, as is her roommate and best friend, Jeanne. While the two are out buying groceries for their Christmas party, they are attacked by the holy forces of Paradiso. The battle goes pear-shaped when their own allies, the pact-bound demons of Inferno, inexplicably turn against them. Jeanne is killed and her soul is dragged to Inferno. So Bayonetta is off to the delightfully named holy mountain of Fimbulventr, the location of the gates to faux-Heaven and faux-Hell, where she can reclaim her friend and figure out why she was betrayed.
There’s a bit more to the story—Bayonetta meets a boy named Loki on the way to Fimbulventr and gets tied up in his drama—but it all just sets the stage for the game’s frequent, excellent combat sequences. Bayonetta’s 2 fighting system is a piece of precision game engineering with a simple goal: chain punches, kicks, gunfire, and dodges into an elegant, ceaseless string of violence. The button response is so close to immediate and the battles so fair (for example, an enemy that is off-screen will never attack you in a way that can’t be predicted) that any failure can only be the player’s fault. This isn’t to say that Bayonetta 2 is a difficult game—it can be made simple or challenging to taste, and there’s even a mode using the Wii U controller’s touchscreen that is especially forgiving—but because it makes player mistakes so obvious, anything less than a perfect result claws at the mind. And when the difference between perfection and what feels like abject failure can be measured in milliseconds, the incentive to try again is always present.
There’s also a variety of ways to experience that combat. New weapons and abilities are made available through the course of the game, and the two-player online mode, which is euphemistically named “Tag Climax,” plays to the strengths of the system by having both players take on a series of short challenges together. Its single twist is that before each challenge, one player gets to bet a certain amount of currency that they will do a better job than their ally. The more that is bet, the tougher the challenge, but whoever wins gets a relatively enormous prize purse. This twist further incentivizes perfect performance while making the decision to help your ally a fraught one. Pull them back from the brink, and they may steal your prize, making it take that much longer to buy your next costume or weapon from the in-game store. Don’t help out, and you’re now going alone, making the fight twice as hard. Played this way or alone, the game can be repeated until a mastery of Bayonetta’s move set is achieved, and it never feels like a soulless grind. It feels like practice.
That move set might start to seem strange though, once it becomes possible to stop focusing on the battle and start thinking about what Bayonetta is actually doing. Her magical powers make her hair a powerful weapon, but that hair also forms her clothing. So her hirsute suit becomes more revealing as she summons weapons and demons, before matting and knotting itself around her again once the fight is over. This is the curious intersection of eroticism, mysticism, and violence where you’ll find yourself for the entirety of Bayonetta 2.
To save her roommate, Bayonetta will pole-dance on an ancient machine of divine origin, straddling it with her freakishly spider-like legs. Facing insurmountable odds on her own, she will spank a holy centaur into a guillotine. She will do whatever it takes to protect a boy who lost his Mummy, until the threat is defeated and she can return the impossible arch to her back. Here is Bayonetta taking on the universe. Here is Bayonetta in a pin-up pose. Here is Bayonetta fighting demons—and angels.
When all of these diverse themes are presented with the bombast that Bayonetta 2 employs for, well, everything, it becomes easy to have the mind blown by whichever bits are personally appealing and to disregard the rest as overblown nonsense. In doing so, Bayonetta 2 gives its wild surrealism a broad appeal, even if it is painted primarily with sex and violence. Between that and the sublime feel of its combat, it’s difficult to see even a passing interest in one of Bayonetta 2’s passions not turning into a memorable experience.
Developer: PlatinumGames, Inc.
Platforms: Wii U