There are some things for which the human mind simply isn’t equipped, and to be honest I think Bayonetta might be one of them. It’s not just the bewildering narrative, the jarring hyper-sexualisation or the ridiculous action scenes. The whole game really is mental, frequently to the point that I imagine Hideki Kamiya stumbling into work after a weekend bender of hard drugs and alcohol, transcribing his acid flashback onto a design document and just knocking off for lunch.
This isn’t as much of a bad thing as one might think, though, because I haven’t had as much pure, unadulterated fun with a game in a long time. The main problem with Bayonetta is that, as a young man, I feel a really pressing urge to qualify why I like it so much, just so people don’t think I’m into it for erotic reasons. But how do you qualify something which makes absolutely no sense? Well, we’re going to try.
Bayonetta succeeds less because it’s a terrific action game (although it certainly is) and more because it’s visual, aural and mechanical design are all thematically unified in stylized sexuality. It really doesn’t matter that Bayonetta (the character, not the game) has a suit made out of her own body hair or that she sucks lollipops for no adequately explained reason; what matters is that every element of this game fits together like a perfect jigsaw, albeit one that’s covered in bulletholes and smeared in lipstick.
Leigh Alexander described Bayonetta as a “stylized love letter to femininity” and, while I lack the additional X chromosome to comment on issues like femininity without drawing a few awkward glances, I have to say I agree with her. Female characters in video games typically fall into one of two categories: either the meek and timid damsel-in-distress, or the hot and sassy action girl, although both will invariably have their midriff exposed. I can count on one hand the amount of times this mould has been broken; Prince of Persia’s Farah, Half-Life 2’s Alyx Vance, Beyond Good and Evil’s Jade. Each of these is a strong, independent woman who doesn’t simply cater to the men in her world. But, for every example of that there are a thousand hastily crowbarred-in love-interest stereotypes that give female video game characters a bad name.
In Bayonetta’s world, she’s the most dominant and fearsome force in Heaven, Hell, and everything in-between. She doesn’t answer to anyone (particularly not a male) and her only real competition is Jeanne, who exhibits many of the same traits. The game’s support character, Luka, is weak and useless, like most support characters; the difference here though is that he’s the most prominent male in the story. Bayonetta (the game, not the character) turns sexual stereotypes on their heads, dresses them up in fetish gear, and uses them to smash more angels into bits.
Speaking of which, smashing things has rarely been quite as satisfying as it is in Bayonetta. The combat system, while not revolutionary in its elements, nonetheless feels ground-breaking in its execution. Offensive moves are governed by a certain rhythm which feels less like fighting and more like producing a particularly up-tempo piece of music, each kick or punch a full, powerful beat strung together by half-second pauses as one seamlessly-animated strike segues into another. Mastering the basics is not remembering a procession of rote combinations, but learning to feel and interpret the flow of combat itself. Sensory cues signify threats; the gleam of a twirling weapon, the chime of a striking foe, and gliding out of the way at the final second slows the whole scene down to a crawl. Bayonetta moves like a ballet dancer, graceful and poised in her defence, but savage and brutal in her attack, each pirouette and strike one part in a beautiful, deadly whole.
Bayonetta’s influences are numerous. There are weapons and styles of fighting pilfered from the likes of Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden, staging and perspective pulled right out of the Super Mario Galaxy playbook and a sense of scale borrowed from the God of War series. Platinum pinches ideas, but it doesn’t matter. Bayonetta takes those ideas, gets them drunk, sticks a lollypop in their mouths and kicks them all the way back to the drawing board to be made bigger and flashier. I don’t know what Hideki Kamiya was smoking during the development process for this, but if it was up to me the whole world would be smoking it too.
There is a story in Bayonetta, something to do with angels and witches and some cosmic forces battling for supremacy. I didn’t really understand it, which I think might be the point. It’s little more than an excuse for outrageous enemy and environment design, so Bayonetta can introduce city-sized monstrosities and hulking mechanical behemoths and then blow up the world around them for no reason other than – well, why not? Bayonetta runs along walls and rockets, catches and throws meteors, summons giant fists and stiletto heels from portals in the sky and dropkicks giant mecha-tigers in the face. And she looks great doing it. Why would anyone care why?
There are problems of course, such as a few too many lengthy cut-scenes and the occasional unwelcome puzzle. Bayonetta isn’t perfect, but it’s a beautiful and graceful action game with a riotous imagination and a willingness to use the hell out of its many great ideas. I spent eleven hours with it and loved each one of them, as eager to continue playing when I reached the end as I was when I began. Bayonetta is so hypnotic in motion that you could possibly be lulled into playing forever, and I can’t think of many better ways to spend your time.