Hands On: Bewitching Bayonetta 2 Brings Action Gaming To A Climax On Wii U

We spend some time with Bayonetta 1 and 2

It’s hard to overestimate just how much buzz Bayonetta 2’s Wii U exclusivity garnered back when it was announced in 2012; the first game in the series - from Platinum Games and Hideki Kamiya - was critically acclaimed and a big hit with fans, though since it only ever appeared on the Xbox 360 and PS3, not all Nintendo gamers will be familiar with just why this witch is so well-renowned. Luckily, during this year’s Digital Event at E3, Nintendo announced that Bayonetta 2 would also include a Wii U update of the original game, making their latest console home to the entirety of the enchantress’ oeuvre. We went hands-on with both titles at E3, beginning with the sequel, and ended up thoroughly impressed and a little lightheaded - Bayonetta 2 is a bracingly brilliant action game, a graphical showpiece for the Wii U, and a whole lot of fun.

Our demo of Bayonetta 2 began with a quick explanation of the controls and a quick-fire cutscene, before throwing us right into the action, on the angel-infested roof of a supersonic jet careening through a Manhattan-like cityscape. Even in this Prologue stage, the pace started strong and didn’t let up; from the plane, we proceeded - crash by spectacular crash - to the top of a runaway train and the side (and eventually top) of a skyscraper, all while battling enemies of various shapes and sizes, as the weather went from sunny skies to raging thunderstorm.

The gameplay reminded us quite a bit - thematic differences notwithstanding - of Platnium’s first Wii U title, The Wonderful 101, in its pacing, frenetic level design, over-the-top set pieces, and emphasis on evade-attack sequences and combos. Bayonetta moves quite differently than the masked mob of superheroes, of course, but she’s every bit as nimble as you’d expect from her streamlined design, and the controls are easy to get to grips with and wonderfully fluid. The left stick is for movement, ‘B’ jumps, X’ and ‘A’ send out punches and kicks (including some in the form of giant limbs made from Bayonetta’s super-powered hair), and ‘ZR’ is used to dodge - evading at the very last second triggers a stylish slo-mo effect and activates ‘Witch Time’, where time stands relatively still for a few moments and you’re free to land lots of extra hits.

Even garden-variety enemies can take quite a few of those hits, too, which means there’s plenty of opportunities to get in some of the game’s spectacular combos. Bayonetta can juggle foes with the best of them, and the combo system is built for speed and style: different strings of ‘X’ and ‘A’ perform increasingly impressive attacks (temporarily unravelling Bayonetta’s hair-based bodysuit at the same time), while holding down either button for a longer press will hold the offending angel at arm’s (or leg’s) length with gunfire from her handguns and shoe-mounted pistols. Guns aren’t the only weapons at Bayonetta’s disposal, however; we were able to switch freely between her guns and a pair of whips in the demo, and were told that more weapons will be available in the final game. We were especially fond of the whips, and air-juggling enemies inside the frenzied tangles of lashes unleashed with longer button presses.

Successfully stringing together attacks will fill Bayonetta’s magic gauge, and once it’s full you can unleash Torture Attacks - silly-gory finishing moves that can run enemies through a life-sized cheese grater, among much else - or activate Umbran Climax - a hyper-powered mode that casts the screen in an eerie indigo and powers up every punch or kick to the hardest-hitting, hair-based variety. All of these systems add up to exciting, engaging combat that - combined with her super fluid motion and significant speed - makes being Bayonetta a blast. We loved stringing along multiple enemies at a time, snapping back and forth between foes mid-combo, sprinkling in ranged and Torture Attacks, and switching weapons as we went; it’s fantastic, frantic action, and the level we played was pure, adrenaline-pumping fun from front to back.

Part of that considerable adrenaline rush comes from the foes you’ll face. There were plenty of Bayonetta-sized baddies to deal with in the stage we played, for instance, but there were also lots of larger enemies who made things even more interesting. These towering beasts - including a flying, gold-plated, angelic mech and an enormous demon dragon - provided especially thrilling fights, with design reminiscent of old-school boss battles. In fact, we’d feel comfortable calling all these colossal creatures bosses, except for the fact that they just kept coming; there was a point in the demo where one battle ended when a massive monster came in to dispatch the slightly less massive one we were currently fighting, only to turn on poor Bayonetta, resulting in a new fight on an even larger scale - a continuous food-chain of boss battles that kept us on our toes until the very last.

Even with all the surprise attacks, what amazed us most about our time with Bayonetta 2 was how comfortably in control we felt from start to finish. It would be easy for a game with this much off-the-walls action to fall into a trap of automation, where flashy camera angles and choreographed battles keep spectacle high and player input at a minimum. That’s not the case with Bayonetta 2; we felt a clear one-to-one correspondence between our every move and the on-screen action, and it was absolutely exhilarating. The game certainly helps you along, with massive tells indicating when enemies are about to strike, but it’s up to you to evade at the proper moment, active Witch Time, and follow up with combos. Even in the sections of the demo which could be called ‘set pieces’, as in Bayonetta’s mid-air fight with a thirty-story dragon wrapped around a skyscraper, you’re always given exactly enough control - it genuinely felt like our doing when the dragon went down.

The only place where this feeling faltered was in the perhaps too-frequent Quick Time Events, where we were required to hit one of the four face buttons very quickly with very little warning. These popped up for everything from dodges - jumping between pieces of debris, or avoiding incoming shrapnel, for instance - to finishing attacks, and while thematically they make sense, in practice they came off as slightly bothersome. It doesn’t help that the Wii U’s face buttons are all the same size and colour, either - a single letter serves as the sole distinguishing feature for these rapidly required inputs, and at least once we found ourselves having to pull our eyes away from the action to determine whether an impending QTE required an ‘X’ or an ‘A’.

Speeding around the New York-style metropolis and taking down multi-story monsters was a real thrill, and it was also incredibly beautiful to watch - Bayonetta took a centaur hoof to the face early on in the demo because we wanted to just take a moment to look around at all the unbelievable detail whizzing past. Water, explosions, and lighting effects all looked spectacular, and everything was so clean, clear, and colourful in brilliant HD - again, not unlike The Wonderful 101 - that we’d have been very happy to sit back and enjoy the ride even without all the exciting gameplay. It’s worth noting too that the graphics do that gameplay a great service by keeping up a consistent framerate - we didn’t encounter a single bout of slowdown, even in special-effect-packed sequences so dense with action they’d make Bangai-O blush.

Going back to the original Bayonetta

After banishing the final beast in Bayonetta 2, we were also able to play through a stage of the Wii U update of the original Bayonetta, brought onto the E3 show floor after the second day by popular request. In terms of gameplay, this felt very similar to its sequel; the controls were unchanged and felt just as tight, Bayonetta still had access to both whips and guns, and we still spent the stage air-juggling angels into massive combos. However, the specific stage we played - set in a lovely looking train station and its immediate surroundings - focused more on close-quarters combat and included a few light puzzle elements, which gave it a slightly more subdued feel than the cinematic cross-town rumble we’d seen in Bayonetta 2. ‘Subdued’ is a relative term where Bayonetta is concerned, of course, and flicking a few switches and searching for a door key didn’t stop her from also going to town on enormous enemies in and around a massive outdoor fountain - it felt a bit different, but we had just as much fun with Bayonetta as Bayonetta 2.

This rerelease also adds in a few Wii U-exclusives to the core experience, in the Nintendo-themed costumes Bayonetta can wear throughout her adventure. We played through our demo as Peach Bayonetta, who came complete with a hip-mounted Mario doll, and charging through the game’s hellish haunts dressed up as the pink princess was lots of fun. The costume was cute enough, but it’s the little details that made it clear this was a labour of love: the original collectable halos turned into gold coins, sound effects changed to match their Mushroom Kingdom equivalents, and - best of all - Bayonetta’s larger-than-life, stiletto-capped hair-attacks were replaced by enormous, disembodied Bowser limbs. We couldn’t help but smile every time we banished a divine messenger to the netherworld with a swift kick from a shining yellow Koopa leg, and playing as Peach lent the game a goofy levity that kept us smiling throughout. The costumes are entirely optional, of course, but we imagine quite a few Nintendo fans will be winging their way through Vigrid as Samus, Link, or Peach.

Wii U owners will be also happy to hear that it looks like we’re getting a technically top-notch experience - the demo we played ran at a rock solid framerate, with no sign of slowdown or any of the hiccups that plagued the PS3 port. And while the graphics don’t quite match up to the brilliantly beautiful Bayonetta 2, this is still a great-looking game.

Based on our time with Platinum’s latest, Bayonetta 2 seems to be shaping up into a real treat: it’s a stunning game with exhilarating combat, surprisingly nuanced controls, and an incredible sense of style. We were similarly impressed by the Wii U update of the original adventure, and came away from the E3 demos wanting only to play more of both as soon as possible. Happily, we won’t have too much longer to wait - Bayonetta makes her Nintendo début this October, and we expect she’ll make quite an impression on Wii U action fans.

Make sure you check out our First Impressions of Bayonetta 2 when we played it at last year's E3, and don't miss our other hands-on features from this year's event:

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