The Wii U library is small, but also diverse and exciting; Bayonetta 2 from Platinum Games arrives as a system exclusive to forge its own brilliantly destructive path. Its arrival with a port of the original Bayonetta gives Nintendo gamers an opportunity to dive into this developing franchise in full, and also illustrates the subtle but tangible improvements that ensure improvement in the new entry. This is the release that action fans have been waiting for on Wii U.
Through this new release Platinum Games moves forward with the storytelling groundwork of the original, as Bayonetta's friendship with Jeanne kicks off proceedings, with recurring characters such as Rodin also thrown in; in typical style the storyline gets into its stride particularly quickly. The introduction of Loki sets the agenda for the plot, along with the initially mysterious Masked Lumen, and despite the finer points perhaps being easy to miss the storytelling is — like its predecessors' — put together well.
Bayonetta herself comes with a redesign — as does Jeanne — though remains the same powerful, flirty and mischievous figure. This is still a game that can be cringe inducing at times in its portrayal of our hero, though it's dialled back a tiny amount in this sequel; there's still a semi-naked body with special moves comprised of hair and plenty of suggestive dialogue, camera shots and brutal torture moves. That's simply what you sign up for with this game, and male-fantasy accusations aside our witch is a dominant character that takes nonsense from no man — or woman — at any point. She keeps Loki et al under her spell, showing strong characteristics and driving the entire plot through her presence; for those concerned about such things, that's our take.
That bombast and devil-may-care attitude is typical of this IP and its developer, and it must be said perfectly suits the genre of which it's a shining example. Action combat titles aren't as common in this 3D era as they perhaps were in bygone times, but Bayonetta 2 stands as a fine modern example of how to bring the best out of the genre. At a basic level you string together combos with a mix of two core attacks — hands and feet — to produce stronger moves and obliterate all-comers. There's plenty of complexity besides, however, as you put most of the GamePad or Pro Controller inputs to work.
With the useful comparison point of the first title, the combat here feels tighter and more immediate — certainly a good deal more instinctive and accessible. Witch Time — in which you slow time with a well-timed dodge — remains as a key mechanic and main opportunity for putting together stronger combos, and seems easier to initiate this time out. It's a subtle tweak, but even in higher difficulties that action feels fairer in this sequel, assisted by clearer enemy attacks and patterns; to be clear this isn't dumbed down, but better. Attacks flow with a tangible fluidity, and even though you'll be attacking and dodging with lightning fast button presses, you should always feel in control — this was a quality that could be slightly lost in the first game.
A new feature that serves as an accommodation for weaker players or a vital tool in brutal difficulties is the Umbran Climax — once a gauge is filled Bayonetta can briefly become a great deal more powerful, initiating hugely destructive attacks and combo finishers. In contrast that same gauge can be exchanged for a torture attack, which can destroy or severely weaken an enemy; it's a useful trade-off as you decide whether you want to initiate crowd control or target one specific enemy.
The action certainly gets adrenaline pumping, and Platinum Games has moved a step closer to perfection in its template here. There's simply greater variety in environments across the campaign — which will take 8-12 hours initially — that explores fantastical settings in the real world and beyond, while set-pieces are occasionally extraordinary. You surf on a cathedral door around a typhoon of water, fight aboard a doomed fighter jet in New York, ride through the depths of Hell and much more besides. The tempo does vary with some longer, more exploratory levels in which you can soak in a large area, while other occasions are sheer blockbuster bombast — it's some of the most exciting gaming we've seen in recent times.
There's depth to the campaign, then, and also far more below the surface in mechanics. There are buff items to collect and forge, along with a collection of varied weapons to find, purchase and combine — finding a mix of guns, swords and whips that work well together is a particularly enjoyable part of the experience. The feel of combat and combos changes depending on your setup, and you can equip hands and feet with different types; you also have two presets that are easily switched mid-battle, with possibilities such as equipping slower, more powerful weapons when the situation suits. It all contributes to applying greater complexity to the combat system, allowing committed players to successfully replay stages and scenarios in punishing difficulty settings after honing their skills and inventory.
It's entirely possible that players will want to keep coming back, too, as Bayonetta 2 is a tour de force of design. On a superficial level the title looks fantastic — truly putting the Wii U through its paces — but it's the overwhelming commitment that Platinum has to this original franchise that shines through. A welcome improvement is a far brighter, more vivid palette than the filtered and sombre colours of the original; the new look perhaps portraying Bayonetta's improved sense of identity. The enemy designs follow suit, with some stunning new creations that bring to mind a mix of gothic horror, medieval tropes and modern flashes of Platinum's own approach. We move from almost traditional monsters to modern part-machine-part-demon foes, and they truly set the scene with each appearance.
That flashy presentation truly helps with immersion, too, sweeping you away into a setting of fantasy and extravagance. Every care has been taken to ensure style meets substance, right down to the fantastic soundtrack, dramatic cutscenes and occasionally campy voice acting. There are Nintendo outfits, of course, with Samus Aran and the Star Fox-themed options being true standouts with fun ability variations to match — related Easter Eggs and features such as aiming reticules add to the fun. The Link outfit is also a treat, though the Peach and Daisy variations certainly feature a little subversive sleaziness with blatantly revealing skirts; the latter two perhaps cross the line from flirtatious to embarrassing. There are plenty of other outfits to buy with in-game currency, too, in order to shake things up.
The Shop is also particularly important for buying abilities and equippable items. The former are vital, with some that allow easier initiation of Witch Time or expand your attack options and combinations; the latter can also improve your power when weakened, ensure more treasures for defeating enemies, and various other advantageous effects.
The depth of the experience is in little doubt, then, and the campaign's chapters lend themselves — through their compulsive action — to replays, whether looking for hidden items, collectible crows, Muspelheim challenge arenas or encounters that have been missed before; taking on higher difficulty levels is also worthwhile. There are only occasional scenarios that can frustrate by dropping below the high-standards elsewhere, with some boss encounters or on-rails sequences stripping away the freedom of movement that serves the combat so well. We're nitpicking, however, as even less favoured levels are hugely enjoyable.
Importantly, system performance holds up well, absolutely vital with an action game heavily dependent on a good frame rate. Dips come occasionally when Umbran Climax is initiated, for example, but it matters little as your attacks need little finesse to flatten enemies in that scenario, and it's clear that the developers have worked hard to ensure that trickier sequences run smoothly. As we indicated previously, too, the brighter visuals and clearer enemy designs also ensure that their attacks are a little easier to choreograph and avoid. Technical analysis may show that this title's frame rate fluctuates a little more than the original due to its attractive visuals, yet the gameplay experience doesn't feel compromised. If we felt the game unfairly punished us it was not due to any technical problems, as the action feels responsive throughout, but in occasional set-pieces where drama was prioritised over freedom of movement and control.
The Bayonetta 2 campaign, then, is a terrific effort and a proud new representative of how to bring together an intense action game in this current generation. As with many modern day efforts, however, an online mode must be shoehorned in, and the co-op Tag Climax mode does feel rather throwaway and unnecessary. It's poorly structured in one respect right off the bat, as it allows you to easily send friend requests to those you've played with, but doesn't seem to allow easy hook-ups with those on your Friend List; we tried to play with a Friend and found no such useful option, only one that offered to place you with a Random partner or a friend, which didn't work. An odd omission.
In general we were able to jump into random matches relatively easily, however. You and one other play through six scenarios known as Verse Cards, which are automatically unlocked with progress in the campaign, and the player choosing the stage can set the difficulty by 'betting' Halos (the currency). These scenarios range from 30-90 seconds each, typically, and recreate specific challenges, fights or variations on these from the game; though it is co-op and you can revive each other, the player with the best score 'wins' and receives a sizeable Halo bonus. The rewards are handsome, so succeeding with your partner and outperforming them is rather important. If you don't want to play online or simply want easy wins you can also play with the CPU.
It's functional but unexciting, overall, but is necessary due to the huge prizes of Halos on offer. Unlocking all of the moves, goodies and enticing goods in the Shop will take a particularly long time through replaying campaign chapters alone, so Tag Climax is a way to make quick money. Its purpose is limited to that alone, however, and the action can become a little muddled and prone to button mashing with two characters fighting at once; even in scripted team-ups within the campaign it doesn't feel quite as frantic and messy. The Tag Climax structure and scenarios simply don't excite in the way campaign chapters can, while the implementation and co-op gameplay could simply be better; local co-op would perhaps be more riotously fun and step in for the lack of communication on offer, but it's not included.
Tag Climax is, then, an anti-climax, as is the touch control option on the GamePad. As explained in our Bayonetta review it's functional but unnecessary, an inferior method of control in a game that, frankly, will never suit gamers who'd sooner use a touch screen over buttons in the genre. Holding, tapping and swiping works, but is not a satisfying way to play — off-TV play, however, is always welcome.
Ultimately, however, the bolted-on touch controls and online co-op are inoffensive, and do nothing to detract from the main campaign. Here's an adventure full of depth, replayability, outrageous action and — above all else — fun gameplay. It's frantic and often more than a little crazy, and importantly is the sequel that Bayonetta deserves, staying true to the core style while making notable improvements and tweaks to the formula. It's also part of an endangered species, as challenging third-person 3D action games aren't particularly common, often because they can feel flawed, repetitive and mindless. Bayonetta 2 can't be accused of any of those vices, however, which makes it a standard-bearer and a treat for Wii U owners.
Bayonetta is is a must buy for any action gaming fans. It's fast, intense and ridiculous, all with an entertaining story and a protagonist that is forever subverting and playing with her audience. It's pure Platinum Games, too, which means it'll likely be adored by its converts and ignored by too many — we hope that won't happen, as what we have here is one of the Wii U's best games, and a rare arrival on the system that's unashamedly violent, gory and mature, while still mischievously winking at the watching world. Bayonetta 2 is brilliant, brash and impossible to ignore.