With Bayonetta 2 around the corner as a Wii U exclusive, a reality that caused quite a stir when announced in 2012, it may be important for Nintendo-focused gamers to consider diving into the fresh port of the original Bayonetta, a title that skipped Wii when released in the last generation. Whether it's a worthwhile double-dip opportunity is another topic, but this arrival on the Wii U eShop — or as an inclusion with the sequel, depending on your region and purchase — does give a new audience a look at one of Platinum Games' definitive efforts.
The premise of Bayonetta is, like much of its approach, contrary to the norms we come to expect of big-name action games. Bayonetta herself is a witch that fights and butchers angels to survive, for example, but these heavenly enemies are rather grotesque creatures designed to inflict maximum damage. When you throw in human characters, multiple planes of reality and intersections of time, along with this continual run of biblical battles between Umbran Witches, Lumen Sages and all of their respective minions besides, you get a true sense for the fantastical setting. Despite its potential to confuse, and the fact that smaller details can be head scratchers, the storytelling works on basic levels and is enticing, drawing you in to learn more.
Of course, that's all in the context of a mature game. This is a title packed with innuendo and sexual suggestibility, and it's important to address that right away, especially as M-rated releases are rare on Nintendo's home console. It also raises questions over the portrayal of Bayonetta in terms of gender representation; there are interpretations that suggest she's a powerful, strong women asserting herself, while other arguments state that she's simply a figure of male fantasy. We dither between those two perspectives and middle-ground depending on the stage, it seems, as Bayonetta's displays of admirable power are then joined by overtly sexual 'torture' moves. Once again, be prepared for the realities of what Bayonetta brings to the Wii U, and accept that there may be some cringe-worthy sequences.
With that serious stuff out of the way, we'll switch gear to that most important detail, the game itself. In terms of structure it's a rather welcome throwback, offering up a single player action experience as a standalone mode; aside from some concept art and achievements, that's the core deal. It's a welcome approach, however, as the end result is a campaign that was clearly given the utmost devotion. A flat playthrough will need up to a dozen hours, but each chapter is carefully crafted — levels alternate from a linear series of confrontations and mini-bosses, to extensive boss battles that fill the screen and can take up to 20 minutes in their own right. The approach is one of sheer audacity, with large-scale environments and extravagant design being the key factors.
Bayonetta is, in most cases, a fluid and smooth protagonist to control — the basic third-person movement works well, but this is a title defined by the combat and the intensity of the action. There are two primary attacks — punch and kick — that can be chained into a daunting range of combos; we suspect most will settle on a few favourites for most occasions, and it's certainly vital to master these move-sets to activate more powerful strikes. As the difficulty ramps up the difference between success and failure can be to turn relatively weak primary attacks into completed combos.
There's impressive depth and complexity beyond those basic attacks however, such as Witch Time — if a dodge is triggered just prior to an enemy attack you slow time and have the opportunity to gain a significant advantage; its implementation is less generous than in the sequel, but is truly rewarding when achieved. The scope is truly impressive once you also account for a substantial range of moves and abilities that can be purchased with in-game currency. You can buff your abilities with various wearable accessories, mix collectibles to form other key items and customise Bayonetta to become increasingly powerful, with a nice balance to encourage additional playthroughs. Perhaps the most important customisation is in a selection of weapons beyond the core guns; these can be assigned to feet and hands in any mix you desire, and fundamentally change the combat, allowing those that commit to mastering the mechanics to experiment for the best results.
These factors all contribute to a tight and at times thrilling combat system. It's hard to comprehend the speed of events without a little self awareness, as thumbs and actions on screen become a barely perceptible blur that, nevertheless, makes sense when playing. Visual indicators are vitally important in holding the set-pieces together, keeping some level of accessibility to accompany the impressive range of attack options — some enemies even require basic auto-aimed gun play as you wait for them to come within melee range. At its best the action is truly breathtaking, and with Climax battle-ending moves against boss enemies there's a suitably cinematic quality as Bayonetta summons enormous beasts — with her hair, accentuating the fantastical approach — to pummel the unfortunate villain. Much like in The Wonderful 101 you'll be asked to regularly mash a button as rapidly as possible in quick-time events like these, but it fits well with the high-speed action.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the ambition and bravado on show, there are moments that frustrate. These are typically found in on-rails sequences that, while welcome in switching up gameplay, can be sloppy in implementation. Though visually appealing, there's often a lack of control, making them feel overly dependent on luck or, at worse, reliant on trial and error. In addition quick-time events can occasionally feel cheap, in which you're watching a cut scene but suffer an immediate death if you fail to react to an unexpected prompt; it's rare, yet with Continues effecting your level ranking these can be frustrating occurrences.
The overall campaign, however, is an exaggerated and breathless romp, generally pushing gamers to master the complexities and mechanics to get the most out of the experience. The 'Normal' difficulty is certainly punishing enough, meanwhile (with more difficult options available), but 'Easy' and 'Very Easy' should enable almost any player to progress through the full storyline — there's undeniable motivation to improve the trophy record page that's provided upon an initial completion. There's also an optional 'automatic' option in these easier settings that enables powerful combos to be completed without the precise timing and co-ordination typically required; there's more satisfaction in removing the automatic option, in our view, but credit is due — Bayonetta may be uncompromising and demanding in much of what it does, but it supports those new to the genre or less skilled.
That brings us to a new feature exclusive to the Wii U port — touch screen controls. It's functional, as you use a combination of touch and hold, swiping and tapping to run, dodge and attack, but suffers from the inevitable nature inherent in the control scheme. For the same reason we wouldn't feel inclined to play a fast-paced game like this — especially one in which we instinctively use the right stick to swing the camera around — on a tablet or phone, we see little benefit in this case. It harms no-one, but any players struggling with difficulty can opt for the aforementioned automatic mode and still enjoy progress. Our favoured controller, overall, has been the Wii U Pro Controller, though the GamePad's physical inputs and the Classic Controller are also available.
The other major additions for this port, which have been high profile, are costumes that are available right from the beginning. We have portrayals of Princess Peach, Daisy, Link and Samus Aran available, and they are a little more than simple skins. The Mushroom Kingdom themed outfits replace combo-closing power strikes with Bowser's limbs, the Link costume enables a timed block — using a mini Hyrule Shield — while Samus Aran has a fun arm cannon. While minor changes they nevertheless add an extra dynamic, and give extra motivation to embark on additional playthroughs of stages — our only minor complaint is that these outfits aren't fully mapped to Bayonetta and the environment, so during gameplay and cutscenes there's plenty of obvious clipping.
To wrap up with the overall presentation of this title, it's a distinctly mixed bag. Audio is a highlight with some terrific music, solid — and campy — voice acting and an impressive level of polish throughout. The visuals are showing their age a little, though environment design is excellent; we smoothly move from Southern European architecture to heavenly and hellish settings, with distinct identities given to the crossed realities referenced earlier in this review. An area that's been substantially improved in the sequel, however, is in the crispness and colour palette of the engine — though a stylistic choice, the muted colours here can lead to a fuzzy overall perspective, marginally undermining the fast-paced combat. There are also occasional dips in framerate, meanwhile, but we should be clear that they're not excessive or particularly damaging to gameplay; it's still a far superior performance to the particularly poor PS3 version.
Bayonetta's distribution — as part of Bayonetta 2's release in various packages or as an eShop download — makes it a must have for action fans intent on jumping into the newer entry. It lays important groundwork with the lore and story, while also giving us a look at the gameplay foundations that have been further refined in the sequel. In its own right it's a cocky, self-assured and bombastic video game, yet maintains a sense of irreverence and fantastical fun nevertheless. Whether as a free extra or standalone download, it's absolutely worth exploration for Wii U owners that fancy some frenetic action and impressive combos. Bayonetta has attitude, and while you may occasionally cringe at this one's mixed messages in empowering its heroine, it serves up a great deal of frenetic action — your controller of choice won't know what's hit it.