This is the best game I've played all year.
I'll admit that I had a hunch it might be. The preview events up to this point haven't been vertical slices or perfectly constructed demonstrations created solely for the events at which they've been found. They've just featured Wii U's boasting self-contained snippets of the game at various points, letting Platinum's latest tour de force speak for itself. No frills, no gimmicks, just the same grin on the faces of every rep hired for the day who've stood beside the terminal and said something along the lines of "it's pretty special isn't it?" as I've hastily picked my jaw up off of the floor after playing.
So much of that, of course, has to do with the combat. Bayonetta 2, just like its predecessor, is an absolute delight to play. You can make combos up on the fly, experimenting with various combinations of light and strong attacks, mixing in spurts of pistol fire here and there, never stuck in a canned animation, with the acrobatic evade option always readily available. There's no real difficulty curve in learning the game's systems, you just slip into the role of Bayonetta with fluid ease, chaining together balletic barrages and furious flurries of Umbran aggression. You evade enemy attacks and then hit them with your own -- working out that side of things is never a problem.
That's not to say that the game isn't challenging. Coming to terms with the freedom of combat, and the pinpoint timing required to maximise the abilities that you have at your disposal involves practice. Bosses will become sub-bosses, that then turn up in greater numbers just to make things interesting. The enemies that you'll face -- both celestial and damned -- telegraph their attacks, but will certainly gang up on you. There'll be moments of peace in which you can take a breath or launch an attack sequence, but equally there will be sequences where you simply must dash and evade and jab and counter, sending Bayonetta into a cartwheeling, breakdancing frenzy of slim attacks and self-preservation. Enemies will vary the windows of opportunity that they present, and though there will be some attacks you can predict well in advance, others will come more quickly, testing your reactions and your concentration.
There's always the option to go deeper, of course, and mixing things up will earn you bigger scores, more Haloes to spend on the vast array of goodies that Rodin has waiting for your perusal at his purgatorial store -- The Gates of Hell. The more you play, the more you come to appreciate the intricacies of the combo system, which combinations will trigger Hellish finishers, the best ways of stunning enemies so you might perform Torture Attacks or acts of gory punishment. Variations in your play will allow you to build up your magic meter with more speed, allowing you to trigger an Umbran Climax more regularly -- a state where every single attack you make is enhanced by Bayonetta's Hellish hair, landing critical strikes each time. Then there are the Wicked Weaves -- finishing moves that have Bayonetta summon a vast creature from the abyss that disposes of larger enemies you've already brought to their knees in suitably cinematic, crimson-soaked fashion. The spectacle is sublime.
I could try and explain the story to you, but I'm not even sure I understand it myself, and it's absolutely the least important aspect of this game. I love stories in video games, I love the narrative possibilities that this medium has, but not every single game has to be about the script. Bayonetta 2 has cutscenes that do drag on a bit (though most of the prime offenders are reassuringly skippable) and make little sense, especially if you've not seen and understood (hahahahaha!) the story of the first game. But to be honest, I feel that you could go into Bayonetta 2 completely fresh and just appreciate the convoluted insanity of the game's narrative for what it is, chuckling occasionally at absurd throwaway lines, and the sight of Afro-American Santa wall riding a department store in a Cadillac.
If anything, and this was the case with the first game as well, it feels as though Bayonetta is a series where the art direction came long before any sort of story was dreamed up. I have no idea if this was the case, but that's how it seems. The enemy design in this game expands upon that of the first, throwing demonic foes into the mix as well as the heavenly choirs we've met before. But it's all brilliant -- the crisp, stoic visages of the Angels in their white and gold contrasting gloriously with the monstrous apparitions in red and black. Bayonetta's journey in this game takes her from knocking on Heaven's door to the actual Gates of Hell, and Platinum have gone to town on the backdrops and aesthetic framing.
It's all window-dressing, of course. The cutscenes are really just nutty excuses for b-movie one-liners, the occasional tongue-in-cheek bit of slo-mo, and the occasional slice of directed and choreographed action. Thankfully, though, the eye-poppingly awful QTEs that would spring up in the middle of such sequences are gone, and although one or two outstay their welcome, they are generally a lot snappier than those of the first game. Regardless, you can now sit back and give your fingers a break, or skip to the end and leap back into the fray as quickly as possible.
The worlds themselves are glorified sets, across which you perform your blistering ballet. But I rather liked that in this game. You're not out to save the world (at first), you're not there to interfere on a grand scale or anything like that. The story, what there is of it in Bayonetta 2, is a personal one. You're out to save a life, and that's pretty much it to begin with. It's only later on that the implications of Bayonetta's actions, and the side-story into which she falls by accident, are fully revealed. Platinum know what their game is all about, and it's the enemies in your way, the forces stacked against you, and the manner by which you dispatch them that count most here.
And you'll come back again and again. There are so many things to be unlocked here from weapons to accessories that'll make little tweaks to the gameplay. One may start you off with a health-replenishing lolly at the beginning of each level, another may swap the bursts of slo-mo Witch Time you can trigger with well-timed dodges for another buff of sorts or direct damage to your foe. There are costume sets and other playable characters to buy, with healthy doses of fan service handed out wearable sets that kit out Bayonetta in the garb of Nintendo's finest.
But the unlockables aren't why you'll play this game over and over. It always comes back to the gameplay. You'll want to chase the S-ranks as you learn and progress and improve and open up a wider arsenal. Each weapon demands to be played and experimented with, each absurd outfit an excuse to indulge your busily-tapping fingers once more in another spot of visceral visual violence. You'll start dipping into the rainbow portals scattered across each level, testing yourself in the proving grounds of Muspelheim, forever aiming for the perfect, untouchable runthrough.
There is the option to play online with a friend, but I couldn't get into the multiplayer for some reason. There's online co-op to be had here, with your fellow taking on the role of Jeanne, but I felt like the game lost something with more than one of you on the screen at once. Nintendo often create singleplayer games that are essentially loving exchanges between creators and gamers -- tapestries of interactive joy that foster a personal relationship between game and player that might be unbalanced by the addition of another. In this sense, Bayonetta 2 is a perfect fit for a Nintendo console. The perfection of movement and control and combat in this game -- of swinging wildly between knowing exactly how to defeat the masses of enemies surrounding you, and making things up as you go, reacting and countering and attacking -- is palpable when you're by yourself, but it seems to dissipate somewhat with someone else there.
That might just be me, though, and I'm certainly not going to mark the game down for including the option of sharing in the madness with a friend. The choice, after all, is yours.
You could knock the game's voice-acting, which is wildly inconsistent. The young boy that Bayonetta meets relatively early on has one of the most painful, mock-English accents ever. But in order to do that, you might have to start taking Bayonetta's story seriously rather than treating everything as a riotous, frankly hilarious romp of utter nonsense. A small part of me resisted when I reviewed the first game, rather than giving myself wholly over to the madness. I refused to make the same mistake this time around. Such is the over-exaggeration of everything in Bayonetta 2, that it's difficult to muster up even a whiff of offence at the rampant sexualisation and the relatively sparse voyeuristic camera shots.
Bayonetta 2 irons out the kinks of the first game (not that there were many), and makes everything more accessible without compromising its values in any way. I've talked about the incorporation of the Wii U Game Pad's touchscreen before. It allows casual players less familiar with the intricacies of an action combat game of this type to essentially play as if Bayonetta 2 were a smartphone or tablet title -- swiping and tapping away with the stylus. It transforms the experience into something very different, something that I can't personally say I enjoy when faced with the choice, but kudos to Platinum for trying to open the game up to a wider audience. So much of Bayonetta 2 is about the spectacle, and this lowers the barrier for entry while steadfastly refusing to compromise for those of us who demand a challenge. Again, it's a matter of choice, and frankly the more people who can excitedly jabber about this game the better.
I've played it through three times already, and I want to play it again right now. I want to summon a giant, demonic unicorn with my hair while dressed as Samus, before rolling around the corpse of my felled, headless nemesis in a Morphball. I want to surf the tunnel of the tsunami that destroyed a city, before flying around the hovering body of the angelic leviathan that summoned it, and poking out the angel's eyes with stilettos bearing giant swords. Again! I want the feeling of fighting that Masked Lumen again, on a higher difficulty level, with different weapons, pitching Bayonetta against an enemy that is more than her equal. And I want to win. Again and again and again -- faster, harder, better. There is no other action game that can elicit the pure joy that comes from such an expertly balanced set of systems set against such a bonkers backdrop.
That's what this past month with Bayonetta 2 has been: pure joy.
- The combat is utter perfection
- Accessible to complete newcomers without compromising the challenge for veterans
- Swathes of unlockables
- It looks fantastic
- Combo system encourages experimentation, new weapons are a joy to explore
- Builds upon the outlandish, inspired art direction of the first game
- Mid-cutscene QTEs are a thing of the past
- The story is a load of old cobblers
- All other action games will be ruined for you
The Short Version: Bayonetta 2 is mechanically perfect, yet it is also a game that is stuffed with personality and wit and charm and an abundance of ideas and imagery and symbolism that its poor story cannot hope to make sense of or contain. But that's okay -- it is the finest game Platinum have ever made, and the best thing to grace the Wii U thus far.
10 - ASTOUNDING: As close to gaming perfection as possible. The rarest of rare, these should be games that not only look, feel and play better than 99.9% of everything else out there, but bring something new to the table, pushing gaming itself forward. These are fundamentally must-own titles for anyone with an interest in gaming, regardless of genre, with the highest quality in terms of design, gameplay and vision. A masterclass in execution and innovation. These are never handed out lightly. Ever. These are the games that define generations.
Platform: Wii U
Developers: Platinum Games