If one were forced to abridge Bayonetta‘s entire being into a single word, then it would undoubtedly be this one: precision. Certainly, the game’s intricate combat system is all about perfect timing, but we’re referring to something else in this instance – namely the sheer perfection of the moment that Hideki Kamiya chose to announce the arrival of his new baby to the world.
When Square Enix’s esteemed president Yoichi Wada made his annual keynote address at the Tokyo Game Show in October 2008, his lengthy, fatalistic speech touched a nerve with almost everyone present. Backed up by some hard facts, Wada lambasted the entire state of Japanese videogames, coldly summarizing that theirs was an industry now doomed to fiscal failure. Not only had the shift toward the US meant that previously profitable product like Hollywood movie licenses were now simply farmed out to those studio’s own in-house dev teams, but the hunger for more westernized product had resulted in more and more Japanese titles being instantly labeled “unsuitable” for the entire western market. Although it was painful to so frankly acknowledge the fact that the entire industry (which they had once led) had moved onto pastures new, Wada stressed that everyone simply had to work together to ensure that the country wasn’t culturally abandoned; left behind as slaves to ideals and obsessions that the entire world may have once held dear, but had now simply lost touch with.
Playing Bayonetta for the first time, and the whole idea of trying to encapsulate it into one solitary word will appear not only fundamentally irrelevant, but willfully perverse. Because Bayonetta almost cannot be described at all, and anyone unfamiliar with the full-blooded, off-radar Japanese videogames of the late 1990s – an undisputed golden age – isn’t going to have a clue what’s hit them.
Superficially it is a third-person action game, heavily reminiscent of director Hideki Kamiya’s original Devil May Cry, and core gameplay involves using Bayonetta’s three moves (composed of laughably misleading ‘kick’, ‘punch’ and ‘shoot’ commands) alongside a signature dodge that enables “witch-time” slow motion, to dispatch waves of steadily more devious enemies. Encounters are split into chapters and verses (each graded afterwards by the standard bronze-to-platinum medal system) and the action is structured around an old school, puzzle and portal-based hub world.
This synopsis doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of Bayonetta as an experience. It doesn’t mention the heroine’s bountiful and varied set of special moves, all of which are performed with the assistance of her hair. It doesn’t draw attention to the cinematics, which flip indiscriminately between being comic book-style talking pictures that take place within a broken celluloid frame, and hyper-caffeinated Anime-inflected action set pieces. And it doesn’t mention the soundtrack – which is an element of this game that we wouldn’t dream of spoiling by attempting to describe.
It also doesn’t attempt to explain the plot (an impossibility, in any case) but we can only say this – as recently as one hundred years ago, Hideki Kamiya would have been thrown into an insane asylum for something as desperately unhinged as Bayonetta, and we’d all have been thankful to see him rot there. It isn’t just that it is nonsensical (and boy, is it ever) it is more that it doesn’t make a single artistic concession at any point. So if you’re offended by the sexualised nudity, frustrated by the sudden complexity of a combat system that starts so quietly, or dismayed by a tone that veers between infantilism and sophistication so frequently that onlookers won’t know whether to roll their eyes or arch their brows at you… then there is simply nothing for you to hold on to.
And that is outrageously refreshing. Precisely none of this would make any difference if the game wasn’t finely-tuned and rewarding, and it is both – with the desire to perfect combos and truly master the control scheme being easily as compulsive and toxically addictive as it was the first time you ever encountered Guitar Hero.
Bayonetta is a blast of loud, belligerent anarchy; of unselfconscious, pants-down creativity; and is not only a videogame that totally embodies the off-kilter ideas and sensibilities of its deeply patriotic creator, but is also one that will be referenced, discussed, and stolen from for as long as the medium continues to draw breath.
In short, it’s a masterpiece. Perhaps one word was enough after all.