Bayonetta is rarely interested in much beyond magnificently realized spectacle.
Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), Playstation 3
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: Platinum Games
Release Date: 2009-01-05
I just ate a giant baby with my hair.
Much like Devil May Cry in gameplay and aesthetics, Bayonetta is unrelentingly committed to sex, death, and absurdity.
The game immediately begins with an epilogue sequence in which Bayonetta and her rival plummet for miles above the earth standing atop the face of a collapsed clock tower. Oh, and they are fighting angels. Oh, and a narrator is providing background for the forthcoming plot as the player is thrust into this frenzied battle. If it seems like the finer points of a description of a near future alternate world are likely to get lost in this sensory chaos, that is kind of the point. Also like Devil May Cry, Bayonetta is rarely interested in much beyond magnificently realized spectacle. The game begins with a fall (as many stories of biblical proportion do). It is the only relevant detail to recognize (the spectacle of falling itself), and it is recognized BIG.
Playing Bayonetta is like playing the scene in which Trinity and Neo shoot up the high rise lobby in The Matrix or the scene in Kill Bill when The Bride battles the Crazy 88's. But it isn't one scene. It's the whole game.
As her name implies, Bayonetta is a living weapon. Every extremity is weaponized: her aforementioned hair (which actually becomes her bodysuit and then transforms into a myriad of weapons), her hands nearly always grip either dual pistols or a sword, and even her boots contain an additional set of dual pistols. Body is largely the interest of Bayonetta as it expresses aggression and sensuality in the clearest way possible and the two (aggression and sensuality) are always interconnected here. Thus, it becomes the central focus of a visual spectacle more interested in visual assault than anything else.
I don't feel the need to mention that Bayonetta is sexist because, of course, it is sexist. You know it, and the developers know it. Again, everything here is about spectacle, so hypersexualized and ultraviolent imagery become the order of the day. You don't make a game where a player's hair can devour a giant thing with a baby's head and not realize that what you are doing is completely over the top. This isn't a game about careful representation of imagery. It is about reveling in bacchanalia. It is about reveling in the things that you aren't supposed to revel in.
The game's plot reflects this notion of embracing corruption. Bayonetta is an Umbra witch whose day-to-day battles put her in conflict with God and his army of angels. She is in league with corruptible acts. Thus, everything becomes an expression of those things normally associated with the immoral, sex and violence. God and the devil are treated here much as they are in many Japanese games dealing with dualistic Western mythologies with heaven representing authoritarianism and hell representing chaos and human freedom (see nearly any game in the Shin Megami Tensei series for example). Thus, Bayonetta's friends are mobsters and demons, and she firmly does whatever she pleases.
Following the ferocity of the epilogue, a present day Bayonetta is presented decked out in white, dressed like a nun. As her outerwear is shorn by angelic weapons, she sighs orgasmically as these restrictive trappings open up across her body. Later in the game when confronted by a member of the heavenly host who realizes that he has no conflict with Bayonetta and is about to withdraw from a battle with her, Bayonetta attempts to reignite the conflict because, while the angel feels he has no fight with her, she feels that taking him down is personally beneficial. Both instances highlight the game's notion of “good” being related not so much to justice or mercy but instead as a force bent on curbing human desire. Evil then becomes representative of those of pragmatic mind and of free will itself. Again, this is about being what you are “not supposed” to be. Thus, Bayonetta (and the player to some extent) must embrace everything that is normally taboo.
It is as if the developers felt that a similar character (Dante from Devil May Cry) and his antics like thrusting his pelvis in parallel with stabbing a boss character and doing the flamenco was far too subtle in its implications. Bayonetta's finishing moves often involve her stripping bare before devouring an enemy with her hair, opening then shutting an enemy in an iron maiden or flipping around a pole stripper-style to boot someone in the head. The difficulty levels include “Easy,” “Normal,” “Hard,” and “Non-Stop Climax.” Do you get it?
Non-stop climax is an appropriate way to describe the game, not only in its overly graphic sexuality and violence but that same driving ferocity that I tried describing by paralleling Bayonetta's full script to singular scenes of climactic action in film. Bayonetta is interested in providing the most gratuitous experience possible by providing the most stylish action possible and concerning itself not with elegance but the absolutely and most purely decadent expression of that style. Oscar Wilde might be proud.
Indeed, Bayonetta's charms rely exclusively on audacity and the humor it provokes. It is easy and common to laugh during cut scenes and gameplay – not laugh “ha ha” but instead “ha ha -- I can't believe they just did that” (or more appropriately as an actor complicit in the action, “ha ha -- I can't believe that I just did that”). This is a difficult kind of humor to describe, but it is much like the laughter that is provoked by the “punchline” fight scene that closes Quentin Tarantino's Deathproof (which in turn seems lifted from the absurd fight sequences in Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill!) or Robert Rodriguez's excesses in the fight scenes in Planet Terror or Desperado, women with machine guns for legs or men with guitar cases that shoot rocket launchers.
Thus, Bayonetta is the equivalent of grindhouse movies (or at least the parodic re-envisioning of them by filmmakers like Tarantino and Rodriguez), reveling in the glory of watching (or in this case participating) in what we fundamentally know is just not right, but because it is so garishly and absurdly produced, we know is too exaggerated to be real. One would like to call it a pure voyeuristic pleasure, but like the giddy laughs provoked by grindhouse, you realize that you aren't merely watching but playing along.