I could not really understand why I was so excited for Bayonetta 2. My first response to its announcement was a shrug and a “meh”, more pleased that Nintendo would be getting such a title on their new platform than anything else. When I played it in 2010 I found it to be rather over-rated and extremely frustrating. Yet as more footage of gameplay was released, I found myself eager to play it. The combat was enticing and the polish looked sparkly clean. Perhaps I was setting myself up for disappointment, but I knew I was going to purchase this game.
Now that I’ve played through both the original and its sequel on the WiiU, I found myself confounded by my own impressions from four years ago. Did I play the game incorrectly? Did I simply misunderstand the story? No, I did not suddenly find Bayonetta 2 to be the world’s greatest video game, but I certainly enjoyed it a lot more than when I played its predecessor.
Going back and rereading my original analysis, I’ve been forced to come face-to-face with my own immaturity. It’s astonishing to me that, a mere four years ago, at the age of twenty-five, I could have been filled with such hubris, that I could have been so fundamentally wrong even when I was right. I didn’t understand what I was seeing, listening to, or playing. I was everything that I currently criticize about games writing. Someone too eager to grow up, and someone that, quite frankly, didn’t know what they were talking about.
It also helps that I’ve become a little bit more “literate” with action games like this since then.
I will not really be discussing the character of Bayonetta in this blog post. I may write about it in the future, but for now there’s plenty of analysis on her available on the Internet. Nor will I focus on the game’s story, which may require a second playthrough to comprehend fully (such is the nature of this series, it seems). It’s not that these elements aren’t important to the game. In fact, they may be just as important as the gameplay itself. It’s that I simply do not feel as if I can adequately discuss them at this time.
What is much more clear, however, is the master craftsmanship that Platinum Games has put forth with Bayonetta 2, and what I misunderstood the most when playing it four years ago. Until recently I never understood the importance of a high framerate in video games, of the difference between thirty frames-per-second versus sixty. In fact, for many games it isn’t really necessary to surpass thirty. Animation will look smooth to the naked eye and the game will still feel responsive. Sixty frames will simply make those animations look more smooth and pretty.
With an action game like Bayonetta 2, however, it matters. The ability to dodge in a timely fashion is at this game’s core, and as such it truly does matter to have such excellent performance. Yet when there are so many foes on screen at a time, so much flashing imagery in the background as the epic set-piece crumbles to the ground or soars through the skies, the ability to maintain that regular sixty frames becomes more and more difficult.
My appreciation for Platinum Games has grown considerably as I’ve watched this beautiful, gorgeous game throw so much at me at once, processing so much data within milliseconds, only to maintain that constant framerate when less gorgeous games would be weeping on their knees (I’m looking at you, Unreal Engine).
When the game’s framerate is moving so fast, it gives the player milliseconds more reaction time to respond, and when their finger pulls that trigger, commanding Bayonetta to dodge out of the way, she does so seemingly instantaneously. True, very few would be able to notice any difference based on framerate alone, but it will matter even to the most casual of game players.
In hubris I criticized Platinum for not truly knowing what they were doing, but it was I that didn’t know what I was saying. There is a level of spit-shine to the Bayonetta series that few other games have aspired to, and for that it should be commended.
Yet that was not my only misunderstanding. As stated, the core to Bayonetta 2’s combat is the ability to dodge attacks, and while this is a pretty standard ability in most action games, it is crucially important here. Timed right, a successful evasion will result in Witch Time, slowing down the rest of the world temporarily whilst Bayonetta herself moves at normal speed. On the surface, this ability simply means it leaves foes open for a little while so the player can simply pummel their opponent freely.
Sure, everything functions in such a simple manner at the start, but to treat Witch Time in such a manner will lead to frustrating times later on. The player must study the enemy’s attacks, as poor timing can result in being caught in a foe’s combo as well. In other words, failure to activate Witch Time will result in a most punishing onslaught of blows.
This is where the game can be seen as frustrating. Not all attacks have the same timing. Some strikes have a longer wind-up, a greater moment to see them coming while others are almost instantaneous. This means a player cannot simply mash on the trigger, hoping Bayonetta will leap about the battlefield unharmed while waiting for openings. A player must instead observe and learn an opponent’s method of attack, their behavior, in order to learn which attacks can be more easily dodged, how, and in which situations to simply keep their distance.
This can be learned from the most basic grunts introduced at the start of the game. If Bayonetta attacks from the front, they will have a simple attack with a long and obvious wind-up. Yet if Bayonetta is attacking from behind, the attack will come almost instantaneously, with little more than a “blink and you’ll miss it” indication that they’ll be attacked at all.
Four years ago I’d have exclaimed this to be unfair. In fact, I complained that foes did not flinch when you struck them, often being invulnerable as they swung at the player. I chalked it up to being a game for masochists, that it wasn’t even designed for more experienced game players. I misjudged severely. Bayonetta 2, and its predecessor, are completely designed for experienced and enthusiast players. As such, it has expectations of the person holding the controller.
“If you’re going to attack from behind,” the game says, “then you’d better be careful.” It’s not a very powerful strike, after all. So once the player is struck by the blow once, the lesson should be learned. If the incident continues to happen repeatedly, however, then it is not the game being fair. It is the game punishing a player for not learning their lesson.
And so, four years later, I am forced to eat my hat. Was the original Bayonetta over-rated? Perhaps it was at the time, and perhaps it is based on whatever metric it is you judge a game’s quality by. When it comes to design and development, however, Bayonetta 2 and its predecessor are certainly masterworks of quality. It may not be one of your favorite games to play, but it will certainly be one of the best you’ve laid your hands on.
Oh, and there’s an easy mode as well, in case you’re a pansy little gamer like twenty-five year-old me was. Seriously, that guy was a real asshole.