Late to the Party: Bayonetta

Did you know Bayonetta is technically naked?  I know, I know, what a way to start this.  I can already hear the aggrieved grumbling.  What a reductionist hot take.  There’s so much more to Bayonetta, why open with this?  But, my young witches, you need to understand that before I knew anything about this game, the mechanics, the aesthetic, the music, anything at all, I knew that Bayonetta was technically naked.

Background

Bayonetta was released in my final halcyon days of college, years before I owned a console system of any kind.  From the outside, Bayonetta seems like a game I would immediately gravitate too.  A bespectacled witch, mostly hair, with a sexy goth vibe blasphemously powers her way through hordes of beautiful monsters to a kicking soundtrack.  If she drank tea this would quite literally tic every single one of my boxes.  All my (mostly male) friends praised this title.  They passed the disc around in shared classes, a few precious copies making their way through a dozen dorm rooms.  And they would not shut up about how, technically, Bayonetta is naked.  If I wanted to play this game, I would have to go to the dorm room of one of these breathless, snickering dudes to play that game about a woman who is, very technically, naked.

This is a terrible first impression.

I will never deny that I am a dig-your-heels-deep-into-the-earth-as-they-can-go stubborn person.  The more the dudes I knew talked about this game and the Schrodinger’s status of her clothing, the less I wanted to play it.  I relegated it to the bottom stack of braincells that retain knowledge only because they were designed to do so, not because I asked them.  There Bayonetta could sit next long division, the Star Wars prequels, and the lyrics to All Star.

The Switch

Bayonetta has been on the back of my mind ever since my partner got a Switch.  He’s been long convinced I would love this game, and when his Switch somehow happened to make it into my luggage when I went to visit my parents one weekend, I knew who to blame.

If only every game made it so easy to play previous versions.

I kinda hated it.

With its tiny buttons and frenetic pace of combat, my hands froze into a rictus crab shape almost immediately.  The touch controls were an interesting addition, sliding your fingertips over the screen to indicate which direction Bayonetta would kick or dodge, but ultimately they weren’t sensitive enough to make combat feel good.  And this game is nothing but combat.

I don’t know if there’s a genre Bayonetta slides into.  Dynasty Warriors comes to mind.  Combat in a constant flurry of movement in 3 dimensions, the camera free rotating, enemies filling the tiny screen.  I didn’t ever think of the Switch screen as “tiny” until I saw it could only hold about 1/5 a horde of angels.  Bayonetta’s crenulated cathedrals, particle effect butterflies, and baroque monstrosities were never meant to be crammed into a space that can fit in a pocket.  If I’d had the dock, maybe this could have worked, but it was difficult to appreciate all this detail while also discovering that I had to learn combos.

I like the Switch for honking at quaint beleaguered villagers, swapping existential identities with rocks, and farming.  I do not like it for combat.  Sorry, Nintendo, this was a fail.

But not for long.

Live in Your World, Play in Ours

Even on the Switch’s paperback sized surface, I was entranced by the design of this game.  It hits all my buttons.  I dug out the word “baroque” for this.  If only there was a way to play it on a setup that didn’t turn my fingers in gnarled little tree roots.  Sometimes, gentlewitches, the gods do listen.

Bayonetta didn’t start are as a Nintendo game.  It’s a Sega property originally released for the Xbox 360 and PS3, subsequently moved to the WiiU when Nintendo decided to throw more money at production.  So it makes sense that when a 10th anniversary edition was released days after my birthday this very year, it would end up on the current generation of those systems again.  And I own a PS4.

Highly detailed backgrounds with dramatic lighting are also sexy.

So How do I Really Feel?

I was right that this game was meant to played on a big screen.  Some remaster work was obviously done, but this is a gorgeous game from the bones out.  It opens with Bayonetta and a second witch fighting their way through angelic hordes on pieces of a cathedral breaking apart and falling through space.  This game does not lack for the dramatic.  When we move into the “real world”, the palette turns into a mushy drab grey and brown, until Bayonetta herself enters and explodes in flashes of purple and pink magic.  Enemies are white and gold with punctuations of red.  The color design works to make combat dance.  Less important details like the buildings, sky, and the ground itself fade away to make for a very readable combat screen.  It’s one of the few times I’ve seen that brown filter used to good effect, so kudos to the Bayonetta team for that.

I too would like to shoot things with my feet

What I did not expect was how silly this game is.  Bayonetta leans hard on style, and its irreverence makes those stylistic choices work.  The jokes are knowingly terrible jokes, her high heels are guns, there’s a budget Danny DeVito constantly near death.  It’s refreshing to see game borrowing so heavily from genre stereotypes and running with it, playing up the most ridiculous angles.  Maybe it’s that I’m sick of self-serious video games picking their way through post-apocalyptic trash heaps, or the sea of dads trying to make up for past sins by ferrying children around a battlefield, but Bayonetta feels so much more fun.  And, yes, also sexy.

So is she naked?

When Prince of Persia: Warrior Within’s camera panned slowly up the chainmail butt of the game’s first of two women, I was annoyed.  The previous installment had half as many women but she was 10 times more well written.  Warrior Within’s women could be broken into “The one where you see her butt and breasts” and “the one where you see just her breasts.”  This was the first time I was taken completely out of a game by the overt salivating framing of a character.  Video games have an objectification problem, although I won’t lay that at their feet alone.  Media in general has this issue, and it was worse 10 years ago.

So where does that leave me here?  The camera is constantly doing slow pans over Bayonetta’s various body parts, her elongated legs a favorite as she twists and spins through the air, sucking a lollypop to power up.  I could easily see an argument for why Bayonetta is Problematic,. But, that’s not an argument I’m going to make. 

I’ve got a couple reasons.  First, this game really does revel in its sexiness.  This was apparently one of two bullet points director Hideki Kamiya wanted when making this character.  Sexiness and fashionableness.  Prince of Persia: Warrior Within was a grimy, angry, bitter game and suddenly out of nowhere, there were butts.  Tomb Raider famously advertised using Sexy Lara Croft in a series where the gameplay involves zero sexiness.  All I knew about Bayonetta for the better part of a decade was how sexy the game way, even if was through the facile lens of some college dudebros.  This game was labeled properly and I knew exactly what I was getting into.

Second,  I think it turns back to that sense of irreverence.  When the camera lingers over Bayonetta’s constantly contorting sexy spider body, it feels like fun.  There is a dynamic cheesiness that infuses everything that happens, and that includes the cheesecake that is Bayonetta’s sex appeal.  I also think, and this will sound weird but hear me out, there was restraint put into Bayonetta’s design that highlights her appeal rather than exploits it.  It would be very easy to throw the kitchen sink checklist of “sexiness” at this character a la Mortal Kombat.  Fishnets and a short skirt with a slit and a belly shirt and a lot of cleavage and and and all the way down the line until there is nothing left.  Bayonetta’s key aspects are the way she moves and the way she talks.  Her combat dances around an invisible pole, she slow motion stretches her legs in cut scenes, she makes double entendres and flirts her way through conversations.  All while fully clothed.

That’s kind a key point. She isn’t naked, because she doesn’t need to be.  Everything about her oozes sex appeal without having to resort to cheap short cuts.

Ok fine yes this game contains lots of partial nudity.  Her hair is her clothes and sometimes she uses the hair for other things, so she will be nude.   But you know what?  You’re never focused on that because the things she does with her hair are awesome.  She will make a giant hair fist and punch angels with it.

This makes her appear more naked than she really is.

Final Verdict

This game was much more fun than I expected it to be. 5/5, would play the sequel but it’s on that stupid Switch and I can feel my fingers gnarling up just thinking about it.