Bayonetta 2 expresses a meticulous devotion to excessive elaborateness of style and action.
It's difficult not get lost inside Bayonetta 2's fondness for over-the-top circumstances, and rightly so. The game opens with its titular protagonist riding on the back of a supersonic jet while beating up a giant monster and closes with an ode to extravagance that screams through any of its perceived limitations. Inside of it all, however, is a calculated brawler that not only minds its rules with painstaking diligence, but trusts its operator with how to best interpret them. The delicate engineering of merciless destruction has long been developer Platinum Games' modus operandi, and Bayonetta 2 is the purest and most potent declaration of their intentions.
"Witch Time," the ability to temporarily slow time with a well-planned evade move, was Bayonetta's signature contribution to the character-action genre of games. Devil May Cry (also a product of the original Bayonetta's director, Hideki Kamiya) invented the modern brawler and this millennia’s Ninja Gaiden strengthened its latent frailty, but Bayonetta seemed to be the only one interested in pushing the burgeoning genre forward. By hitting the dodge button a moment before an enemy made contact, time would come to a crawl and allow Bayonetta to set up a devastating combo. Different difficulty settings pushed the margin of error in activating Witch Time, but its relative tightness and functional necessity demanded practice and paid-off in instant Pavlovian satisfaction; the screen turns purple, a clock starts ticking, and you know it's time to unleash hell. Witch Time was a crutch to those in need and a handy tool for practiced veterans, easily standing as this generation's most effective mechanic inside its dwindling genre.
Witch Time remains a pillar of Bayonetta 2's combat system, albeit subject to the expansion and divergence one might expect in a sequel. While most of Bayonetta 2's enemy encounters take place on solid ground, it now makes time for the occasional dalliance in flight or underwater. Dodging and attacking is still fundamentally the same, but what's interesting is how easily combat mechanics transition to a weightless environment. Anyone who endured the original Bayonetta would confess it was loaded with puzzling digressions into disparate gameplay, but Bayonetta 2 makes the most of these sequences by disallowing any notion of obscene gimmickry. These sequences are weird, but not off-kilter and are actually fun to engage and explore.
Bayonetta 2 is also home to a suite of new weapons and abilities. Old favorites like Kafka (a ranged bow) seem mostly the same, while Alruna (a whip) now actually feel like a viable option rather than a challenging waste of time. Rakashasa (dual swords) were still my weapons of choice - and the only weapon people online seemed to be playing with - but options are available and further weapons can be found and discovered with minimal effort. Employing different weapons alters Bayonetta's means of attack, and switching them between her fists and feet makes for an interesting combat dichotomy and a responsive degree of personalization. Completely new to Bayonetta 2 is the Umbran Climax ability, a kind of super-mode unleashed once her magic gauge reaches a peak level. Umbran Climax feels like a more crowd-control friendly version of her enemy-specific Torture Attacks, but, if a combo is followed through until its end, it's equally valuable at dealing damage.
How effectively the player manages Bayonetta 2's combo options can also measure the depth of its systems. On the easiest difficulty it's (probably) safe to belt out the same punch/kick string of combos to infinity and beyond. You still get to watch chaos unfold on screen, but it lacks the connective tissue of feeling a sense of responsibility toward your actions. Beauty is found and explored on normal and harder difficulties, where efficiency takes precedent over survival. Each chapter of each level is ranked on how well the player managed a particular combat encounter, and earning a Pure Platinum rank in each and every one is the highest calling Bayonetta 2 can reach. Bayonetta's most expensive upgrades are largely cosmetic, insuring players who aren't good enough to earn a bunch of halos will still be able to afford basic additions to her moves.
No matter how deep or effective a game's combo system may be, it's powerless without a means to properly telegraph its capability. In Bayonetta 2, this is best understood through mastery of Dodge Offset, where the player initiates a dodge while holding down the last button in mid-combo. A blue glow temporarily enshrines Bayonetta during this process; ensuring player feedback is both mechanical and visual. From there she can resume her combo and effectively connect her brutal ballet together. This can also be used to advantageously delay combos, using weaker enemies as a buffer to unleash devastating finishers on harder foes. Maintaining a healthy variety of combos is just as important as ensuring their lack of interruption, as no one, including Bayonetta 2's combat ranking system, likes seeing the same thing all the time.
What's incredible is how well Bayonetta 2 allows the player to effectively compete inside its cornucopia of chaos. A lot is happening on screen all the time, and yet it's never felt easier to sense an incoming attack and react appropriately. This is doubly true inside Bayonetta 2's cooperative Tag Climax mode, where two players simultaneously wreck shop on the same group enemies. It looks like it's impossible, but a passing familiarity with the opposition telegraphs incoming malice with surprising consistency. Videogames have done crazy for a while, but few offer an ability to control and manage it. It's almost like the Platinum Games crew, having been conceptually out-crazy’d by Asura's Wrath, felt the need to not only ratchet it a few steps further, but assure the player agency in its construction. What's impressive isn't the overt visual insanity, but rather your ability to maintain proper control of Bayonetta in spite of it.
With its liberal employment of profanity and penchant for sexual innuendo, Bayonetta 2 seems like one of the most non-Nintendo games bearing the Big N's brand. In truth, its roots are firmly planted between Sega's didactic insistence on measured performance and Nintendo's resolve for massive accessibility. The procession of ideas inside Bayonetta 2's sprawling campaign may break down into ornamental challenge rooms, but they're no less effective at teaching the player what to do and when to do it. Bayonetta 2 is one of the better learn-by-doing instances I've encountered, no doubt aided by the ruthless limitations imposed by higher difficulties.
Bayonetta 2 also offers a cleaner selection of post-game content. Playing through the campaign earns Verse Cards, which unlock enemy-specific challenges in Bayonetta 2’s cooperative Tag Climax mode. A cooperative/competitive hybrid, each player faces the same enemies but competes for a unique high score. Exclusively playing against people on the other side of planet Earth, the fluidity of simultaneous cooperative play and the measured focus of all involved came as a welcomed surprise; Tag Climax isn’t a reason to buy a ticket, but it’s not a bad sideshow. Elsewhere, Bayonetta 2 offers a bunch aesthetic unlockables and a troupe of Nintendo-themed extras (it’s one thing to see Bayonetta dressed up like a cosplaying Fox McCloud, and another to hear her gun’s audio cues replaced with Star Fox’s token blaster notes). In any case Bayonetta 2’s longevity isn’t found in well-intended extras, but rather understanding and maximizing the potential of its basic challenges.
Every aspect of Bayonetta 2 demonstrates a conscious improvement over its predecessor, except one; storytelling. I have a reasonable grasp of Bayonetta 2's plot, and I appreciate its capacity to shuttle Bayonetta into a diverse assortment of environments, but I have no idea what happened or why it took so many cut-scenes to get there. Storytelling isn't the game's strong suit, and it's not clear why Platinum Games spent so much time and effort constructing countless verbose sequences of needless exposition. It's great when we're watching Bayonetta gracefully lay waste to everything in her path, but borderline unbearable when it breaks down into C-grade melodrama and dialogue. I don't think it harms the game in the long run, everything can be skipped with the push of a button, but it remains a puzzling addition to Bayonetta 2's otherwise cerebral load out.
Less clear is how to parse Bayonetta 2's depiction of its protagonist. A social conscious wasn't really on my list of tools when I was reviewing games in 2010, but with the advent of Feminist Frequency and the fact that I wound up playing most of this game in front of my wife, Bayonetta 2 feels like it stretches the line between artistic extravagance and an embarrassing disposition. It's fine when Bayonetta is posing for the non-existent camera or blowing kisses to open doorways, but more uncomfortable when a cut-scene deliberately focuses on her spread-open crotch - or the fact performance is visually measured in how much of her clothes come off. At the same time, Bayonetta mercilessly wipes the floor with everyone who stands in her way, never indicates any loss of control, and shows no sign of weakness toward anything inside the narrative. It's a complex problem, and I lack the perspective to dissect it properly, but I couldn't write this review and not cite it an issue in need of more attention.
It's also worth mentioning that both retail and digital editions of Bayonetta 2 also contain a fully remastered edition of the original Bayonetta. Better, according to a reasonable authority, it's also the definitive version of the game - free of the awful slowdown that plagued the PlayStation 3 port and a faster all-around performance than its native Xbox 360 release. A couple of new Nintendo themed costumes are also thrown in, but, really, it's hard to find fault with Nintendo giving away an entirely separate game with zero additional charge. The only negative lies with a digital purchase; Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 are two separate downloads, and their storage requirements are so large it's impossible to fit them both on a 32GB Wii U without an external hard drive attached.
Platinum Games carries a recognized design philosophy; Bayonetta, Anarchy Reigns, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and The Wonderful 101 have all explored the myriad of ways to effectively fight interminable bad guys, but Bayonetta 2 is purest expression of their objective calling. Platinum's puzzling lack of commercial viability has previously rendered any other sequel impossible, forbidding any overt chance to improve upon their predecessor's mistakes. By definition, Bayonetta 2 is mostly a hell of a lot more Bayonetta - a pill easier to swallow with the absence of worthy competition and natural evolution ideas born over five years ago. In their seven years of existence, Platinum Games has never made a sequel and it's objectively interesting to see them push a core idea harder, better, faster, and stronger. The game no other publisher seemed to want, that took at least two years too long to find a home, and that's arriving on the least-popular home console also happens to be one of the best of 2014.