Bayonetta 2 never strives to be anything less than the purest, rarest kind of action-game experience, one that values skill, reaction times, and sheer spectacle over all else–realism and storytelling be damned. Sure, you can feel the influence of the likes of Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden in Bayonetta 2’s combat, and see it in its wonderfully outlandish visuals. But neither of those games, nor the many that followed in their footsteps, come close to the brilliance of Bayonetta 2. It is a masterclass in pure, unadulterated action-game design, where its insane eye-popping visuals meld effortlessly with some of the sharpest, most joyful combat to have ever graced a video game.
There’s no delay in getting you to the good stuff either, no scene-setting preamble to keep you from the action; I can think of few games where the opening moments are as outrageously bombastic as the last. Within minutes you’ll have travelled through space atop a crumbling building, sliced golden angels into gooey chunks of meat, and even hopped inside a machine-gun-mech to take on gargantuan holy beasts. Newcomers may well button bash their way though these opening moments, but the sheer spectacle of it all makes them no less fun or exciting.
The basics are explained briefly–press Y to fire your guns, press X to punch things–but Bayonetta doesn’t hold your hand via convoluted tutorials or training sequences. All it gives you are the absolute essentials you need to survive its early stages; it’s up to you to learn more complex moves by experimenting or perusing the command list. Your proficiency with the titular Bayonetta’s combat skills evolves at a natural pace. Nothing seems forced or faked, and–with a couple of minor exceptions–nor are you suddenly gifted some newfangled ability that results in a huge boost of power.
It’s the design of the levels themselves, and the enemies that populate them, that encourage you to learn new combos and improve your skills. While there’s not much in the way of exploration, levels like the beautiful, European-like Noatun, with its detailed stone pillar walls and glistening canals, hide secret battles and challenges for you to find. Most, however, funnel you as quickly as possibly from one hypersonic set piece to next. One moment you’re happily chopping away at angelic guardians atop a fighter jet, and the next you’re battling a giant golden snake that’s guarding the glittering gates of heaven. Death comes quickly to those who fail to adapt to the timings and speeds of these wildly different encounters, but it’s in this learning by doing that you’re rewarded with a real sense of accomplishment, one that you don’t get from simply being told what to do.
The mechanics of Bayonetta 2’s combat don’t differ that all that much from those of its predecessor. But when that predecessor is one of the greatest action games ever made, this is no bad thing. Everything from the way punches and kicks connect with your enemies, to the detailed, pixel-perfect animations that accompany them, showcases a stunning combat system that values skill and reaction times while looking gorgeous in the process. Even minor frame rate issues during the game’s more complex scenes do little to detract from it. What is new in Bayonetta 2 is Umbran Climax, a powerful combat technique that lets you unleash powered-up punches and kicks, and a devastating demon summon. While you need a full magic gauge to perform an Umbran Climax–preventing you from using one of Bayonetta’s gruesome torture attacks–the increased range of each hit, and the small amount of health you reclaim while using it, makes it a far more useful in combat.
But it would all be for nothing without Witch Time, a dodging mechanic that rewards last-second escapes by temporarily slowing down time, allowing you to unleash a barrage of attacks, or circumvent defences like shields and rotating spikes. It’s a mechanic that’s often mimicked, but never bettered; Witch Time transforms the already impressive combat into a sweeping ballet of guts and gunfire, culminating in the furious button mashing and blood-splattering of a dazzling Climax finish.
Timing, of course, is crucial to these moments, but even if you aren’t that adept at unleashing a killer combo, the simplicity of Witch Time’s single-button manoeuvring makes impressive displays of combat accessible to all. Bayonetta 2 ably strikes that balance between intuitiveness and depth, and does so without resorting to built-in handicaps or convoluted training missions. With just a few simple combos and well-timed flicks of the trigger to engage Witch Time, Bayonetta effortlessly twirls and kicks through the air, unleashing calamitous blows that are overwhelmingly satisfying to perform. Before long, you feel like a master of the form, even if, in reality, you’ve barely scratched the surface. The smooth, seamless flow of gratuitous gore and eye-popping visuals that follows the most dramatic of your encounters make for a wild ride almost impossible to put down.
It helps that Bayonetta 2 rarely lets the action drop. Unlike its predecessor, the game rarely allows the pace to dip as you explore larger towns, and it’s not long before you’re thrown back into another spectacular battle against the forces of heaven and hell (Paradiso and Inferno, in Bayonetta speak). Cutscenes are briefer this time around, which keeps the focus squarely on the combat, but they are just as tongue-in-cheek as before. You get your fair share of cheesy characters and sight gags, particularly in the humorous opening moments where bumbling Italian gangster Enzo is mercilessly teased by Bayonetta, and then has his more delicate parts almost run over by a motorbike-riding Jeanne. Things get a little more tense as the battle to save the earth rolls on, but the game never takes itself too seriously, punctuating its deeper moments with sarcastic quips from Bayonetta, who–despite suffering crotch shots and blatant innuendos–remains one of the most charismatic and powerful heroines in the medium. There are none of the sleazy moments that peppered the likes of Lollipop Chainsaw and Killer Is Dead; the sexualisation here serves to empower, not to belittle.
The story stitching it all together is utter nonsense, but fittingly so, because its absurdity serves as way to push you into ever more outlandish battles. By the time you reach the latter half of the game, the action rapidly escalates into multiple “Whoa! Did that really just happen?!” moments–a rock ’em sock ’em battle between two giants of Paradiso and Inferno, and an underwater clash with a sword slicing mega-knight being particular highlights–before climaxing into some of the most absurdly weird and wonderful boss battles to have graced an action game. But making it to the end credits barely scratches the surface of Bayonetta 2. There are hidden battles to find in each chapter, different accessories and weapons to buy and pick up from fallen enemies that give you access to new combos and powers, and challenges that have you trying to defeat enemies without taking a single hit, or by only being able to deal damage in Witch Time.
Then there are the medals doled out after every battle (awarded to you depending on the length of your combos and how much damage you take) that encourage you to keep going back and trying to perfect your performance–and when you’ve done that, there are the harder difficulties to try and master too. You can spend hours hunting down Nintendo-based Easter eggs and costumes, and–judging by my own squeals of delight when I found them–it’s well worth the effort.
If you manage to work your way through all that, there’s Tag Climax’s two-player online co-op to master too. Not only does Tag Climax let you do battle with enemies not in the main game, it’s actually also one of the best ways to acquire halos (Bayonetta 2’s in-game currency), if you’ve got the chops for it. You can wager halos against your online partner as to who will get the highest score, with larger wagers upping the difficulty as well as the potential reward. Then, at the end of six rounds of furious battling, a winner is declared. Shared abilities like Witch Time and Umbran Climax ensure that there’s an element of teamwork to these cooperative battles, and on higher wagers, they can get incredibly challenging.
But it’s a challenge you’ll want to experience again as soon as you put down the controller. Bayonetta 2’s combat is so expertly constructed, and its presentation so joyously insane, that you’d have to try so very hard to get bored of it all. In a year filled with the promise of ever more elaborate experiences on all the shiny new hardware, that Bayonetta 2–a homage to classic game design and escapism–should be the most fun I’ve had playing a game all year is unexpected. But maybe it shouldn’t have been. After all, its predecessor still stands as one of the finest games of its genre. To have surpassed that with Bayonetta 2, and to have created a game that will be remembered as an absolute classic, is nothing short of astonishing.