Sometimes I think I was spoiled by sequels as a child. I mean, I jumped from Super Mario Bros. into Super Mario Bros. 3 and then to Super Mario World and Super Mario 64. What started with The Legend of Zelda became A Link to the Past and then skyrocketed into Ocarina of Time. Our American release of Final Fantasy led to the Super Nintendo hits Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III before exploding into Final Fantasy VII.
I'll stop short of raining praise on Castlevania. You get the idea already. Just about every sequel in our most beloved franchises of old was either a crazy experimental release, which shook up the formulas enough to be fun and familiar yet still unique, or an absolute evolution of everything that made a game great to amazing new heights.
Alas, those days are gone and development teams are strapped with enormous budgets that can't produce risks, the limited developmental phases of annual releases, and a mass market that has to be catered to over and over again with the unnofessensive, familiar video game tropes. Incremental improvements and a few tweaks, both forwards and backwards, do very little to impress me.
And yet, I am still stuck in the mindset of a happier gamer back in the 90s, and I find it really difficult to break away and give sequels the benefit of the doubt that the modern world demands, holding them to the same standards I once did. Needless to say, I don't like sequels anymore.
Why do I mention this? Well, only under this mindset could Bayonetta 2 not be considered one of the crowning gaming achievements of the year.
Where Have All the Dantes Gone?
The original Bayonetta was released at a time when its genre was quickly going out of style. First-person shooters were taking over as the industry's "go to" standard, and the high octane Japanese action games established by Devil May Cry were practically "retro" despite hitting their peak not even half a decade earlier. Many praised Bayonetta's presentation, level of content, and its ability to make the old seem new, and it has since gone down in history as a fan favorite "gamers game."
Devil May Cry and Bayonetta director Hideki Kamiya and a handful of other former Capcom talent founded Platinum Games as a studio dedicated to keeping this same style of hardcore Japanese action alive in this Western dominated age of gaming. More often than not, they do a fabulous job creating critical hits, but as expected, they don't match this level of praise with financial figures.
Bayonetta 2 was created with the aid of Nintendo, which in turn scored exclusive rights to publish the sequel, leaving fans of the original one on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in the dust. Sad to say, these fans are really missing out on a treat unless they cough up the $299.99 for a Wii U this holiday season. Bayonetta 2 is drop dead amazing!
The Cure For Sequelitis
This is one of those sequels that doesn't do too much to set itself apart from the original at first glance. Bayonetta 2 still very much looks, plays, and sounds like its predecessor. The first few chapters will either leave fans gushing with love over the familiarity of it all or rolling their eyes, wondering if this was all the originality Platinum Games could come up with five years after the original.
With nearly perfect pacing though, Platinum Games' latest starts to reveal itself more and more for the triumph that it is. Boss fights start changing up routines and approaches, enemies become smarter and more difficult to wrap your brain around, and most importantly, Platinum Games has a nearly infinite way of shifting up the formula. By the game's end, you'll be performing a lot more magnificent feats than just pulling off impressive combos with Bayonetta's deep arsenal of weapons and abilities.
For spoiler's sake, I won't get into more, but trust me when I say that Platinum Games is just plain showing off by the last quarter of the game.
I'm going to give an extra special nod towards the boss fights in Bayonetta 2 as well. One, there are lot of them, and each of them oozes with style and assaults Bayonetta with plenty of attack patterns that must be memorized, mastered, and dodged to perfection for the highest rating.
However, this variation doesn't extend to bosses of just a single mold. Like in most Japanese action games, Bayonetta often battles enemies many times her size. It's not normally my favorite approach to boss battle designs, but at least they don't make the mistake leaning on glowing weak points.
It is in the smaller boss fights, with enemies roughly the same size as Bayonetta, where the game truly shines. Especially against the masked Lumen Sage who has popped up in the game's trailers and screenshots, these acrobatic battles are loaded with exciting moments that even the cutscenes will fail to recreate.
You'll relish in the moment whenever you stumble across one of these.
Beautiful Centerpiece for a Fabulous Action Game
At the heart of every action game is a magnificent hero, and this is where Platinum Games consistently hits high marks with its releases.
Bayonetta is a marvel to behold. Her new haircut is sexier, yes, but it's her gracefulness which scores her full points as one of the most memorable characters in recent memory. With minimal delay on commands, the long-legged witch will pull off any move you tell her to, stringing together a seemingly infinite number of attacks from her ever increasing repertoire.
These attacks, of course, only grow more and more plentiful as she blasts through the game, purchasing new weapons and gaining the ability to switch between them on the fly. Using four weapons at once is no easy task, but Bayonetta pulls it off with the tap of just the R-button.
By the game's end, she is just an unstoppable monster. A force unlike anything you've seen in gaming in recent memory, and improving right alongside her is yourself. Don't be surprised to be scoring "Bronze" and even "Stone" level rewards when starting the game. It's perfectly normal to start off a little rough or rusty, and Bayonetta 2's core mechanics: the combo system, the dodge ability, and the ever important slowdown technique "Witch Time," never prove too impossible to crack.
You'll be slinging and gunning with the best of them by the end thanks to a perfect difficulty curve, and the wealth of content to unlock in the post game will be your reward.
Putting Bayonetta next to the likes of the Hyrule Warriors' cast is hardly fair, but when you realize that most Japanese action games have vastly been boiled down to the simplistic "Musou" genre, it's almost heartbreaking to see decades of talent and design theory going to waste.
Bayonetta proves that one amazing central character in an action game is a far superior option to dozens of weaker throwaways, and I can only thank the Japanese deities that Platinum Games is still doing what they do best.
Where Did This Come From?
In fact, Bayonetta 2 is such an improvement over the original, Platinum Games even figured out how to tell a somewhat decent story to back it all up! I know, shocking right? It's no Shakespeare by any means, but it succeeds in climbing past the level of "tolerable," something which the overly silly original could barely scrape by.
You might not think so after the opening cutscene, but the directors and writers of this game wisely toned down the sexuality of Bayonetta's character, cutting back the amount of gratuitous suggestive shots by at least half. This is a much more restrained Bayonetta, still aloof amongst the carnage and overly confident in her abilities, but hardly the walking sex pot she was in the first game.
Instead, we are left with an emotional look at Bayonetta's origins and how she came to be the warrior witch she is today. We see her past and see her in far more vulnerable situations than we did before. That's not to say that the sexualization that defined her in the first game is totally absent, but I'd go so far as to say she is a genuinely empathetic character this time around, more defined by her personality and emotions once the game starts diving into the later missions.
And then there is Loki, Bayonetta 2's child who "is not a child." He is every bit the little twerp you would expect him to be in the opening acts, calling Bayonetta "Love" every other sentence in the most overly stereotypical British way of doing so. That being said, even he comes around in the end to be at least a likable little twerp, escaping the dreaded "Anakin Skywalker" branding iron.
Returning characters Rodin and Enzo are also back for a laugh, and obnoxious "not quite" love interest Luka makes an appearance in a fabulous Castlevania getup, but all three remain largely in the background for much of the game.
If I had one complaint about the storytelling, it would be the weird "still shot" style of cutscenes. Some, but not all, of the cutscenes are shown in a strange method of still character models without a shred of animation. Even their mouths don't move! Instead, camera angles and quick edits tell the story in an almost comic book sort of way. They did this in the first Bayonetta, but I thought it would go away with the jump in generation.
It worked for Crimson Shroud on the Nintendo 3DS, but when Bayonetta 2 leaps between the chaotic action scenes and these awkward out-of-place ones, it's really jarring. I can't quite tell if it was done for style or the limited budget, but it just plain doesn't work in a lot of situations. What's even worse is that the Wii U is perfectly capable of animating these scenes, making this definitely the most questionable decision of the game's development.
That's a pebble of a complaint next to a mountain of praise though. Bayonetta 2 succeeds in telling its story in ways the overly silly and totally erratic original couldn't manage, and yet it's still just a fun and rockin' story of a sexy witch beating the crap out of demons and angels.
Gorgeous From Head to Toe, and That's a Whole Lot of Gorgeous
Bayonetta 2 won't impress graphically on a technical level next to the likes of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One exclusives, but it doesn't have to. It might be stuck with slightly better than previous generation tech powering it, but it more than makes up for it by bleeding with style from the art direction. Not to say it wouldn't look better on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, because it certainly would, but that isn't necessary to get Platinum Games' vision across.
Better yet, only once did I notice any slowdown. The Wii U is perfectly capable of making this game look great, even if it isn't too much of an improvement over the first.
Of course, the music is still great this time around, and the catchy pop-songs do more than enough justice to play up Bayonetta's playful girly side. When that "Climax Attack" music kicks in at the end of a huge boss fight, you really know a whole lot of crap is about to go down, and never once do Bayonetta's hair beasts disappoint to deliver a good old fashioned bloody mauling of her larger opponents.
I even got a few flash of The Dark Knight in there during a later scenes thanks to the dark setting, sense of urgent preparation, and of course, the music as well. Weird.
New Heights for a Genre in Decline
I didn't expect too much from Bayonetta 2, mistakenly believing that Platinum was going to deliver a ho-hum, forgettable sequel like any lesser studio would on a struggling console, but I am so glad to have been proven wrong.
If I were to compare Bayonetta 2 to any great sequel from the past, it would be Mega Man 2. Neither changed up the formula in terms of their predecessor's core gameplay, but instead, they focused on what worked in a solid original and ramped it up to a whole new level.
Maybe because it's been a longer-than-average four years since the first Bayonetta, or maybe I just wasn't as impressed as everyone else was with it, but this is a sequel that passes with flying colors without being too revolutionary. It only makes incremental improvements to the first, but those increments are more than big enough to make Bayonetta 2 a sequel worth jumping into.
Most importantly, it doesn't take any steps backwards, something a lot of Japanese sequels have problems with these days.
That being said, Bayonetta 2 is no Super Smash Bros.. It's not quite the console shifting exclusive Nintendo was probably hoping for when it signed the exclusivity rights and aided in development. I can't see a lot of people other than fans of the first spending money on a new console for this game.
Instead, it's just wonderful that Bayonetta 2 can exist in this day and age, and it's obvious that it was given delicate and loving care under the master craftsmen who really understand the ins and outs of their genre and understand that even they can improve from game to game. They know how to make stylish action look sexy, they know how to make it simple and fun to control, and most importantly, they know how to expand it in ways that will blow your mind.
Somewhere along the way, they also learned how to tell a decent story as well.
Platinum Games is the master of a dying art of Japanese action games, and Bayonetta 2 is a celebration of all it has achieved in its short life, cementing it once again as the most important Japanese action game company on the video game scene. Together with Bloodborne developer FromSoftware, these two giants are constantly locked in battle with a system that doesn't adhere to their ambitious style anymore.
Buy this game the day it is launched and get the original one alongside it, especially if you can for free through the physical box. I would say appreciate that one first just so when you get around to Bayonetta 2, you can see how much this team has matured and learned to focus over the years.
Disclaimer: We were provided a review copy of Bayonetta 2 played through the single player campaign before writing this review.
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