Bayonetta + Bayonetta 2 (Switch) review: Waking the witch

By most accounts, Bayonetta 2 was one of the best games on the Wii U. Unfortunately, that console’s low install base meant the game didn’t have nearly as much reach as it deserves. It makes sense, then, that Nintendo would choose to re-release Bayonetta 2 (along with the first game) on Switch, a console that’s sold better than anyone could have anticipated. Anyone who missed out the first time can finally experience PlatinumGames’ magnum opus.

Coming from famed director Hideki Kamiya, the Bayonetta games follow in the footsteps of the likes of Devil May Cry: they’re fast-paced, over-the-top character action game with a deep combat system, creative enemy designs, and extravagant set pieces. The major difference, though, is the eponymous heroine herself, and the story that the games tell through her.

Bayonetta is an absolute badass. She channels a dominatrix persona through everything she does: she fights with a flashy, acrobatic, almost burlesque-ish style; she’s got no end of sass for everyone around her, friend and foe alike; she even plays with the camera as though the player themself is one of her pets. Courtesy of Mari Shimazaki, her character design is domme to the max: black leather bodysuits, high heels mounted with guns, and her imposing stature most of all—she is, easily, the tallest character in both of her games.

She’s a very sexy character, and that’s caused no end of debate about whether she’s empowered or simply another objectified woman in a medium full of such. It’s a complex question, but I come down firmly on the side of Bayonetta being an empowered, liberated woman. Her sexuality is a source of power, both literally—in her provocative fighting style—and figuratively. Her confidence comes through in her sexuality, and it’s that confidence that lets her walk all over everyone who gets in her way.

That’s all I’ll say on that, because people far smarter and far better equipped to talk about Bayonetta’s sexuality have done so. In her article “Bayonetta doesn’t care if you’re not her kink“—a piece largely focused on rejecting the “male gaze” critique levelled at Bayonetta 2 in particular—critic Maddy Myers had this to say:

“Bayonetta herself often appears to be “performing” for someone, by posing in a sexual sense, but it’s never entirely clear towards whom: the player, advancing enemies, or herself? The reason this distinction doesn’t matter to me, though, is because the story doesn’t attempt to humiliate Bayonetta. She never gets tied up or restrained; she never gets “put in her place”; she never gets smacked around by a Big Bad Man in an inexplicable cut-scene. Her dominance goes unquestioned throughout the game … Even the fact that the camera is trying to sexualize Bayonetta feels like a subversion of sorts, given that she as a character is one who refuses to be owned or manipulated; she is the essence of unavailable. You can look, but you can’t touch—not without your mistress’s permission!”

Over at Gamasutra, Katherine Cross used Bayonetta as a case study in creating a character who is sexy without being sexist. The whole article is well worth a read, but this quote in particular always stands out to me:

“… this is why so many women like Bayonetta. Her sexuality does express herself quite uniquely; her performance as ballerina-cum-succubus-cum-witch feels distinctly her much of the time. In some ways, even her imperfections–the way she is authored by a man to please other men, forced submit to the possessive camera–are redolent of our own experiences with forces greater than ourselves. Sometimes the game’s camera flatly objectifies her, as she distorts herself into a porn-ready, fungible image of nubile womanhood; other times she takes control of that camera.”

But Bayonetta is so much more than a “ballerina-cum-succubus-cum-witch”. She’s a powerful witch, sure, but she’s also a kind and loving woman to those she cares about. In both Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2, she finds herself with a young child unexpectedly in her care, and even if she plays at being aloof and disinterested, there’s an almost parental nature in the way she looks out for these kids. Her relationship with Jeanne, another witch, is one coloured by mutual respect and adoration; though never explicitly confirmed by the game, a lot of people (myself included) read them as a queer couple, and one that refreshingly avoids many of the tropes that plague queer women characters across all media. Even Enzo, a bumbling idiot of an acquaintance, is someone who Bayonetta clearly cares for a lot, and you see this in the way she playfully teases him—still with that domme persona, but a very different style of dominance than Bayonetta shares with her foes.

The Bayonetta games also take to the concept of religion in a way that’s not necessarily original, but delivered so flawlessly that it’s hard to criticise the derivativeness. In a universe with a careful balance between light and dark, Bayonetta represents the darkness; her enemies are, quite literally, angels. Initially, her feud with the angels is part of a bid to find out who she is, but as she finds out more about herself and the battle between light and dark, it becomes bigger than that. Balanced forces keep the worlds of Paradiso, Inferno, and Purgatorio in equilibrium, but in the wake of an almost complete disappearance of Umbra Witches—the group to which Bayonetta belongs—the angels are making a play for power.

Read in that what you like, but it strikes me as a clear rejection of biblical absolutes of good and evil. Power is power, and even the “light” can be misused; one need only look at the various scandals that plague so many different religious organisations to see that at work.

The religious theme also lends itself to some of the most iconic enemy designs you’ll ever see in a game. The angels you fight against have that classic white and gold colour scheme and holy auras, but they’re positively demonic in their actual form, with disfigured faces and bizarre biological configurations. Some looks like snakes, others look like dragons, most defy description altogether—but what they all have in common is being both decidedly angelic and decidedly not.

Within this framework, Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 offer tight, exhilarating action games that are the pinnacle of the form. The first game starts with a fight on the side of a collapsing clock tower, and the series on gets more over the top from there. The combat system is similarly flashy, with myriad combos courtesy of Bayonetta’s quadruple pistols (two in her hands, two attached to her heels) and wealth of acrobatic techniques. Dodging is crucial, and a well-timed dodge briefly slows down time for everyone but you.

That setup gives the games a very high skill ceiling, but they’re also very approachable—an unusual quality in character action games. Played on the easiest settings, you can do extravagant combos by simply mashing the button of your choice, while forgivable timing on dodges and relatively low damage even if you do get hit leave plenty of room for error. In Bayonetta 2, you can choose whether or not to activate the “auto-combo” function on lower difficulties if, like me, you want the lower level of punishment for failure while still enjoying the almost puzzle-like nature of the combo system.

As you’d expect from a sequel, Bayonetta 2 is a much more refined experience, with a wider suite of abilities, more variety in encounters, and fresh new challenges to undertake. That said, it’s definitely worth playing both, and starting with Bayonetta if you can—it may be almost 10 years old now, but it still plays very well, and it feeds nicely into the sublime experience that is Bayonetta 2. The retail version includes both games in one package, and if you buy one through the eShop, you can get the other at a significantly reduced price, so there’s little excuse for not getting both.

Still, if you can only get one, make it Bayonetta 2. The story is a direct continuation of the first game, but it does a good job of recapping what you need to know before mostly charting its own path. Bayonetta 2 takes everything that was great about the first game and refines it, creating what is, as I’ve said a few times now, both PlatinumGames’ magnum opus and one of the finest action games ever made.

The Bayonetta games are an essential addition to the Switch library, too. Being able to play them on the go is a delight, and both games look phenomenal whether you’re playing in handheld or TV mode, and there’s a also a new (optional) touch control scheme. I can’t stand it, personally, but if that’s your jam, go forth and rock it. Even you’ve already played them, both games are so downright enjoyable that they’re worth revisiting again and again, and the Switch release makes that as easy as possible.

I do hope this leads to more Switch ports of Wii U games, because despite the console’s struggles, there are some fantastic titles among its exclusives. We’ve just heard about a Switch port of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, so I assume that Nintendo has bigger plans for Wii U to Switch ports (Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, please!).

But even if they don’t, we’ve already got Bayonetta 2, which is easily the best Wii U exclusive. And now, it’s one of the best games on Switch as well, and an essential purchase for anyone with Nintendo’s little hybrid.

Essential

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Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 are developed by PlatinumGames and published by Nintendo. They’re available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and Wii U. Bayonetta is also available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC, published by Sega.

A retail copy of Bayonetta 2 was purchased by Shindig for the purposes of review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.