Why Bayonetta is a Contender for Greatest of all Time

By Rich Stanton on at

This is the director Hideki Kamiya, posing here for a picture with his mum, who created Bayonetta with the rest of Team Little Angels. Are you as cool as Hideki Kamiya?

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No chance. Kamiya made his name at Capcom, initially as a protege of none other than the great Shinji Mikami. Kamiya worked as a planner on Resident Evil before being given his first directorial role with Resident Evil 2 — a project that was scrapped and re-started when nearly complete, because it wasn't good enough. The real Resident Evil 2, of course, was more than good enough, great enough that Kamiya's next game (though beginning as a Resident Evil spinoff) saw him given the chance to create a new IP for Capcom.

Devil May Cry more or less invented the thirdperson hack-and-slash genre as we know it, a label I've always despised. Kamiya's design then and now was about speed, fluidity and precision — as well as looking unbelievably cool while doing so — and such a hackneyed old label communicates nothing of this genre's beauty. The team that made it called themselves Team Little Devils, and their next title would be as part of Capcom's Clover Studios. Viewtiful Joe translated some of Devil May Cry's combat principles into a 2D comic-style adventure, but it was the brilliant time-manipulation and 'VFX' like zoom that made it an effervescent joy to play (though it does become brutally difficult).

Okami was Kamiya's next game as director, the JRPG that even today is probably still the most beautiful game ever made, and still unmatched in its (albeit imperfect) synthesis of art style and interaction. Later came the dissolution of Clover Studios, the formation of PlatinumGames with Kamiya as one of the co-founders, and here we come to Bayonetta — directed by Hideki Kamiya, and developed by Team Little Angels, many of the same personnel who invented the entire genre it was going to reinvent.

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With hindsight I can see that Bayonetta didn't really reinvent the genre, but its combat system does represent perhaps the highest pinnacle it has ever reached. This isn't always apples-for-apples but I'd chuck them all in — God Hand, DMC3, Ninja Gaiden Black, Revengeance, even Bayonetta 2 — and even with all of these beauties lined up, many among my favourite games ever, I'd say Bayonetta dragon kicks their ass into the milky way. Where DMC was a brilliant game within its technical limitations, Bayonetta came along at a time when 60fps and gorgeous visuals and fully 3D cameras were achievable, and the result is a combat design that feels as fresh now as it did eight years ago.

The PC version lets you mess with a wide range of settings, including bumping the resolution up to 4K, which works so well because the game has such a strong visual identity. The world of Bayonetta is thought-out in incredible detail (Platinum's own website hosts what must be the most detailed 'making of' documentary in history). The game runs perfectly for me, with the rather odd exception of some cutscenes having an odd pause or glitch to them. There's also a rather unfortunate side-effect of the PC benefits which is that the loading times are now incredibly fast, and unfortunately the original versions used the longer load times for an excellent tutorial mode — showing inputs and letting you practice. Don't give that or the cutscene stuff a second thought though, Bayonetta is all about the combat.

And the combat is as close to perfect as you'll get. It's built around flowing attacks which can turn into absolute hammer-blow combos at any point, combined with Bayonetta's ability to dodge attacks at the last instant and activate 'witch time,' and one more tiny detail. Bayonetta can carry combos through her dodges. That is, you can be mid-combo, dodge an attack but keep holding your own attack button, and then come straight out of the dodge back into your combo.

On top of all this, we've got Bayonetta's hair (which forms the hammer blows referenced above) and the ability to inflict 'torture attacks' on enemies. Here's a really early encounter.

I showed our sweet innocent news editor Julian Benson a video of another torture attack earlier today, and his response was: "That torture attack. It's so excellently bizarre. Like, who comes into a meeting and says, I want you to build a combo and then activate an attack when you kick someone to their knees and then a guillotine rises out of the ground and beheads them."

The obvious answer to that, Jules, is Hideki Kamiya.

Bayonetta can get bewilderingly frenzied on-screen, but every attack is telegraphed and has a specific noise — it's one of those games where, as you play more, you begin to understand more and more layers of it. Though supremely capable from the very start, Bayonetta's abilities continue to expand (as does her armoury) as the game wears on, and it's not shy about giving players the enemies they deserve.

The heavenly host are an unsettling, and slightly motley, collection of sculptured faces, ornate decoration, and almost porcelain surfaces — which, as they take a beating, crack and crumble to reveal the all-too-base flesh and sinew underneath. God's forces are pious, brutal bores and Bayonetta's the absolute opposite — sassy, elegant and even deadlier than they can imagine. It is no accident that some of the game's finest moments are the fights between Bayonetta and her fellow witch Jeanne.

It's nearly impossible to explain what it feels like to control Bayonetta once most of her capabilities are unlocked, and the enemies start hitting as hard as they can. Her frame is lanky and slight, and dances around the constant attacks with grace, but then in that instant you attack she hits like a truck — there's nothing like battering down a group of angels, their weapons whistling past as your giant hair-hands just clock one after the other after the other.

People often talk about these games in terms of peak performance, the pure platinum medals, but the experience of playing is more skin-of-the-teeth and Bayonetta has real power in these moments too. System and feedback are so perfectly intertwined that getting hit can almost knock you out of the game. The audio cues smuggle themselves through the riotous jazz soundtrack, you lose focus, and the game freezes for a split-second as Bayonetta flies backwards from an awesome blow, rosepetals scattering as her blood hits air. You try to get up, but the enemies are relentless and focus in with flurries of attacks. Often you'll get beaten down, one hit disrupting your internal rhythm so badly that it never quite re-starts.

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As you play and learn more, you almost come to enjoy these moments as the game's peaks. Those fights where you're not sure if you can survive, or really deserve to, but somehow luck and just the tiniest sliver of skill takes you through. So intuitive do the controls become that you perform incredible feats without thinking, and wonder if you're getting good or just spamming, but then it's happening again and again. Very few games in history create such an intimate link between avatar and player: Bayonetta's controls are as good as it gets.

The first time I finished Bayonetta, I couldn't quite believe how good it was, and I immediately started playing it again on the newly-unlocked difficulty. Bayonetta slides between difficulties with preternatural grace, making you master its fluid rhythm before it changes everything up again and offers some new tools. This enormous, expansive combat system soon becomes something that for me has to be called expressive – and looks it – while your playtime creeps towards the triple digits. Panache, scale, and a system that rewards mastery with endless surprises. That's why Bayonetta's the best game of its kind ever made.

With that, there's only one question anyone with a PC should be asking themselves: