What I Learned From: Bayonetta
The original Bayonetta flew slightly under the radar but upon discovery turns out to be quite the little masterpiece. It's a character action game that both summarizes and deepens the history of the genre, especially looking back. It's fitting that this would be the game to do it too creator Hideki Kamiya raised the bar first with 2001’s genre-defining Devil May Cry. Thankfully Bayonatta has come up for fresh appreciation lately with a Wii U re-release alongside it's sequel. Despite missing out on a lot of this character action genre, completing Bayonetta for the first time has me reading and playing up on my history and appreciating just how mechanically satisfying the genre can be.
I believe I had written these types of games off mostly due to difficulty and demand for reflexes over what I considered more interesting choices, typified by another early highlight Ninja Gaiden. Once I had gotten a taste for Bayonetta however, I began to understand the nature of the genre much better. Precision is forcefully demanded but not exactly required, allowing quite a bit of fumbling and clumsiness even on the "normal" difficulty level. Repetition and repeat playthroughs are highly encouraged and well supported here as in other character action games, with the scoring system and tight dodging providing an incredibly deep canvas for player expression. Surely the goal is perfection and true finesse, but that can be saved for repeat playthroughs.
For me at least, the proposition of replaying "story" content is a lot more palatable than in a game with less story like Ninja Gaiden as the campy presentation and bonkers plotline offer genuine levity and welcome changes of pace. It is true that the sexualized material and specific aesthetic may make Bayonetta relatively niche, and I think that certain choices are indeed questionable, but it’s refreshing that a potentially frustrating game like this is generally good natured and fun rather than the more dour approach of Ninja Gaiden or Demon Souls.
I attempted to nail down the simple part of dealing with multiple enemies with my game, SMAX, but enemy management is but one piece among many required to succeed in Bayonetta. Some of it is trial and error, learning effective combos through experimentation, but a lot of it is also that complex juggling of priorities, constantly reassessing enemy proximity and whether they are attacking, winding up, or cooling down. It can certainly take a few stages or hours to get a real bearing with how to approach each encounter. It wasn’t until I went back to an earlier stage to improve my score when I had more fully grokked the rhythm of combat that I appreciated just how much potential there was there. I’m not usually one to replay games once I’ve completed a main story but the true beauty of these interlocking and supporting mechanics in the combat system, along with the structure of scoring and evaluation keep pulling me back to Bayonetta 1 even after I’ve started its similarly excellent sequel. I think this title in particular speaks to Platinum Games understanding full scale, feature length, action games better than any other developer out there.
One part that I think was less successful than the whole is the economy of buying moves, weapons, items, and other random items. The currency is heavily built on repetition as you earn money by completing combat sections and levels overall, but the money you're given by playing straight through the game once is a pittance and it feels like a lot of the advanced content is gated behind a wall of time and effort. I can understand the thinking here, encouraging replays, but the store was mostly untouched when I completed the game.
That said, I'm not sure how much I really did miss. Obviously new moves were my first stop with my hard-earned cash, and weapons did seem to provide wildly different ways to play. But a lot of more advanced perfumes seemed impenetrable yet still enticing. I don't think the game drastically changes the way I've heard Vanquish does at higher difficulty levels, so that makes me wish all the more that things had been cheaper.
I appreciated the wide variety of minigames and one-off sequences but do wish they could have fit into the overall structure of the game a bit better. Going through these special sections of the game is extremely thrilling the first time through but they lose quite a bit of luster on replaying in a way that the combat doesn't. This makes sense as the combat is effectively a series of sandbox arena sections while the one-offs are always linear and played through the exact same way, making it more about rote repetition than the beautiful improvisation of the main game.