Wii U review: Bayonetta

Originally released in 2009 on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3, the first game in the Bayonetta saga saw an updated release on the Wii U, one that was bundled with the Nintendo console-exclusive Bayonetta 2. The premise is easy enough to jump into – the witch known as Bayonetta works with two individuals to fight aggressive angels: an arms dealer named Rodin and one business associate named Enzo. Whereas Rodin is cool, tough, and smooth with both words and weapons, Enzo is excessively foul-mouthed, and seems to have a knack for getting himself in way over his head. Bayonetta, meanwhile, has an air of sass and confidence about her, as she knows she is one of the only magic-wielders of her kind, boasting a widely varied skill set and impressive power to boot. And yet, Bayonetta knows very little about her own history, which leads to this first entry in the story to be one of self-discovery, with cutscenes frequently jumping back in time to explain, bit-by-bit, just what happened five-hundred years prior to the game’s present day setting.

Over the course of her adventures across a fictional European vista, Bayonetta visits a number of locales, from old brick-street cities, to an ancient coliseum, to impossible spirals of land that wind up in to the sky only to meet other high-rise bridges of dirt and grass some miles above the Earth. Later chapters will even see Bayonetta enter ethereal realms of mist and golden décor as she take the fight to the angels’ home turf. And while most of the game’s grand reveals are saved for the late chapters, it is apparent from the outset that other players in this larger picture are keeping their eyes on Bayonetta. Though it may not match the astounding visual quality of its sequel, the slight update seen in this Wii U port is certainly cleaner than its Xbox 360 and PS3 counterparts. Similarly, new features have been added, perhaps the most noteworthy of the bunch being costumes that pay homage to the heroines of Nintendo’s Metroid and Mario properties, as well as Link’s tunic from The Legend of Zelda.

That said, the Gamepad is not emphasized as heavily in this first Bayonetta title as it is in Bayonetta 2. The basic controls for running through environments, chaining combos while slicing and dicing the grotesque angelic hordes, and the menu-based process of mixing ingredients for stat-recovering and stat-boosting lollipops all fell very natural with the traditional button and joystick combo. Boss encounters with the most massive of stone-and-gold goliaths are consistently exceptional, even with the occasional decision to include gimmicky uses the immediate environment. Similarly, the sequential rival battles with mysterious crimson-clad witch Jeanne prove among the most engaging and enjoyable moments of the overall experience, and these are spaced out so as to not grow so quickly tiresome as other interruptions to the familiar routine of the story and gameplay, such as a clunky motorcycle chase with unclear objectives or the minimally-inspired arcade shooting minigame that caps off each chapter.

Combat utilizes a time-slowing mechanic known as Witch Time, whereby a perfect last-minute dodge will result in enemies coming to a near-standstill and Bayonetta being granted a brief window to deal significant damage to foes. If a magic meter is full from delivering a strong chain of attacks, players can employ medieval torture devices to inflict massive damage upon foes. The magic meter, however, can be whittled back down if Bayonetta takes damage, effectively nullifying everything built up from combos. This makes this first title simultaneously more demanding and less forgiving than its successor, which in and of itself is not so much a problem, but rather plays into the game’s two major flaws: poor camera angles, and claustrophobic environments. Bayonetta gradually throws harder enemies at the titular witch, and in greater numbers, which only makes sense as a means for amping up the difficulty factor for players, but the fact that the combat arenas never grow presents a significant problem in trying to see where Bayonetta is versus the location of her enemies. This in turn forces strategy out the window during these particularly troublesome segments, leaving players to guesswork in their dodges and attacks. It’s not an issue that runs for the entire course of any given level, but instead pops up at sporadic intervals, making it all the more frustrating as a significant flaw in an otherwise solidly-designed game.

The lore of the world is delivered largely through Luka, a young man with dreams of following in his father’s footsteps as journalist and historian. Luka holds Bayonetta responsible for the death of his father upon her return to the land of the living many years ago, though a part of him is constantly drawn to her – in part, because of her mysterious nature, and the other part due to his finding her physically attractive. Shallow as he might be, Luka plays the part of comic relief a number of times over the course of the game, as Bayonetta leaves him to clean up after her messes and place him in charge of taking care of tasks she would rather not.

The angel designs are nowhere near as visually captivating as their successors in Bayonetta 2, though boss designs such as a plant-like form with many tentacles and a giant lizard-like beast with a gaping maw offer commanding aesthetics. There is a certain creepy and alien appeal in the bird-human hybrids of the common grunt enemies, while gold-trimmed boats that fire a barrage of missiles and flying snake-like beasts offer more in the way of silly visual appeal than they do for practical combat situations. The soundtrack emphasizes choir vocals for more dire moments, and jazzy numbers for when the game wants to let loose and allow Bayonetta a minute to properly flaunt her unique skill set.

Bayonetta is still an impressive showing for the action genre, and does well to base its combo chaining system around a fair dodge mechanic. Unfortunately, this is far too often nixed by poor choices in the placement of enemies in narrow hallways and compact rooms, or downright awful camera angles. It’s a step up in both more fluid design and more user-friendly design points than previous giants of the genre, yet it falls a fair distance from the sequel’s borderline-perfect design. If nothing else, this version of Bayonetta is easily the best in terms of its visual presentation, and the button layout on both the Wii U Gamepad and Pro Controller are perfect fits for the game’s demanding combat patterns.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

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