Gameplay excellence and narrative madness have been comfortable bedfellows for videogames over the decades. As the form found its feet, expectations of competent storytelling grew only slowly, and are still remarkably forgiving. Bayonetta and its sequel, re-released this year for Nintendo’s Switch, exemplify this divide. Their combo-chaining fighting gameplay is responsive and accessible, scaling to heights of complexity for the engaged player; yet their stories and acting are heinous and often offensive.
Our eponymous heroine is an initially amnesiac ‘Umbra Witch’ in a high-camp fantasy world. These witches and their antagonistic counterparts the ‘Lumen Sages’ are charged with maintaining balance between the realms of earthly matters, heaven and hell. Convoluted and confusing family dynamics abound as Bayonetta repeatedly saves the world from demonic and angelic invasion.
It is impossible to do justice to the absurdity of Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2’s storytelling and visual styles. Its main characters are extremities of immature character design. Women are impossibly proportioned, all soaring legs and bulging chests, variously sucking on lollipops and kissing their guns. Men are at turns snivelling and pathetic, or androgynous and serene. It’s clear in motion and in critical reception that Bayonetta is trying to own its camp style, and to in some way subvert the sexism of its designs, a cosmic joke.
That joke falls flat. These images are not progressive, they are a continuation of gaming’s worst heritages, and to claim otherwise is to defend the indefensible. To portray women in the manner that director Hideki Kamiya persistently does is, each and every time, nine parts objectionable to each anaemic excuse for a joke.
This skin-crawling direction and visual style is paired with laughable voice acting, particularly in the second game. If there has ever been a worse voice performance in a modern game than Mark Dogherty as Loki in Bayonetta 2, Peter Dinklage aside, it is an obscure one. Adding this to the character’s gob-smackingly bad visual design makes for a genuinely woeful package.
As these silly, throwaway stories progress, players with any sort of taste will be checking out during cutscenes, the games’ worth held entirely in their gameplay. In fairness, the fighting is excellent. Even sticking to Bayonetta’s starting weapons presents an impressive learning curve, but with the option to mix and match with half a dozen extra styles makes for a wide range of perfectly balanced movesets. The difficulty is well-tuned on ‘Normal’, most fights a challenge but always winnable when considered carefully. Again, multiple challenging higher difficulty levels offer replay options for those enamoured with the martial play.
Most observers, though, will surely not persist. The slightly lacklustre visual fidelity is explained by the original games’ releases years ago. The embarrassing design and writing is more intrinsic to them, and their clear downfall.