Who is Bayonetta for? It’s never been entirely clear, and the question remained at the back of my mind throughout Bayonetta 2. Is she a raunchy male-gaze-panderer, or a woman reclaiming her own sexuality? Is her story an ill-thought mish-mash, or is it a hilarious, self-aware send-up of videogame clichés? That’s up for debate. But if you thought Bayonetta fell under the latter category the first time around, then you’re in for a treat, because the sequel knocks it right out of the park all over again.
The game opens with Bayonetta walking down the streets of New York City, clad in a fur stole that would put Cruella De Vil to shame, forcing her Joe Pesci-inspired sidekick Enzo to carry an over-sized tower of hatboxes, shoeboxes and wrapped gifts. It’s December 25th, and Bayonetta is about to save Christmas—and the world.
Bayonetta’s best friend, Jeanne, roars up on a motorcycle, and the pair talks shop about Christmas parties and how the balance of power between good and evil has been feeling a bit “off” lately. Then, a horde of angry angels swoop in on jet-planes. Oh, angels are “bad” in this game, and demons are “good,” because our heroines are witches, remember? Also, angels have jet-planes. And sometimes they’re also robots.
Bayonetta 2 has an accessible tutorial and acceptable learning curve, but it is by no means easy—nor was its predecessor. Bayonetta must combo and dodge attacks like a champ in order to get through her foes even just on “Normal” mode (here titled “2nd Climax”—Bayonetta’s difficulty settings are all orgasm-themed, as they were in the prior game). The player can equip lollipops to the directional pad, and soon gain the ability to create more powerful pops with a spell-book, but using those extra items seems to dock your overall performance score per level. Every chapter tallies up your total at the end, rewarding you with a trophy of one of the game’s main characters—in order from most lovable to least, according to how well you played. You can replay chapters as many times as you wish in order to up your score, and indeed, the game encourages this, making it easy to skip cut-scenes (even the first time you see them), revisit the store every time you switch chapters, and restart chapters at any time on any difficulty level you desire.
The game has a lot to offer even if you skip every cut-scene and only spend time fine-tuning combat skills. In addition to the tutorial’s long list of suggested combo attacks, Bayonetta can purchase several more in the store; I took a liking to the “After Burner Kick” (Bayonetta flings a foe further and further airborne with a flick of her high heel), the “Breakdance” move (Bayonetta break-dances; her heels shoot bullets accordingly), and the “Charge Bullet” attack, which came in handy for long-distance bosses with hard-to-reach targets. There are dozens of these techniques, though, and you can try each one out before you buy any of them.
One of the more inexplicable additions to the in-game shop is the various costumes, including Nintendo-themed ones; watching all the other characters act like it’s normal that Bayonetta is wearing a Starfox cosplay has a certain charm to it, though. The game never pretends to be anything other than comedic throughout, but the out-of-place Nintendo outfits definitely take that tone to another level. I enjoyed putting Bayonetta into Samus Aran’s Varia Suit, regardless, since the costume also allowed me to use the spin jump, turn into the morph ball, and fire with an arm cannon instead of a pistol. It was kind of odd to see a Varia Suit worn by someone with such a sexy swagger, however.
Speaking of sex appeal, Bayonetta’s is downright intimidating, which is part of why I posit that this game is intentionally leaning into the concept of “male gaze” for the sake of comedy and reclamation. I don’t particularly care whether that’s intentional or not, because either way, I’m entertained. For example, the game’s early tutorial of Bayonetta’s “Torture” attacks featured a one-time-only cut-scene of her straddling an angelic centaur, bouncing enthusiastically on top of it, and sighing in lusty pleasure at the sensation. Then, she flings the centaur into a meat grinder, whisking it into a tower of blood and guts. This moment, which happens very early on, is probably the most overtly sexual cut-scene of the entire game; the only other moment that strikes a similar tone happens over the game’s closing credits, when a sepia-toned Bayonetta does a slow-motion pole dance with a massive battle axe. However, the song in the background is a jazzy, almost tragic rendition of “Fly me to the Moon”, which has been Bayonetta’s personal theme since the first game. It’s a song that she sings softly to herself in darker moments, such as when she is laying on the floor of a prison cell. In other words, Bayonetta—both the game and the heroine—is complicated.
Bayonetta 2 has a plot, and it’s a surprisingly well-written one. The “twist ending” didn’t surprise me, but it didn’t need to—the plot had already entertained me on the way. There are a couple of new characters, but the basic themes from the first game remain: “good” and “evil” are nuanced, not warring factions of black and white, and it’s up to humans to choose their own complicated paths. (The post-credits sequence also sets up a story for Bayonetta 3—fingers crossed).
This emphasis on nuance dovetails nicely with Bayonetta herself, who shot herself right into the center of my heart with this game. Not that I didn’t love her before, but this time she’s older, wiser, snarkier, and more complicated in a way that’s refreshing and surprising, especially in a comedy game that deals as many laughs as it does narrative turns. There were even a couple of moments that tugged at my heart-strings; much of the prior game revolved around Bayonetta’s unusual parentage and her friendship with Jeanne, and this game continues with both arcs. My only gripe was that I would have loved to see Jeanne and Bayonetta fighting side-by-side more often, as well as trading more quips, but Jeanne sadly spends much of this game occupied elsewhere. I appreciated Bayonetta’s dynamic with Luka, Rodin and the new character Loki, but I did miss Jeanne.
As for Jeanne, playing through the entire game once unlocks the ability to play as her. File this choice under “inexplicable,” since playing as Jeanne means seeing Bayonetta’s voice actress speak through her for every cut-scene, but I like Jeanne enough that I can get into it. Sadly, Jeanne doesn’t automatically get all of the outfits Bayonetta purchased; I’ll have to save back up again for the Varia Suit.
Saving up isn’t that hard via the multiplayer mode, though. The “Tag Climax” multiplayer (yes, climax) has been billed as a “co-op” mode, but that’s not entirely accurate: you can compete with your online friends, or strangers, as to who fights enemies the best. Before each round, you bet a certain amount of halos (the in-game currency) on the match, and if you win, the money’s yours to keep and spend in the rest of the game on more outfits, items, or techniques.
My only big complaint about this game is that the Wii U requires that you use the GamePad to play (it will support a Classic Controller as well, but sadly, I don’t own one). Using the GamePad has some advantages, since you can actually play the entire game just using the pad, and if you want to perfect your combo technique while your roomies use the TV, you can do so using the tablet alone. However, there are a couple of situations where fighting with the GamePad felt unwieldy and painful. For 90% of the game, the GamePad felt surprisingly good to me, but in one late-game chapter, I had to fly an airplane as Jeanne and use some unusual flight-sim controls in order to beat several bosses in a row. In a word: ouch. Also, the GamePad includes the option to play Bayonetta with the stylus, which basically entails sweeping over and tapping enemies to attack them; this form of combat is significantly simpler and more boring than the actual button-based combat, in my opinion, so I’m at a loss as to why the stylus was even included other than for gimmickry’s sake.
Bayonetta 2 justifies the existence of my Wii U (sorry, Mario Kart 8—you’re fine, but I’m just not in love with you). I plan to sink several more happy hours into its infinitely replayable chapters. It’s rare that a game actually offers me a compelling story, a nuanced heroine, jokes that are funny and never cringe-worthy, plus combat mechanics that I can sink hours into perfecting again and again. Bayonetta 2 has caused me to fall back in love with videogames—or maybe just with Bayonetta herself? Not that I ever really stopped loving any of that, but it’s always nice to remember what a great game looks and feels like. This is it.
Maddy Myers is Paste’s assistant games editor. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric on the 5by5 Network.