Platinum Games’ Bayonetta isn’t the first game developed by the studio (that honor goes to MadWorld), it’s almost certainly one of the earliest projects most people associate with them. Timing certainly had something to do with it: because Bayonetta was released over a year after Devil May Cry 4, minds were instantly drawn to compare the two games in a way neither of Platinum’s previous titles could replicate. The fact that both series shared key talent like Hideki Kamiya and Yuji Shimomura only further encouraged comparisons.
Both were part of a much larger renaissance of character action games from 2007 onward, including games like No More Heroes (and its sequel), Ninja Gaiden II, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, Asura’s Wrath, Killer is Dead, and Drakengard 3. Yet this doesn’t mean the comparison is without validity. Although Bayonetta shares its stylish nature with the Devil May Cry games, that style is more fully realized and, because of its charismatic lead, much more integral to the game as a whole than it was for any of its forebears.
Bayonetta’s narrative premise has strong roots in Devil May Cry territory, with maybe a few roots reaching out to the anime/manga Hellsing. 500 years prior to the beginning of the story, there were two tribes who controlled the world for millennia: the Lumen Sages, who drew their power from the sun; and the Umbra Witches, who drew their power from moonlight. Although once allies, their long reign was brought down by a war, brought about by a child born between the two clans (thus violating years of sacred tradition); and witch hunts, waged by the humans who feared the clans’ powers after their war drove Europe into chaos. The modern day story, meanwhile, sees the eponymous heroine travelling to the secluded and highly religious town of Vigrid to track down hints about her past and the location of her clan’s treasure: two mysterious artifacts known as the Eyes of the World. Doing so requires navigating a complicated web of conspiracies, mysteries, and forbidden knowledge the player never sees in whole. The principle actors in this story include:
Unlike many of the other characters, Enzo has little if any connection to the supernatural. He’s a regular mafia guy who cares more about living a life of luxury and maintaining his standing than anything else. If you didn’t know that he provides Bayonetta with intel, you’d be hard-pressed to figure out how the two found out about each other or why they continue to tolerate the other’s presence.
From a narrative perspective, Enzo is an early source of comic relief. He’s an impotent and unsympathetic person who’s frequently the victim of supernatural events he doesn’t even try to understand. The best example is also the most frequent: Bayonetta ruining his newest luxury sports car during her fights. Voiced by Chick Vennera doing his best Joe Pesci impression.
Owner of The Gates of Hell, a bar and weapons shop located between worlds. On the one hand, there’s an air of seriousness to Rodin. He says that he only helps Bayonetta in exchange for Halos, the game’s currency. But on the other hand, Rodin is very aware of his role as the game’s shopkeeper and has some fun playing that role. He’ll often greet Bayonetta with a pop culture reference, like comparing himself to Halo’s space marines or by quipping, “What’re you buyin’?” Voiced by Dave Fennoy in a deep, smooth voice.
Jeanne’s most defining trait is the Dante/Virgil dynamic she forms with Bayonetta. The two were initially raised as part of the same family (Jeanne as the pure Umbran Witch and Bayonetta as the child of Witches and Sages), but in the present, Jeanne serves as a mysterious antagonist to Bayonetta. She’s also an obvious foil to her: both have comparable abilities as Witches, but where Bayonetta is coy and aloof, Jeanne is completely serious throughout the story. Voiced by Grey DeLisle.
A journalist who saw Bayonetta awake from her coffin and his father die as a result of it, Luka wants nothing more than to expose Bayonetta to the world and exact his revenge. He sees himself as both a suave lady’s man and a force of justice who exposes the world’s evils through the divine light of truth. However, he’s more accurately described as a self-righteous idealist, teeming with chauvinist undertones, and the main source of comic relief throughout the story. His entire dynamic with Bayonetta is trying to put her in a vulnerable spot only for her to reverse the tables in an instant to show him who’s really in control. Yet unlike Enzo, the game is willing to throw Luka a bone every now and then. He has a few genuinely heroic moments, and his acrobatic feats would be impressive if Bayonetta didn’t outclass him in every way. Voiced by Yuri Lowenthal.
A four year old girl who stumbles into the plot and thinks Bayonetta is her Mummy, frustrating the latter to no end. Although she understandably doesn’t do a lot to influence the story’s direction, Cereza nonetheless becomes a very important figure in the game’s closing chapters. Her voice actress is uncredited in the English version of the game.
The ultimate villain and only Lumen Sage in Bayonetta, Balder isn’t seen until the story’s final moments. Until that point, he’s content to just whisper in Bayonetta’s ear from time to time. Balder is best described as power incarnate, both a patriarch (in the religious and familial sense and in the sense of a patriarchy) and a symbol of extravagant wealth. His character is portrayed completely seriously, even if his visual design undercuts whatever seriousness he hopes to communicate. Voiced by J. Grant Albrecht.
Finally, there’s Bayonetta herself. Given her importance to the game and just how much there is to dig into her character, she warrants more attention than a small blurb can contain. Half Umbran Witch and half Lumen Sage, Bayonetta’s character is fundamentally the same as Dante’s, which makes sense if you think about the game’s circumstances. Several of the creative minds behind Bayonetta had worked on Devil May Cry games in the past (including director Hideki Kamiya), and clearly had that work in mind on this project. More broadly speaking, a given character action game’s ethos is defined by whoever its lead character is, every aesthetic being made in service to that protagonist. Why do the Devil May Cry games emphasize highly technical play? To give Dante a stage on which to perform and to demonstrate how in control he is. Why is this important to him? Consider what ideas he’s meant to evoke: A rock star. A bad boy who does what he wants and doesn’t care what other people have to say about it. The kind of guy who guys want to be and girls and to have. A person who’s dripping with power and sexual charisma.
No doubt this was the format PlatinumGames began with when they designed Bayonetta. Hideki Kamiya’s instructions to character designer Mari Shimazaki suggest what he had in mind was “a female Dante.” However, they were likely aware that changing the protagonist’s gender would change a lot of that character’s dynamic, and so wrote her accordingly. The cool, disaffected anti-hero aspect of that character remains, and judging by her spinning around an ax like a stripper pole, suplexing a conga line of Angels, and surfing an Angel’s corpse while shouting, “Henshin a go go, baby!” (a reference to Viewtiful Joe, one of Kamiya’s games during his tenure at Capcom), it’s safe to say that the performer aspect remains unchanged, as well.
What has changed are the nuances of how all of this is expressed. Where Dante was modeled after a rock star, Bayonetta shares more in common with a dominatrix. With a few exceptions, she’s never seen without her high heels, skin-tight leather bodysuit (actually made from her hair) and horn-rimmed glasses. She attacks her enemies with Inquisition-turned-BDSM armaments like a breaking wheel, an iron maiden, and a wooden horse. Yet the weapons she uses the most frequently in her fights are also obvious signifiers of her feminine beauty: her legs, her high heels, and her hair. It’s also worth noting that this last weapon requires her to dismiss her makeshift clothes and expose her naked body. When she double jumps, she sprouts butterfly wings; she replenishes her health with lollipops. When she runs, she turns into a panther.
As tempting as it might be to interpret her sexuality as the centerpiece of Bayonetta’s characterization, her power and her calm sense of control precede both. Whether she’s pointing a gun at someone as she walks toward them with her hand on her hip or evading Luka’s grasp like it’s the easiest thing in the world, Bayonetta exudes power in her every moment on screen. In fact, there are few if any moments where control is wrested out of her hands. Not even the story can control what she does: while she’s searching Vigrid for the Eyes of the World in theory, in practice, she jumps from performance to performance until she happens to end up where she needs to be.
Presenting herself as a dominatrix is the most reliable way she has of consolidating her power. It allows her to define the terms on which other people see her, for one. She may be a sexy and alluring figure, yes, but only because she chooses to present herself as such and has the power to enforce that choice. More specifically, her persona puts a special kind of distance between herself and others: close enough to instill desire for her in those other people, but simultaneously far enough away that she can decide whether or not they get to have her.
Given how thorough and pointed that part of her character is, it manifests in a lot of the game’s design, Platinum’s trademark style being one of them. While Bayonetta has its own list of influences, ranging from 17th century European religious institutions to campy 1940s pulp media and modern American action movies, the fundamental style isn’t all that different from what would appear in Vanquish a couple of years later. It’s an imaginative, playful, and camp aesthetic where style is substance, celebrating what becomes possible when one is no longer bound by the stultifying confines of reality.
Environments fold in on themselves in dreamlike wonder, whether because the camera causes that folding (Chapters IV, VII) or because the environments do the folding themselves (Chapter IX, X). The game even starts off on full blast, as you battle on top of a falling tower, which continues to crumble apart as it careens towards the ground. Outside of this, the fact that the game remain exhilarating even in the relatively peaceful moments when you’re just regularly running around and shooting stuff on terra firma is a solid indication of just how fun it is to control Bayonetta. The soundtrack entices listeners by alternating between jazzy and sultry. Some songs, like the iconic rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon”, occupy both simultaneously. Realism fades as cartoonish artistic expression bursts its way into the scene.
This is Bayonetta on a very general level. To pick a specific example, the game interrogates the logic behind camera control and a video game character’s relationship to it. When deciding who controls the camera, the majority of video games opt for one of two options: either the player directly controls the camera, or the camera is naturally framed in one way. Although both present certain playability advantages, they also risk lapsing in voyeurism in situations like the one Bayonetta inhabits. The player begins to identify, partially or wholly, with the camera, and they identify whatever they see only as objects they can act on to fulfill their desires. In addition, both player controlled cameras and fixed cameras will naturalize this situation: the former by suggesting that control is naturally given to the player, the latter by suggesting the player’s desires toward these characters or objects naturally exist in the world (rather than stemming directly from the player).
Bayonetta, however, reverses these terms. The camera isn’t pointed at her; she’s pointed the camera at herself. Her poses and her movements invite people’s attention, but they also dictate the terms on which others are allowed to see her. “I’m doing this all for myself”, she tells you. “Either accept those terms or face the consequences.” It’s as if Bayonetta is aware that her existence is one big transgression against sanctimonious tradition (either the Umbran Witches’ or Vigrid’s) and consciously embraces that fact just so she can turn it on its head.
Also consider how the game’s combat system reinforces that character. Truth be told, Platinum never wanders far from the mold they established in Devil May Cry. Most of the differences between it and Bayonetta refine rather than question that mold: exploration is streamlined to put more emphasis on combat, fights against such gigantic, towering boss creatures that they’re basically levels into themselves, set pieces/narrative beats, environmental design, etc.; a greater emphasis on mini-games (a segment that recalls the arcade classic Space Harrier, as you ride a rocket across the sea; a motorcycle sequence that pays homage to Hang-On; and Angel Attack, a post-level bonus round, being prime examples); the ability to equip weapons to both Bayonetta’s legs and arms, allowing for a wide variety of fighting styles. In fact, the only substantial gameplay difference between Bayonetta and Devil May Cry is Witch Time, a combination Bullet Time/score multiplier activated by dodging an enemy’s attack at the last possible moment. It lasts but a few seconds but allows you to get in a few extra hits before the flow of time resumes. Plus, it’s used in a few environmental puzzles.
Beyond this, the two share very similar play styles. Like its spiritual predecessor, Bayonetta is divided into chapters, although the option to replay previous chapters is available from the beginning. Between chapters, players can buy new weapons (each one with its own fighting style), change costumes, buy items and upgrades, etc. Within chapters, the similarities become even more apparent. Exploring Vigrid, much like exploring Fortuna, allows the player opportunities to find hidden treasures or complete Alfheim missions – small combat challenges built around a specific skill or limitation. However, the focus is always on combat: navigating a series of intricate systems with a heavy emphasis on skill and pulling off combos to obtain higher scores/better rankings. Nothing Bayonetta does questions this arrangement. The weight, the inertia, the planning – all of it would feel at home in a Devil May Cry game.
From the beginning, Bayonetta makes it clear that it’s a game made with a specific set of players in mind, even if it does try to reach out beyond that set. Sometimes this clarity gives the game a very strict nature. It demands such a strong understanding from its players that it allows almost no room for failure: little time to dodge certain enemies, harsh punishments for using items or even continues. However, this description is misleading, as Bayonetta never positions difficulty as an end in itself. It understands Devil May Cry‘s format too well to stick this close to the surface.
Its real interest is in the link between Bayonetta’s character and the genre’s inherently performative nature, which it accentuates with its own link between sexuality and power. Whether in the BDSM themed attacks or the orgasm-esque pacing behind a lot of the Quick Time Events, Bayonetta turns her enemies’ desire for her into a power she can wield against them. More than that; with every battle she turns the world around her into a stage on which she can perform. And as an actor, Bayonetta’s ebullient performances make it hard for the player not to be sucked in themselves. Although a similar charisma appears in games like Devil May Cry and Vanquish, Bayonetta has a certain level of coherence that makes it as distinctive, as rewarding as it is.
As obvious as all this may appear playing it today, many of these finer details weren’t examined all that much at the time of Bayonetta’s release. In fact, looking over the reviews for it says more about the state of video game criticism at the time than it does about the game. The unpopularity of Japanese video games among Western press at the time led to critics attributing Bayonetta’s success to Japanese video games as a whole rather than to PlatinumGame’s specific approach to game design. (This could have been because Bayonetta was one of the first wave of major Japanese games of the PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 generation, but the same mistake would be repeated with Vanquish.)
Regardless of contemporary opinions, the game ended up a unique success for PlatinumGames. It was a financial success, thus allowing them to refine their style further in later games, but it’s also the only project they’ve ever returned to, and multiple times at that.
Bayonetta was initially released on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. As was the case for many titles early in this generation, many developers hadn’t quite figured out how to properly develop for Sony’s platform. Indeed, this version was outsourced, with PlatinumGames focusing on the Xbox 360 version. The result is that the PlayStation 3 version suffered substantially, with longer load times and choppier frame rates. A subsequent patch fixed things up, though it was still the lesser version.
With the release of the sequel on the Wii U in 2014, the original was also ported and packaged along with it in first print versions. There was never anything particularly wrong with the Xbox 360 version, but this one beats that by a slightly margin by offering even further improved performance. It also adds some extra costumes, including a Samus one.
In 2017, after seeing the success of many previously console-only titles being ported to the PC, Sega and PlatinumGames published the game on Windows computers. It’s a brilliant port that offers the highest resolutions and the smoothest performance, though obviously missing the Nintendo-themed bonuses. In 2018, it will be released for the Nintendo Switch, along with its sequel, featuring Amiibo support to unlock the costumes.