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VIDEO GAME REVIEW: Bayonetta 2 is an unhinged masterpiece

Courtesy of Nintendo
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Bayonetta 2
Developer: Platinum Games Inc.
Publisher: Nintendo
Available on: Wii U

Ethical considerations have been the source of some of the most interesting discussions about video games in the last few years. Arguments about the role of women — and, to a lesser extent, ethnic minorities — in games have attracted scrutiny. On the business side, vital issues like workplace equality and the cultivation of diversity in the gaming industry have risen to the fore, leading many (myself included) to wonder to what degree the art form has been hampered by a surfeit of male-dominated development teams. On the audience side, critics and consumers have increasingly discussed how women and non-white men are portrayed in games. The stakes of this dialogue have at times grown grotesque, as when the critic, Anita Sarkeesian — known for her Feminist Frequency web series, “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” – was fixed in the spotlight after recent threats to her life lit up the news.

In this charged environment, it may seem rash or bold that Nintendo, whose video games have enhanced the childhoods of countless people, would publish a game that wantonly objectifies a woman and shamelessly courts the male gaze. “Bayonetta 2” is, undoubtedly, the most hyper-sexualized video game I’ve ever played. Platinum Games’ third-person perspective action masterpiece solicits both disapproval and awe. The spectacular level of craft lavished on the game’s varied and intense gameplay put me in mind of the accomplishments of Rockstar Games. Like Rockstar (the makers of “Grand Theft Auto” and “Red Dead Redemption”), Platinum has a history of publishing outstanding titles.

In addition to the first Bayonetta, “Vanquish” is one of these. I played it over the summer on PlayStation 3, and realized there was nothing like it on either of the newer consoles. Now, I must say there is nothing like Platinum’s Wii U exclusive on any of the other current-generation consoles. (I welcome the day when that fact is obsolete.)

In Bayonetta, you play as the eponymous Umbra Witch – a commanding woman with an exaggeratedly plummy British accent. Bayonetta’s parents were the leaders of two clans, the Lumen Sages and the Umbra Witches, that were each entrusted with objects of incredible power, respectively The Right Eye of Light and The Left Eye of Darkness, which together are known as The Eyes of the World.  A digital descendant of William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Bayonetta is among the most vexing of video game avatars.

Like Uma Thurman’s character The Bride in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies, Bayonetta is the supreme warrior of her time. Sunk in her high heels, which can be equipped with different weapons (pistols, whips, etc.), the ballet of destruction she lays in her wake is exceedingly beautiful. This is a game where the lock-on sign over a target is a pair of rouged lips. When the heroine jumps into the air butterfly wings sprout from her back, and when she takes a massive lick of damage, a rose shoots up on screen. The expansiveness of her move set, which embraces everything from a deadly breakdance to a range of aerial juggling moves is so effulgent and fluid that one can quite appreciate why Mike Williams of USgamer compared Bayonetta to Beyoncé. She is the consummate performer.

When you pull off enough combo chains to put the kibosh on your opponent, Bayonetta will lose her clothes as her hair transforms into a strategic veil and again into a demon that gobbles up its target.  These “Climax Attacks” are but a piece of the game’s burlesque aesthetic, which amplifies the first game’s risqué elements. In fact, the game opens with the camera panning across Bayonetta’s supine, legs-parted body as if it were a landscape. From there till the end of the story, the camera lingers in intimate proximity to her body.

What gives the game a burlesque aesthetic, instead of an outright pornographic one, is its reliance on set pieces, costumes, wit and its ultimate lack of nudity. Exterminating angels and demons with panache and a few well-timed verbal taunts wins you halos that can be spent at The Gates of Hell (an allusion to the French sculptor Rodin’s famous work). This bar, which doubles as the main source for player upgrades, is operated by a jive-talking character named Rodin – a demon, who says things like: “Thank goodness capitalism still has its place in hell. Let’s do business.”

After you stock up on all available combat techniques and round out your arsenal of weapons and stat-boosting items, you’ll likely wish to try out the different couture sets that affect the gameplay in different ways. A couple of examples: The Mushroom Kingdom Princess costume, which pays scandalous homage to Princess Peach of Nintendo’s Mario franchise, allows Bayonetta to summon Mario’s loyal nemesis Bowser to put the hurt on her foes. By contrast, the far more tame Galactic Body Hunter suit, which honours Samus Aran, the heroine of the Metroid series, grants Bayonetta the ability to transform into a Morph Ball and speedily cross environments.  For long-time Nintendo fans, these accoutrements are nearly irresistible.

Bayonetta partisans inevitably cite the fact that she dominates every scene and has all the best lines of dialogue; from this they extrapolate that she is a model of a strong woman. Yet, one can’t point to her as a progressive female video game character despite her starring in some of the best games in the genre.  All of those up-skirt shots and the like are problematic because one knows it could be otherwise.

As a friend and fellow writer advised me when he heard that I would be reviewing this game, we should take the creators of Bayonetta at their word when they tout the game’s “Climax Action.” This game is all about smothering players in a cloud of lust. If such a gambit falls outside of your tastes, “Bayonetta 2” will irk you.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.