I have a strange relationship with Platinum Games. While my appreciation for their sheer craftsmanship knows no bounds, one major problem tends to pop up and get in the way of the fun I should be having: Namely, just how demoralizing their work can be.
In a recent piece I wrote on the work of Hideki Kamiya, I posited his games (and Platinum's as a whole) focus on player performance—looking stylish, for the most part—which is why they tend to grade ruthlessly at every occasion. If you're playing a Platinum game, odds are, every enemy encounter will end with a summary screen that mostly communicates how you're still not good enough. You may think you did a great job at trouncing the latest set of enemies, but when you're basically given Platinum Games' equivalent of an honorable mention, it's hard to not feel like a complete failure.
Make no mistake: Kamiya's brand of game is one that demands mastery. Even last year's The Wonderful 101, seemingly a colorful kids' game, featured the same mechanically complex and consistent fighting mechanics seen in other Kamiya titles like Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, and Okami. I'm not complaining about that one bit, though. To make a tired comparison, I view Platinum's work much like I do Dark Souls: the games can be ruthless, but when I win, I know it's because I've gained some degree of mastery. There's no cowering behind cover, waiting for your life bar to recharge in one of Kamiya's games.
Still, sometimes Platinum crosses the line from challenge to sheer cruelty, which is why I had to put aside the first Bayonetta several times before finally finishing it—I'd spend hours just scraping by, only to have the game give me constant reminders of how much I suck. And that's why I was more than a little wary of Bayonetta 2: Platinum knows how to put together an amazing action game, but I feared how much this sequel would push back against my shortcomings. Bayonetta 2 still provides a challenging experience, mind you, but director Yusuke Hashimoto is much more charitable than Hideki Kamiya, making the experience far more enjoyable than the time I had with the first game—which I mostly spent beating myself up for not achieving the standard of excellence it wanted from me.
Bayonetta 2 definitely improves on the original's issues by being just a bit more forgiving. Enemies don't hit quite as hard, have less HP, and offer a larger window in which to activate Witch Time—the central mechanic that slows time to a crawl if you dodge an attack at the last second. A good deal of the surprise cheapness is completely excised as well: Gone are the unfair insta-deaths from failed QTEs, which ate up so many of my continues from the first game. This sequel is also more compact than the original, but that's not a bad thing: Bayonetta padded its length out to a ridiculous degree with reused content—I can't count the amount of times I had to fight those stupid red and blue griffins. And this time around, the penalties for using items doesn't seem quite as harsh; it always annoyed me how the first game actively decentivized this act.
Though it makes some departures from its predecessor, Bayonetta 2 knows what made the first game so memorable, and builds on that. What Bayonetta 2 shows you in its first level offers the amount of spectacle most games would save for their finales—and the scale only grows from there. Really, where the game thrives is its sense of surprise, because what you'll be doing at any given time can change immediately. Bayonetta's fight with a skyscraper-sized boss, for example, can take to the skies in the second phase, but because the fundamental controls never change, it's rarely jarring. And with every screen so full of busy visual splendor, you'd think the action would be hard to follow, but somehow, Platinum manages to communicate everything to the player perfectly. Even when Bayonetta 2 unexpectedly turns into an After Burner-style shooter, it's surprisingly easy to roll with such an out-of-nowhere twist.
All of this, of course, is backed up by the superb fighting mechanics, which can grow as complicated as you want them to. You can rely on a single attack button for the entire game if you want, but Bayonetta 2 offers a handful of special moves, as well as a collection of weapons that offer different attacks depending on whether they're equipped to her hands or her feet—if you're looking for a wealth of customization, you've found it. And when you fall into a groove with Bayonetta 2, the experience becomes surprisingly zen-like as she bounces from enemy to enemy, deftly dodging attacks and dishing out her own in a sadistic ballet. You won't walk away with those coveted Pure Platinum awards—the game's highest praise—often, but when you do, it's incredibly rewarding.
Bayonetta 2 might only last you 12-15 hours, but, like any Platinum game, it's all about mastery. Sure, you can get your fill from a single playthrough, but trying out all of the items, costumes, and hidden challenges takes a certain kind of devotion the developer definitely incentivizes. The real tragedy here is that, like all of their previous work, Bayonetta 2 appeals to a particular audience, one with numbers too small to financially justify the production of such a gorgeous, well-crafted game. But as long as publishers like Nintendo will be around to subsidize their productions, Platinum's efforts can only improve from here—and Bayonetta 2 is proof.