Platinum’s atypical reweaving of invincibility is a design masterstroke
Of all the ways in which videogames break the rules of nature – their double jumps and 50ft wall runs, their guns too big for a man to carry – invincibility is perhaps the most irresistible subversion. This, after all, is the impossible dream, the ultimate rule-breaker. We wouldn’t say no to the power of flight, but throughout we’d be terrified about making a mistake, crashing into a cliff face or slamming into the ground. With full invincibility? Now you’re talking.
It’s something that Bayonetta 2’ s publisher knows only too well: after all, the Starman (AKA Super Star) is one of a select few power-ups that have been series constants since the first Super Mario Bros. The Super Mushroom is essentially a shield, the Fire Flower is a gun, and the 1-Up Mushroom is a safety net. All are important parts of a Mario game’s ruleset. But the Super Star? It’s a licence to run free, to briefly forget every rule the game has imposed upon you apart from the one thing that makes a platform game a platform game: don’t fall off the edge of the world.
In Bayonetta 2, you can fall off things to your heart’s content. PlatinumGames plonks you back from whence you fell and doesn’t even take an industry-standard chunk of health bar as payment. It’s classic Platinum, typically atypical, a reflection of the approach the studio takes in everything it does: the only ruleset by which it abides is its own. It’s just as well, too, because in its desire to create something fast-paced and spectacular that is accessible to all in so historically niche a genre, it has no alternative but to once again carve out its own path. It’s most evident in Bayonetta’s right-trigger dodge, a fully invincible evasive move whose design runs almost totally counter to accepted standards.
Games in this genre, Bayonetta included, all progress in a similar way. The enemy threat grows in number and in size, their health bars lengthen, they attack faster and hit harder. While you will also become more powerful over the course of the game, their rate of growth has to be disproportionate to ensure you feel increasingly challenged. You have to hit them many more times to kill them than they have to hit you, and so defence quickly takes priority over attack. You can have the most finely crafted combo system ever, but if players can’t stay out of trouble, it will be for nought. This genre’s wheat is separated from its chaff not just by how it lets players cause trouble, but the means it gives them to escape it. How do you not get hit?
A block button is one option, but it slows down the pace, and a character as lithe, explosive and animated as Bayonetta has no business standing still. A parry-andriposte system, meanwhile, requires precision, which in turn necessitates a certain style of game. Tomonobu Itagaki’s Ninja Gaiden games combine both, letting you counter an opponent’s move by blocking and pressing an attack button at the moment it connects. While thrilling in its own way, it can only work in a game that is slow, methodical and clean. Countering is about anticipation and execution, not reaction, so you need to see what’s going on. In Ninja Gaiden, there is rarely any more onscreen than the player and their foes. That won’t do in Bayonetta, where angels and demons battle overhead, where attack animations fill the screen and your view is often obscured by showers of pyrotechnics.
FromSoftware’s Souls games take a similar approach to Ninja Gaiden, though rather than build them around parries, here it is an advanced optional technique that plays far more heavily on risk and reward. Itagaki’s design is much safer; you’re holding the guard button the whole time, so if you mistime the counter input Hayabusa will simply remain in block stance and take no damage. A Souls parry is all or nothing, a tap of the block button deflecting an attack if you time it properly and leaving you wide open if you don’t. The dodge is built on a similar model. The forward roll has more invincibility than the others, but mistime any roll and you’re in trouble. Both dodging and blocking consume stamina, meaning the safest way to play is to keep your distance, creating openings by baiting mistakes. In Bayonetta 2, Platinum has little interest in risk, only reward, and thinks patience and safety are for bores. It wants to fill the screen with almost constant insanity and make sure that even genre newcomers can meaningfully add to it. That can only be possible with a flamboyant, mechanically straightforward combo system and, above all, a dodge move that is fully invincible from its first animation frame to the last.
It is an incredibly accommodating design, made even more so by the fact that you can dodge up to five times in succession without a recovery penalty. Not all attacks are equal, after all: a boss’s giant hammer swing takes longer to wind up than the swipe of a regular enemy’s claw, and while Platinum wants you to learn from your mistakes, it doesn’t want you to suffer for them. It wants you to feel not like Itagaki’s humble, steely ninja or FromSoftware’s imperilled adventurer, but the most powerful being on any spectral plane – someone who greets a colossal demonic dragon wrapped around a skyscraper with a shrug and an unimpressed quip before balletically and effortlessly staving its head in. Platinum can stack greater and greater odds against you, safe in the knowledge you have the means not just to survive, but dazzle while doing so. And it’s all thanks to the dodge, Bayonetta’s ultimate rule-breaker, which ensures that whatever God and the Devil may deign to throw at you next, invincibility is only a button press away.