As far as looks go, very few games manage to raise as many questions as the Platinum Games' Bayonetta series. A little over a week ago, when Bayonetta 2 was released, we saw many of the same arguments against it that we did the first time around; over-sexualization and vying for the male gaze being some of the domineering points. With this piece I'm not going to argue against any kind of sexism or otherwise found within the game, but rather why games like Bayonetta should be measured by their gameplay rather than how they look.
"Character action" games, as the genre of hardcore action/ beat 'em ups has been come to be known by, are usually characterized by their intensive, versatile combat systems and flashy, arcade-like presentation. Bayonetta captures these ideas perfectly, with its satisfying combat belying an "I can do better if I give it one more try" mentality. The game is a joy to play, and completely addicting as well. It controls like a dream, and every weapon (and combination of weapons) has such a huge, diverse move list with every encounter being approachable in a unique and meaningful way.
The argument against how the game presents itself isn't any less relevant because of this, but given its genre, I believe criticism should be focused on what the game is trying to be rather than what it looks like. Take for example Edelweiss' Fairy Bloom Freesia. Same general concept as Bayonetta: dispatch your enemies with stylish and lengthy combos. The scenario is pretty unusual for this sort of game, as you play as a little fairy girl dispatching cutesy creatures. But what the game does, it does very well, with loads of replayability in the form of upgradeable attacks and higher, nigh masochistic difficulties.
But comparing an independent title to the same standards as a blockbuster might not be considered exactly fair. See the God of War franchise. The games are hyper violent in terms of appearances for a relatively simple beat 'em up game. The production values are through the roof, and the games are generally very well received. Holding these games to the same standard of "excel at what you should be", they often seem like little more than catharsis. Sure the different weapons are interesting, and there are new moves to unlock, but the whole series relies on the same blood-painted portrait it always has in order pull people in. I have nonchalantly finished entire segments of the game using the one attack button alone. There isn't a whole lot of challenge to be found in the game despite what its genre would dictate, even on more challenging settings.
I have this philosophy when it comes to game design. If you remove the game from the story and replace the playable character with a puppy, and the game continues to be fun, then the game is likely to be good. Super Mario Bros.3 with a puppy? Sure, the game controls tightly, the level design is interesting, and the power ups are fun. Tetris with a puppy? I mean, it might look a little strange but the core gameplay is still that same addictive puzzler we all know and love. God of War with a puppy? The game would lose so much of that angst that carries it that I have no doubt it would be received far poorly, and that's with us pretending we live in a world where that kind of game would be made.
I feel like I can confidently say that Bayonetta's main audience isn't there for the gratuitous crotch shots and fanservice. No, the gameplay speaks for itself. Non-stop action against overwhelming odds, and the freedom and fluidity to go against those odds is something that action games often forget is important. I'd play Bayonetta if it featured a puppy. Wouldn't you?