Bayonetta is a third-person action game similar in gameplay to the Devil May Cry series, with a strong focus on arcade-style level performance ratings, amazingly humongous bosses with crazy special attacks, and difficulty levels that range from "so easy you can play it one-handed" all the way up to "you will snap a controller in half from frustration".
Bayonetta is also a game about a magical stripper witch who must spill the blood of God's angels every day or be dragged down into hell and torn apart in perpetuity. There's a story, which has some bits about Bayonetta's lost memory and some crazy prophecies about children and the world ending, but the story's mostly just there to provide an excuse for Bayonetta to do and say lots of sexy things and fight her arch-rival Jeanne. The game is very tongue-in-cheek about the entire premise of the game: the comic relief character looks and sounds like Joe Pesci; the bartender-slash-supernatural-arms-dealer that Bayonetta gets her supplies from is named Rodin but looks like a hellish Laurence Fishburne; Bayonetta's main weapons are four pink handguns collectively named "Scarborough Fair" and, you guessed it, individually named "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme". Because she's a magical stripper witch.
Bayonetta's development team was made up of what works out to be one of my dream teams: the director for the first Devil May Cry and Resident Evil 2 working with the same pack of veterans that had put together God Hand and the Viewtiful Joe series. If you've played any of those games, you'll understand how amazing a team like this can be: they're the video game equivalent of a music supergroup.
With a development pedigree like that, you might be wondering how the game actually plays. Well, it's something like Devil May Cry crossed with Street Fighter and powered by hookers and blow. I guess the ability to wield two guns at the same time in Devil May Cry wasn't enough because Bayonetta actually wields all four of her guns at the same time: one in each hand, plus one strapped to each eight-inch platform heel. There's a bunch of extra weapons that can be unlocked during gameplay, including a set of foot-long flame and lightning claws (one for each limb), an pair of ornate ice skates that can freeze enemies in place, a rocket launcher named "Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore", and a pair of gun-chuks: nunchuks that have handguns instead of wooden or metal bars. All of these can be swapped and combined with other weapons, you can have two defined weapon sets at the same time, and you can freely swap between the two sets in the middle of combos by pressing a button.
Even the combo system itself reflects the absolute licentiousness of the game. Bayonetta can dodge anything in the game, and I mean anything. In fact, if you dodge at the split second when the attack would land, you invoke "Witch Time": everything else in the game slows down to a glacial pace, Bayonetta becomes immune to almost everything except environmental hazards, and enemy projectiles can be reflected back at their owners. On top of that, you are totally free to dodge in and out of any combo attack in the game without breaking the combo (aka "dodge offset"). To put it another way, if you are in the middle of an attack and dodge away from an enemy attack, you can not only resume the combo without penalty but get to pull off the rest of it at super-speed with little to no opposition.
That's not even the really cool part: while in the combo, you can hold down a button to "pause" the combo. While holding down the button, Bayonetta freezes into the last position of the attack and starts firing her guns at anything in range, often bouncing bullets off of nearby surfaces to hit things at odd angles. Because the combo is only on pause, you can resume it after firing like this without penalty, and you can still use dodge offset to activate Witch Time. This combination of game elements is referred to as "Wicked Weave." It takes a little practice to pick up (there's an achievement/trophy for even managing to do it in the first place) but once you've got it down you can do ludicrous things like destroy thirty or fourty enemies in a row - including the extra strong, extra tough enemy leaders - in a single unbroken combo chain without taking any hits. If the whole explanation seems overwhelming, here's a youtube video illustrating what this looks like.
The visual design is in a class of its own. Many of the older environments are reminiscent of Devil May Cry's pseudo-Italian architecture, while the newer places have a liberal dose of '40s and '50s-era futurist sensibility. Heaven itself is lush and vibrant with lots of fancy glowing scrollwork and structure that also gets reflected in many of Heaven's minions. Many of the bosses are designed as though Michaelangelo went on a bender with Yoshitaka Amano: lots of thick, ornate armor structured around gigantic Classical sculptures. The minions of Hell have some distinctly Lovecraftian influences, with extra eyes and teeth and claws on bodies that are constantly shifting and moving. Bayonetta's character design is distinctly "hellish haute couture", right down to her physical proportions: long limbs, high cheekbones, slim but definitely not skinny. A great deal of her concept art wouldn't be out of place in a stack of fashion design sketches. Overall, there's a lot to look at, but the intense contrast between all of the different elements keeps it from sliding into confusion.
You might notice that if you actually Google around for this game, there's a hell of a lot of talk about how sexist the game is. The interesting thing is that, in the middle of all of the usual comparisons to strippers, there's a few people who defend all of it as being distinctly pro-feminist, including some *gasp* actual women.
Bayonetta takes the video game sexy woman stereotype from object to subject, and it's tremendously empowering. The title character uses the mantle of her sexuality as a power source. Between Bayonetta and her equally fierce rival, Jeane, it's a women's world -- the boys just play in it. The Umbra Witches aren't to be messed with. With this unique theme, the game itself is an artistic representation of the concept that female sexuality is its own kind of weapon. This stylized love letter to femininity is signed and sealed with all of the game's tiny details, from the kiss-shaped aiming targets to the subtle grace of Bayonetta's butterfly-shaped shadow. - Leigh Alexander
Personally, I'm with Miss Alexander: one of the major thematic elements is that Bayonetta is going to do exactly what she wants to do, and anyone who gets in her way is going (literally) straight to Hell. If her goals require that she move Heaven and Earth to do it, by God she's going to do it.
All of that is really just a way to draw people in to an extraordinarily solid action game, one that gives back as much as you're willing to put into it. Bayonetta's one of those action games whose replay value isn't in the story or the multiplayer, but in the system itself, akin to how fighting games reveal more and more of their layers as you learn to execute more advanced tricks. The full story mode took maybe eight or ten hours to play through the first time on Normal, but I was intentionally trying to get through it as fast as possible. I earned one or two high level scores and the rest ranged from okay to abysmal. The other twelve or thirteen hours I've logged since then have been spent trying to earn higher scores and learn how advanced tricks like the dodge offset work.
If you're a fan of God Hand or the Devil May Cry series, you've probably already got this on your shelf. If you don't, you should run out and fix that post-haste. Even if you're not normally much of an action game fan, I'd still recommend this: the easier difficulties are just about right to coach most people through the basics, and there's an Automatic mode you can invoke that takes even more of the work out. If the setting and presentation bug you, the only advice I can give is to relax a bit and think of it as the over-the-top B-movie material it really is. The exhiliration of tearing the AI a new asshole and scoring a Perfect Platinum trophy (awarded for finishing a section as fast as possible with as high a score as possible without taking a single hit) for your trouble is worth the effort.
Technical side note: The game was originally developed for Xbox 360 and ported to PS3 by a third party company, named Nex Entertainment. From what I understand, it's a pretty shoddy piece of work. If you have a choice, grab the Xbox 360 version; otherwise, expect to deal with higher load times and slowdown, including when navigating menus and picking up items.