What fascinates me about the Bayonetta games, in addition to their deep combat systems and overwhelming charisma, is how acclaimed they’ve become despite Cereza herself being relatively underexposed.
Is that weird to say about a character whose seminaked body is revealed whenever she taps into her sorcery mid combo? Fair is fair, Bayonetta has never been the most dignified game in this sense. (Bayonetta 3’s sweary dialogue and prolonged glimpses of bare flesh won’t change that perception either.)
I actually think Bayonetta is underexposed simply because she hasn’t starred in much since her debut over a decade ago. Being a Wii U exclusive, many players missed out on Bayonetta 2, and besides her cameo in Super Smash Bros. since then, Bayonetta 3 is the first time we’ve seen Cereza in eight years. So it’s great to finally have her back, even if she’s clearly missed a few steps along the way.
Bayonetta 3 begins with our eponymous heroine fighting Singularity. This insidious mastermind wants to destroy the entire multiverse, so with the forces of Inferno and Paradiso taking a back seat for once, Bayonetta recruits her best friend (Jeanne) and a spunky newcomer (Viola) to join her in upsetting destiny one last time.
PlatinumGames reached for the stars with this story, but the ageing Switch hardware made presenting it difficult. In the opening where Bayonetta battles aboard a cruise liner caught in a tornado — y’know, the usual stuff — the blurry visuals and choppy performance make it hard to see what’s happening.
Unlike the majestic angels and hulking demons of games past, the new Homunculus enemies are sentient bioweapons who mimic various humanoid and animalistic forms. Dodging attacks from these things is harder because their weird appendages and attack patterns are tricky to intuit on a visual level. Their flat-shaded limbs also dilute combat of its formerly visceral feel. Bayonetta used to bludgeon angels to death in wonderfully gory fashion, but here the combat resembles a lone woman trying to fight blobs of green paint inside a tumble dryer. It’s not quite the same.
Playing this on a Nintendo Switch Lite isn’t great because the 720p resolution struggles to contain the massive scale of the game’s set pieces. This is where the new Demon Masquerade mechanic comes in as it allows players to directly control Bayonetta’s infernal minions. I’ll come back to the gameplay implications with this, but for now the main point is how much bigger these characters are, and how much the environments have expanded to match.
The underpowered Nintendo Switch can’t render these environments in the same glorious detail as before, so compromises in the art style are plain to see, from the aforementioned bland enemy designs to the levels themselves. The entire first act, for instance, takes place in an apocalyptic Tokyo where the sights resemble an early Xbox 360 game. It’s one darkly monotonous cityscape after another here, with each one feeling like it drags on forever, more Bullet Witch than Bayonetta.
Before he left PlatinumGames in 2019, Director Yusuke Hashimoto expressed a desire to change the series formula for this third outing. Evidence of that can be seen in several places, but it’s very noticeable in the level design.
Bayonetta 3 presents much bigger environments with collectibles galore. A handy waypoint button prevents players from getting lost as they search for optional battles and puzzles hiding within each verse. Similar to the vehicle sections in Alan Wake, such spacious environments give the impression Bayonetta 3 was originally intended to have an open world structure, leaving these areas to feel somewhat incongruous within the final build’s linear format.
Either way, I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm for collectable hunting. I got so tired of picking up those ugly mushroom things (merely one of three different currencies here), it was only after completing the campaign when I realised I hadn’t upgraded Bayonetta’s skill tree. Oops!
This mistake didn’t sting much seeing as the difficulty curve on Expert is smooth enough anyway, but players definitely should remember those upgrades because they feed into the game’s greatest strength: its combat system. The Demon Masquerade mechanic is central to the innovation here. Bayonetta can now directly command her demonic allies to attack enemies with elaborate combos and special abilities.
Some of these are really spectacular. Like the bat demon who fires homing lasers at everything on screen, or the singing frog demon whose wicked arias spit corrosive poison on armoured foes. Bayonetta can even transform into a demon herself. Becoming a giant spider to scale walls and sting enemies to death is a great example, with other forms allowing Bayonetta to fly, zoom around, and jump huge distances too.
PlatinumGames has once again demonstrated immense creativity with their combat design, and what’s even better is that Bayonetta’s weapons are no longer hidden in awkward places. Players are gifted new weapons throughout the campaign, and they can still experiment with them during loading screens. Excelsior!
The fighting system is generally more complex though, and the emphasis placed on summoning means players have to memorise yet more attack patterns and combo strings. It’s rare to only fight small humanoid enemies any more, meaning players are expected to use summons quite often, even though their size sometimes makes it hard to see incoming attacks.
It’s still bombastic fun, but a lot of stuff is thrown into the blender here. Bayonetta’s old torture attacks are almost non-existent, and fighting with huge monsters has a very different feel to the tighter combat systems of previous games. In fact, with the right accessories equipped, players could probably fight through the entire game as a dedicated summoner if they wanted to.
The boss battles continue to bring giddy spectacle, but most of them are driven by gimmicks now instead of straight combat. PlatinumGames has always shown a fondness for ‘situation rush’ gameplay, but whereas Bayonetta included the odd shooting section to break up the action, Bayonetta 3 has all sorts of wacky set pieces. Turret sections; side-scrolling sections; chase sequences; even a rhythm minigame at one point! These moments certainly have charm, as riding a dragon and battling kaiju in the ruins of New York City demonstrates. Are these hints of what Scalebound could have been? Either way, the increased creature chaos means things feel less fundamentally pure than before.
In simpler terms, players must read many tutorial pop-ups explaining whatever weird turn the gameplay is taking next. There are so many new mechanics to remember as it is — I frequently forgot things like the super attack performed by awkwardly clicking in both thumbsticks. When the 2D side missions featuring Jeanne in an Elevator Action tribute began appearing, my sense of humour for this stuff had waned, and I started hoping these missions in particular (which are kind of boring anyway) would just stop.
Such a wealth of fresh design ideas and optional content is still a positive overall. However, the same creative praise doesn’t apply to the narrative. The plot is still impenetrably convoluted, the cutscenes still overrun, and poor Jeanne once again has to make way for a sassy newcomer, this time in Viola.
There’s not enough impact this time around either. For instance, the meandering prologue just follows Bayonetta around and watches her do stuff. She meets up with Enzo again, banters with Rodin again, gets her clothes torn in another tasteless cutaway. There’s a bit where she tries on a dress for no reason. The previous games grabbed you by the throat, yet this one is quite pedestrian. The plot mimics a typical comic book yarn where the heroines venture into different universes to fight alongside their alternate selves, but it means the main characters are regularly kept apart, and Bayonetta herself doesn’t have much of an arc.
Viola is a playable character in some chapters, but I found her rather annoying because her sword-based fighting style (reminiscent of Sekiro) just isn’t as fun. Even then, the story chunters along as crazy stuff happens with little context. Returning NPC Luka appears at one point and he too just potters about whilst not really acknowledging people. Bayonetta herself spends time wandering around searching for some mysterious cogs to power a time machine or whatever. It feels weirdly disconnected at times.
I almost think the game’s trademark nuttiness is less impactful because, for one, the bosses are so flavourless. The recurring werewolf boss first appears during another boss fight apropos of nothing. Likewise, the one-note villain Singularity is rendered as a ghostly face for most cutscenes. He doesn’t even care if you kill his “vessels” either, which I think is a legit downer. If the villain doesn’t care about his own defeat, then why should I? The Cardinal Virtue bosses went screaming to their graves in Bayonetta, and yet that same sense of triumph is never felt when beating these empty shells in Bayonetta 3.
It’s a shame because there are glimpses of a better story in there, it’s just most of it rarely finds an emotional register. The finale is uncharacteristically middling as well. The last level isn’t very exciting, taking place in some dingy ruin somewhere, and I don’t think the sentimental beats are well-earned. That’s to say nothing of the controversial twists the denouement puts on Cereza’s character.
Stylistically, Bayonetta 3 does impress. From the animations that bookend combat encounters, to the general way characters move and react when fighting, this is still a game with presence. The new voice of Bayonetta (Jennifer Hale) provides a good Hellena Taylor impression, to the point where most players likely won’t notice the change. The soundtrack also has some nice surprises, including a long overdue bit of Frank Sinatra, and one seriously “ribbeting” opera performance that may even put The Great Mighty Poo to shame!
I just wish Hashimoto’s pledge to switch up the formula had been realised in stronger fashion. For example, having freely adjustable difficulty settings in the campaign is good, but still not being able to restart chapters smoothly certainly isn’t. We desperately need a score attack mode where players can earn their Platinum medals by playing each verse in order, and thus skipping all the travel, cutscenes, and challenge portals, that keep getting in the way. (Bringing back the 2-player mode from Bayonetta 2 wouldn’t hurt either.)
Calling Bayonetta 3 a disappointment may seem harsh, although considering the high bar PlatinumGames set for themselves, as well as the Nintendo Switch failing to support the full extent of their ambition, it does feel as if this highly anticipated trilogy closer deserved better.