It’s honestly kind of incredible that Bayonetta 3 ever came out. The original Bayonetta was a cult hit of the Xbox 360 era, and nobody at the time really expected a sequel. That was until Nintendo swooped in and helped to finance the production of Bayonetta 2, with the caveat that it was to be a Wii U exclusive. Fast forward to 2017, and Bayonetta 3 was announced at The Game Awards.
Bayonetta is the series that firmly established Platinum Games as the premier action game studio of the current gaming era. This is stunning considering that these games are overtly sexual, burlesque-inspired romps. It’s also stunning given they all task you with ripping holy figures apart with shoes that are also guns. Bayonetta is a series that has built its fandom by constantly throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall, and putting all of it into the game regardless of whether it sticks or not. If you take one thing from our Bayonetta 3 review, it should be that the game proudly continues this tradition for better and for worse.
Let’s Dance, Boys!
If you’ve popped in Bayonetta 3 after playing through Bayonetta 1 or 2, you’ll notice that the third entry in the franchise makes a lot of changes, both big and small, to the Bayonetta combat formula. The biggest change is the so-called “Demon Slave” mechanic, which will feel at least a little bit familiar to people who have played Astral Chain. The gist is that in addition to her normal combos, you can also hold a button to summon a gigantic demon and attack enemies. At first, this drives a wedge into the fluid combat Bayonetta fans love, forcing Bayonetta to stand still and interrupt combos to use these attacks, but I found that after a few hours, I was getting the hang of queuing up summon attacks while still keeping combos active. It’s different, and there is a learning curve. It also means that the previous Bayonetta strategy of whaling on enemies until you rack up enough magic to do a Torture Attack is no longer a valid one, since your magic bar is now used for your demon summons.
Smaller, under-the-hood changes back this up. Torture attacks are much less powerful now, and don’t come with the kind of cinematic focus that they did in previous games. Weapons can no longer be equipped to hands and feet separately, and all come with a different selectable infernal demon to summon, from wall-climbing spiders to a stationary tower of horrors to a train that you literally lay down tracks and signals for, programming its attacks out in advance.
It’s different, and for fans of the franchise, it does take a lot of getting used to. At times it can feel like they just kind of chucked the worst, most awkward parts of Astral Chain into Bayonetta 3. But 5 hours in, when it finally clicks and you’re juggling two combos at once, it’s an exhilarating and satisfying gameplay experience you really can’t get anywhere else.
Missing A Step
The flip side of this is Viola, a new playable character that boasts her own unique fighting style using a katana and darts. I hated playing as Viola.
Bayonetta is a dodge-based character, activating Witch Time through well-timed dodges, and enemies are balanced for that. On the other hand, Viola is a parry-based character who activates Witch Time through blocking at the exact right time, kind of like in a fighting game. It’s understandable that the developers would want to try something new! For me, however, the change from fluid movement to static blocking really interrupted the freeform nature of combat. Bayonetta can dodge, and then seamlessly continue a combo. It doesn’t really work that way for Viola. This is exacerbated by the fact that Platinum also mapped a movement zip to the block button, activated when you double-tap the button. Imagine you get hit with the first hit of a combo, or are stunned and trying to mash to get your block out on the first frame possible. If you mash R, you’ll end up rushing headfirst into an enemy and eating an attack. It just feels awkward and stilted.
While the combat provides some of the highest points the series has ever had to offer, the actual levels fall flat by comparison. The story of Bayonetta 3 spans space and time, and will see you traveling from modern Shibuya to ancient Egypt. The levels are gigantic, a far cry from the narrow streets of Vigrid, and the game really, really wants you to explore every nook and cranny. Each chapter features 3 different familiars to catch, along with a handful of 3d models, concept art packs, soundtrack collectibles, and crafting materials. In order to traverse the landscape, every weapon set also comes with a “demon masquerade” form that gives Bayonetta different movement options, from super jumps to platform creation to Spider-Man-style web-slinging.
This all sounds great on paper, but in practice, the platforming challenges the game asks you to actually do in order to find these unlocks do get frustrating. Movement in masquerade form feels slippery and imprecise, and at odds with what the game actually asks of you. It’s also a bit frustrating to have your movement options tied to your weapons, whereas in previous games, your movement options would stay the same no matter what weapon you choose. This means that later in the game when platforming challenges are more demanding, you have to go through a frustrating process of trial and error to figure out what weapon set the game actually wants you to use. It’s messy, and when you exit a high-intensity battle only to be rewarded with a slow, methodical search for collectibles using questionable platforming controls, it feels like getting stuck in traffic.
A Botched Landing
Hoo boy, here we go. Do we really have to talk about this?
So, first of all, the story of Bayonetta 3 isn’t super engaging, but to be fair, neither was Bayonetta 2’s. It’s hard to top yourself when you literally killed God in the first game. Having said that, Bayonetta 3 seems uninterested in even telling the story it wants to tell. The nutshell version is that in a parallel multiverse, scientists create an AI named Singularity that can learn and upgrade itself. He then becomes a warlord bent on destroying each multiverse (and each multiverse’s Bayonetta) to absorb its power. It’s a rote story, but it’s lacking in even basic details. We never learn anything about the facility that created the AI. The game never tells us more about Singularity’s motivations, and because of that, the stakes seem skewed. We see all of this death and destruction, we see alternate Bayonettas die or sacrifice themselves in really cinematic and cathartic ways, but it never really seems to click. It’s all a bit slapdash.
This slapdash nature extends to the much-maligned ending. I don’t want to spoil things, but what I will say is that while I understand and sympathize with the thoughtful criticism around the ending, it doesn’t really rise to the level of character assassination for me. Bayonetta is still the burlesque-dominatrix-badass we all know and love.
That said, it is disappointing that, after being given countless chances, Bayonetta 3 never really explores its queer themes more fully or overtly. It sucks that these themes still sit barely below the surface, a wink and a nod to the people who Know. It’s frustrating to see the game content with describing Bayonetta and Jeanne as “close friends”.
There’s no right or wrong way to react to this ending. I can’t tell you in this review, without knowing you, whether or not you’ll like it. It’s messy, and a lot of people will hate it. I also don’t think it’s so bad that it ruins the rest of the game in retrospect, though your mileage may vary.
Here’s the thing about Bayonetta 3: it’s incredibly unique in the realm of big-budget games. Playing through the game, I was struck by how often Bayonetta 3 chose to take a big swing at the risk of missing. And there are many, many misses. But it’s refreshing to see a game just kind of go for it this way. There’s a nostalgia in a game that is rough around the edges the way that Bayonetta 3 is, one that reminds me of earlier eras of gaming before the industry was worth billions of dollars.
Bayonetta 3 is a case study in why a game that swings big and misses is often more worthy of your time than a 10/10 game that plays it safe. I just wish it could have stuck the landing, story-wise.
|The Demon Slave mechanic is incredibly engaging and allows for massive creativity||The game hides key tips for how best to use the mechanic in a free-flowing way|
|The locations are more varied and distinctive than any previous game in the series||A focus on exploration breaks game flow, and takes away from the great combat|
|A wide, wide, wide range of weapons and customization options||Viola’s mechanics actively undercut the smooth, free-flowing combat the series is known for|
|The voice cast really does do a great job||The story and ending are passable at best, but will, understandably, rub a lot of fans of the series the wrong way|