I like to think I’m a generous reviewer. If I enjoyed 75 percent of a game, I can forgive the other, crappier, 25 percent. I can’t do that with Bayonetta 3. The game was a thoroughly enjoyable, worthy successor for its first three quarters, only to faceplant so hard in the final fourth that I’m ready to write off the entire game’s existence — a game I had been waiting for with bated breath for years.
I’d been looking forward to this game for so long and, at the beginning, Bayonetta 3 did not disappoint. From the game’s opening moments when Bayonetta, accompanied by her faithful submissive Enzo, crashes a mega-yacht party then surfs on that yacht fighting strange, blue creatures as waves drown New York City, I thought, “yup, this is some Bayonetta bullshit.” And I loved it.
Yup, this is some Bayonetta bullshit.
Bayonetta as a game series is kinda like the later Fast and Furious movies. Number one: family is everything. And number two: there is a basic formula that will, from time to time, be thrown out to do something absolutely wild. Kinda like how Fast and Furious went to space that one time. It doesn’t make sense and it isn’t supposed to. You’re just meant to enjoy it with slack-jawed awe like, “I can’t believe the mad bastards actually did that.”
Like Fast and Furious, Bayonetta 3 is over-the-top camp with no rhyme or reason other than “does this look cool?” It does weird shit like suddenly morph from a combo-focused beat-’em-up to an Ikaruga-style space shooter, or a rhythm game, or 2D fighting game. And because the developers lean into it, never taking things too seriously, it works. There were so many moments in which I was thoroughly delighted by the events unfolding on my tiny Switch screen.
Which brings me to my first problem: Bayonetta 3 is way too pretty to be on the Switch. I’m not much for graphics or technical performance; by and large, those don’t matter to me. But playing Bayonetta 3 was the first time I ever thought, “damn, this would be a whole lot better on something not the Nintendo Switch.” Bayonetta is too pretty, and the things she does with her hair, her fighting, and the demons she summons are all far too complex to be contained to 1080p. Bayonetta is a woman who demands to be seen in all her glory and the Switch doesn’t do her justice.
Which is a shame because in 3 she oozes excellent design. Every time I took a second to examine her outfit — either in the world or with the outfit customization feature, new in Bayonetta 3 — there was something new to find. Bayonetta’s clothes have always been her hair, and this is the first time her design really nails that point home. I was floored to see the twin braids cascade down her shoulders and curl up under her arms to become the fabric of her dress. And the other characters in Bayonetta 3 are equally fun to look at.
Bayonetta is a woman who demands to be seen in all her glory and the Switch doesn’t do her justice.
Newcomer Viola has a rocker-chick persona and style that I really enjoyed, especially in the little idiosyncratic ways they differentiate her from Bayonetta. In the game, combat areas are walled off, and the walls are destroyed when combat is over. Bayonetta, true to her high femme ways, will blow a kiss to shatter the barrier. Viola puts up devil horns. Jeanne, Bayonetta’s long-time friend, is also heavily featured in this game, but I’m a little put off by her design. She’s always been up there with Bayonetta in terms of style, and in some cases, like in Bayonetta 2, even exceeds her. (Sorry, but I never liked Bayo’s darted shoulders and hair cape look.) But Bayonetta 3 had my girl Jeanne looking absolutely busted. It’s like nobody told her we haven’t done long tunics over pants since 2002. There had to be some breakdown in their relationship because there is no way in Inferno or Paradiso that Bayonetta would ever let Jeanne out the house looking like that. Tragic.
Combat in Bayonetta 3 is the same as it was. You can aim for high scores through well-timed button presses, stringing together elaborate combos that would make Dante or Vergil cry in a jealous rage. Or you can do what I do and button-mash your way to low-score, bronze medal success. There is a wide range of weapons that Bayonetta accrues that can make combo’ing a bit easier. They’re all well-designed, fun to look at, and just plain fun. Rather than stick with the standard guns on her hands and feet, I went with the spider yo-yo weapon that fit my desire to fight at a bit of a range so I could have a bit more distance to time my Witch Time dodges just right.
Taking hits felt a bit more punishing this time around. Successive hits seemed to drain Bayonetta’s health faster than I remember, so the slowed-down Witch Time dodging was more crucial than ever to win fights. Even more so when playing as Viola.
Viola was a fun addition to the game. She’s a bit harder to master than other characters, especially when you’re used to combat in Bayonetta being a certain way. Viola’s Witch Time isn’t activated by dodging, it’s from parrying. And though that doesn’t sound like a big distinction, it makes a huge difference in how you fight. As Bayonetta you can dodge willy-nilly around a battlefield, sometimes activating Witch Time for free hits, sometimes not, but being no worse for wear. With parrying as Viola, you stop moving and raise your sword to block an oncoming hit while making yourself vulnerable to hits from the back or sides. Getting Witch Time as Viola wasn’t as predictable or consistent and made her sequences tougher to get through but nevertheless rewarding.
Jeanne’s moments in the game were, outside of a couple of moments with Bayonetta that I won’t spoil, my favorite. Playing as her, the game grinds to a halt, and you shift out of this 3D, over-the-shoulder beat-’em-up into something I can only describe as a Metal Gear Solid-like. You’re in a warehouse, tasked with finding an important scientist. Your traditional health bar is gone, replaced with a handful of hearts that disappear with each hit. The facility is littered with monsters and your only way through is to sneak past them using vents and hiding behind doors, or to take them out from behind with one swift strike — all while a timer counts down, ending the level if you fail to reach the scientist in time. It’s fantastic.
After the news first broke about Platinum Games and Bayonetta’s original voice actress Hellena Taylor, I was concerned about playing a game that brought harm to the person behind a character I so loved. That feeling intensified upon hearing Jennifer Hale as Bayonetta. Let me state that I unequivocally love Jennifer Hale, she is the one and only Commander Shepard among her host of other credits that I love. But it sounds like in Bayonetta 3 she was given instruction to do her best Hellena Taylor impression and it just wasn’t working. It’s not bad by any means, just lesser and you can hear it. Hale, however, did not deserve the backlash she received for taking the role and I’m glad Platinum Games said as much in her defense.
Plot is not Bayonetta 3’s strongest suit. It’s a little incoherent, which is made worse by the fact that time travel and parallel dimensions are involved. Essentially a big bad evil guy wants to either destroy or rule all life (it’s never made clear) by destroying every parallel universe. Viola has come to the main universe to recruit the help of the prime, number one, supreme Bayonetta of all Bayonettas to stop him and the pair work together to find the five Chaos Gears they can use to travel to the Alphaverse and… I’ve lost you, haven’t I? Suffice it to say, Bayonetta has to meet, fight, and ultimately earn the powers of her various alter egos to save the day.
There’s a famous line from Jay-Z’s “Family Feud”, “What’s better than one billionare? Two.” He’s wrong of course, there should be no billionaires, not even Beyoncé, but the plot of Bayonetta 3 made me remember the line because it is essentially, “You know what’s better than one Bayonetta? Several.” The parallel Bayonettas are some of the strongest, most enjoyable parts of the game. Their designs are cool, their weapons and demons are even better, and I love how after each meeting, you can take her outfit along with you. Also, each brief glimpse you get into the lives and motivations of the parallel universe Bayonettas contained more heart and emotion than the overarching story itself. I had the biggest grin traveling to Egypt, France, and China, commanding demon trains, singing frogs, and sinfully sexy spider demons before all that fun screeched to an unceremonious halt.
Nintendo’s lengthy embargo instructions, along with my own respect for spoilers and giving people enough time to play and see for themselves, prevent me from going into detail as to why Bayonetta 3 failed so hard for me in the final moments. Suffice it to say, the ending had me like Marlon Brando, tearfully standing over the body of his son in the first Godfather, “Look how they massacred my Bayo!”
What’s better than one Bayonetta? Several.
The game’s ending is dominated by a bad guy whose motivations and grievances remain unclear before he’s chucked aside for an equally incomprehensible final boss that simultaneously sets up spin-offs while completely undermining a character that I have loved since 2009. There are some incredible leaps of character development that we’re supposed to just take on faith while the game abandons two whole games’ worth of established motivations and relationships all in service to the game’s true villain: compulsory heterosexuality.
When Bayonetta first came out, everything about her — her extreme sexuality, the way she dressed, her exaggerated movements — became this incisive parody about female video game characters. Bayonetta leaned so hard into those old stereotypes of the male-gaze-defined video game heroine that they became her strength. Her sexiness makes her powerful. It’s right there in the text, because the harder she fights, the more naked she becomes. She delighted in this empowerment and so delighted me for a whole decade before the last 30 minutes of Bayonetta 3 erased all of that to fit her into the box she once stomped on in four-inch, gun-strapped heels back in 2009.