Back in 2009, you’d be hard-pressed to think that the ultra-raunchy Bayonetta series would ever have anything to do with the squeaky clean, family-friendly Nintendo. Fast forward to now, and Bayonetta hangs out exclusively with the Nintendo crowd, for the second time in fact. After a long five-year wait following its reveal at the 2017 Game Awards, Bayonetta 3 has finally arrived on the Nintendo Switch, and for the most part, it was worth the wait.
After fighting angels and demons in the past, this time the titular witch takes on a new threat of human bioweapons called Homunculi that threaten not only the universe but countless other realities within the multiverse. Despite a new multiversal scope, the core Bayonetta gameplay remains largely the same. The main star of the show is the game’s intricately designed combat system, which manages to strike an excellent balance between spectacle and technical depth. There’s never one best approach to any scenario, allowing you to improvise with the different weapons and combos you’ll learn throughout the game. Mechanics like Bayonetta’s last-second dodge – which the game calls Witch Time – add a strong sense of risk versus reward to combat encounters.
It’s the type of system that can feel accessible for most players, but still allows a lot of depth for those looking to push it to its limit. You’ll be rewarded with a medal at the end of each fight, ranging from stone up to platinum, based on your combo, completion time and damage taken. You’ll more than likely find yourself raking in a bunch of the middling medals on your first playthrough, but chasing down those higher ranks is something you shouldn’t worry about until repeat playthroughs when you’ve got a bit more experience under your belt. It might run the risk of demotivating some players, but it injects the game with a healthy dose of replayability at the same time.
Unfortunately, things can get a little hampered when the game starts leaning too heavily into spectacle. It has a fairly annoying habit of pitting you against giant enemies with overly large health bars, and they can quickly become obtuse instead of challenging or engaging.
Most of the new additions to the core gameplay fare quite a bit better, however. The new Demon Slave technique allows Bayonetta to summon demons mid-battle and use their gargantuan strength for herself – or, to summon them at the end of a combo to deal massive additional damage. The whole system feels very inspired by the Legions from PlatinumGames’s other Switch title, Astral Chain. Similarly, the new Demon Masquerade ability allows Bayonetta to merge with the different demons she’ll work alongside throughout the campaign, giving her access to new navigational abilities, such as sprouting butterfly wings and flying through the air.
Bayonetta 3’s focus on more varied movement abilities complements a new, more open focus compared to its predecessors. The game still unfolds in a linear, level-based fashion, but the individual levels themselves contain more open sections for you to experiment with your movesets and find hidden collectibles. It’s nowhere near as crucial to the overall experience as the combat, but it’s an interesting and mostly welcomed evolution.
The biggest addition to Bayonetta 3 comes in the form of a new playable character, Viola. Hailing from an alternate reality destroyed by the Homunculi, Viola arrives to warn Bayonetta of the incoming threat. Compared to Bayonetta’s more overconfident and mature personality, Viola embodies a more energetic, brash energy, drawing heavily from a punk rock aesthetic. This energy is mirrored in her combat style which feels decidedly more scrappy and close quarters than Bayonetta’s. It can be a bit disorientating switching between the two characters as the game decides who you play as in each chapter, but after adjusting to the change, fighting as Viola ended up feeling extremely satisfying. She might have fewer options than Bayonetta, but given that Bayonetta is the star of the show this doesn’t feel overly egregious.
Other than Viola, you’ll find yourself playing as Bayonetta’s greatest equal, the Umbran Witch Jeanne. Unlike Bayonetta and Viola’s action-focused gameplay, Jeanne stars in her own side-scrolling stealth-based levels. Sadly, with its fairly half-baked mechanics, Jeanne’s levels struggle to really feel like much more than a small distraction. There are only four throughout the whole game so they hardly make a dent in the overall experience, but they were really something I was looking forward to nonetheless.
Unfortunately, Bayonetta 3’s penchant for spectacle has a nasty habit of showing up at the worst of times. You’ll be constantly thrown into gargantuan set pieces that may look cool, but more often than not feel sluggish and slow to play. The infuriating thing is that although Bayonetta 3’s core gameplay feels incredibly satisfying to play, the game just has an annoying habit of forcing you away from it. It’s a game that undeniably has a lot of ideas, but that doesn’t mean they’re all as strong as each other. If you don’t find yourself super attached to one style of gameplay over another this might not be an issue, but if you’re engaged with the core combat it can get pretty annoying to be yanked away from it, or pitted against obtuse enemies that trivialise its systems.
The whole multiverse concept can also feel largely the same. At first, exploring vast new areas from modern Shibuya to imperial China is a fun novelty, but it gets pretty messy pretty quickly. You’ll visit a few different realities over the course of the game, but none of them really get enough time to feel like their own distinct thing. Similarly, it’s fun to meet alternate Bayonettas from each reality, but it quickly becomes repetitive as you realise that each one essentially just shows up for a few scenes before being unceremoniously taken out of the plot. It can be pretty frustrating seeing the game present so many interesting ideas, but just not having the commitment to follow them through.
After my time with Bayonetta 3 I honestly just ended up feeling a little conflicted. The parts of it that work well, work really well. It’s just unfortunate that the game has a nasty habit of getting extremely distracted, and pulling you away from what should be the star of the show. Realistically, all of its distractions don’t amount to a large fraction of the whole game, but the feeling of whiplash is one that was hard to ignore regardless. It’s still a game that I loved to play, it’s just a shame that it faltered a bit along the way.
While its less-than-focused design can leave the overall experience feeling a bit distracted, Bayonetta 3’s high points are still undeniably very high. You might have to sift through some overly self-indulgent spectacle to get to them, but overall it feels worth it.
Ethan reviewed Bayonetta 3 using a Nintendo Switch copy purchased at retail.