James Stephanie Sterling
Bayonetta 3 - A Nier Fall (Review)
Bayonetta 3 Released: October 28, 2022 Developer: Platinum Games Publisher: Nintendo Systems: Switch
Bayonetta 3 is pretty damn good… when it’s Bayonetta. When it’s one of the half dozen other games it likes to be, things go off the rails, and not in the delightfully anarchic way this series usually goes.
Lying at its foundation is the classic delicious absurdity that personifies a Bayonetta experience. It’s got everything you want - fast paced and visually dazzling battles against weird monsters using an array of increasingly wacky weapons. Like its predecessors, Bayonetta 3 is one of those games where I can never remember all the abundant button combos, but it doesn’t matter because whatever I string together will lead to my favorite hairy witch doing something cool.
As is typical of almost any Platinum Games production, battles are a matter of timing dodges and rattling off as much offense as you can when time slows down. It’s a proven system, one that exasperates a player when failed, but utterly satisfies if pulled off successfully. Once again, you'll be ranked after every encounter, which is a great way to make me... I mean... other people feel terrible about their performance.
The variety of weapons found this time around is, quite frankly, beyond belief. While you start with Bayonetta’s signature quartet of guns, practically every traditional chapter offers a new toy to play with. The flaming yo-yo that turns Bayo into a freaky spider is one of the more conservative options, at least more grounded than a handheld train that doubles as a chainsaw. A trainsaw, if you will.
Each weapon offers a physical transformation that occurs when sprinting and during certain combo attacks - yes, the trainsaw will turn you into a half-locomotive hybrid in case you were wondering. You can also fight with a microphone that turns you into a fish woman, or a miniature segmented clock tower that'll make you a steampunk marionette. These are great sentences.
I’m not sure if there’s a single weapon beyond the starter that isn’t wonderfully inventive.
Backing up this assortment of armaments is a menagerie of demons you can summon at almost any time and manually control. This leaves Bayonetta vulnerable while she does sexy dancing (of course), and summoning depletes a magic meter, but each monster - ranging from a butterfly woman to a giant frog to a full on devil train - can deal huge damage and offers its own suite of unique attacks with an upgradeable moveset.
Now, I’ve never been one to even try and follow Bayonetta’s narrative nonsense, preferring to let its story of demons, angels, witches, and warped realites prattle on without my ADHD-addled brain absorbing it. It has to be said that, despite a premise revolving around an entire multiverse of different Bayonettas, this is the first installment of the series that said brain would actually engage with - its got a shockingly straightforward plot, as an entity known as Singularity attempts to destroy all realities but its own and is killing off alternate Bayonettas in the process.
There’s a lot of potential fun to be had with such a concept, and Bayonetta 3 sadly doesn’t do a great deal to realize that. While we meet other Bayonettas during the “Arch” Bayo’s adventure, their appearances are fleeting and the differences between them are largely cosmetic. This is fine, but it does feel like a missed opportunity to indulge in all-new portrayals of familiar characters and explore far more interesting worlds than the few cities and deserts Bayo ends up in.
Some have accused the narrative - and by extension the series overall - of queerbaiting. Basically, this game features some heteronormative plot threads in places where people expected Bayonetta to be rather less straight. I can't say I personally feel the same way, as I never read too much into her sexuality in previous games and frankly never expected anything too outstanding from a character explicitly designed to appeal to the director's dick. In any case, there's a miniature bit of discourse brewing on the matter, and for my two cents as a queer person, I just wasn't invested enough to feel curveballed. This could, however, be due to my general patchy track record of picking up subtext.
Anyway, the games got loads of butt and boob shots in it. Because it's Bayonetta.
While the backbone of Bayonetta 3 offers a ton of wacky fun, it suffers from constant diversion, regularly making players engage with content that is honestly crap. In doing so, it undermines its own pacing, making for a disjointed campaign that often drains my patience.
I mean, it’s simply bad direction to give the main character an exciting new weapon, then immediately have not one but two levels in a row where you’re not the main character. This happens multiple times, too. I’ll get something cool to play with, then find myself doing anything other than use it because the game wanted to do something else for a bit. At least, unless I want to replay a previous level or load up a training room, but that just stifles the campaign’s flow in an entirely different way.
Perhaps the sting would not be felt so keenly if all these diversions were actually good, but they’re distinctly garbage. The main offender is a bunch of side-scrolling stealth sections where you play as Jeanne - they’re incredibly dull, featuring monotonous level layouts and poor controls. Their inclusion is wholly unnecessary, not entertaining in the least, and criminally frequent.
Similarly, chapters where you play as the katana-wielding Viola are a real drag too. With her comparitively mundane weapon and a single demon that controls itself, plus the sudden shift to relying on blocking instead of dodging to trigger Witch Time, Viola plays like a significantly more boring Bayonetta. I’ll admit that Viola’s summon, Cheshire, is the epitome of “ugly cute”, but it’s not enough to stop me wishing I was Bayonetta again.
However, the titular protagonist's own sections aren’t free from extraneous guff, much of it involving her demonic pals. There are several sections where you ride one of the summons and they’re an audiovisual nightmare, a mess of high speed chaos full of blinding effects, scattering debris, and a camera that can barely focus. This is at least more exciting than the painfully slow moving kaiju battles that take on the appearance of a fighting game and feature one-button attacks animated at a snail’s pace.
It comes across like a poor impersonation of Nier, a series well known for genre-bending and pulling the interactive rug from under players. Where those games succeed, however, Bayonetta 3 routinely stumbles. None of what it offers outside of its foundation is very good at all, but it insists on offering so bloody much of the stuff. If you’re going to start being a shoot ‘em up or shoehorn in a Battletoads-style biking sequence, the least you could do is make sure it’s not thoroughly pedestrian.
Other breaks from the flow are more optional in nature, but will be required engagement if you want to collect valuable resources such as health and magic increases. From terrible platforming sections in a game not designed around platforming, to a series of “challenge” maps that are far more uninspired and frustrating than those found in prior games, Bayonetta 3 loves to scatter a handful of undercooked tasks off the beaten track and they become so increasingly annoying that by the end of it I started to ignore them, rewards be damned. I just wanted to get back to the actual videogame.
The worst part of this complete inconsistency is that it made me care less about the thing when it was good. With my fondness for Bayonetta 3 reducing each time I had to do something insipid and irritating, I grew less and less willing to engage with it at all. By the time I reached the final fight - which already suffered from being long winded and featured a deflating number of climaxes and anticlimaxes - I was ready for the thing to be over so I could move on with my life.
That sucks, because Bayonetta 3 is fucking fun, it really is. I can’t emphasize enough how wondrous it is to play with such an array of eccentric weapons, and the crux of Platinum’s combat system feels as exquisitely responsive as ever… certainly a return to form after the embarrassing Babylon’s Fall (R.I.P). I mean, for God’s sake, you can have a chainsaw train that turns you into a train person while summoning a fucking demon train! That is videogames, my friends. That is pure videogames right there.
If I’m to add one other thing that lets Bayonetta 3 down, it’s the enemies. While Singularity is a great antagonist with all its smug preening and genuine assholishness, its “Homunculi” army is a far cry from the series’ usual bestiary of angelic monstrosities. The Homunculi are little more than shells inhabited by glorified jelly, with huge boss monsters managing to be so overly detailed and yet so paradoxically vague that they remind me of a Michael Bay Transformer. The few optional encounters against angelic enemies are a stark contrast with their ornate forms and creepily cherubic veneers.
That said, in terms of character aesthetic I think this is my favorite of the three Bayonettas we’ve spent our time with. Her costume is fantastic and I’m pretty damn jealous of this woman's hair. The alternate universe Bayonettas are really nicely put together as well, each one looking distinct and evocative in their own way. Controversies about former voice actors aside, Jennifer Hale does a decent enough job taking on the starring role, and she’s backed up by a wonderful soundtrack that’s as camp and extravagant as anything in the series to date.
Bayonetta 3 is a good time when it allows itself to be. It consists of an excellent core experience buried under superfluous bilge, an otherwise quality experience interrupting itself to such a degree as to drag down the entire experience. The high notes are high enough to ensure a genuinely quality game, but the incessant sidetracking into mediocre stealth gameplay, mundane alternate characters, and half a dozen other deviations holds it back from being truly great. Thank god for trainsaws and spider women though, because they do a heck of a lot to keep this game entertaining.