A Bayonetta 3 review at this point is largely meaningless. I get that. Those who have been looking forward to this third entry in PlatinumGames’ series since its announcement nearly five years ago surely already have it. If it’s still lingering in your wish list, however, allow me to suggest it’s OK to remove it.
I’m not saying Bayonetta 3 is a bad game. We know from the first two entries in the series that PlatinumGames knows how to deliver action that appeals to players at all skill levels. Want to just randomly mash your way through the story? You can do that. Want to agonize over controls until you’re a fine-tuned annihilation machine? You can do that, too. There are difficulty levels here that allow you to make combat as simple or challenging as you like.
The story only takes around 12 to 15 hours to complete, so you can charge through on easy and never think about it again. Or, you can double (triple?) that time perfecting your combos until you’re kicking ass as if there was a monetary prize for it.
But this is not a great game. As wonderful as the combat is, and as rewarding as map exploration can be, Bayonetta 3 continuously gets in its own way with gameplay mechanics that just aren’t all that fun. And unfortunately, the convoluted story seems more like it’s trying to appeal to MCU fans than gamers; if I hear the word “metaverse” one more time in the next 30 years it’ll be 10 times too many.
Bayonetta 3 opens with Bayonetta dying. So much seeing her as a character of strength. But hey, no worries; there are hundreds of Bayonettas scattered throughout the ether. Let’s go find another! So, we do, with the help of Viola, a rather…well, I guess I won’t say she’s unlikable, but as the parent of three teenagers, I have no patience for whiny characters.
But if her demeanor doesn’t put you off, her combat mechanics may. They vary greatly from Bayonetta’s, and they’re not as fun. Whereas it is easy to pull off Bayonetta’s dodging ability that puts combat into Witch Time for greater damage, Viola requires a perfectly timed parry with her sword. That leaves you in harm’s way and sets you up for damage when you fail to execute. It’s close enough to Bayonetta’s style to just feel wrong and unresponsive.
Even less fun are the daikaiju battles Bayonetta is forced into. Many of the demons she must fight are too large for her to take on in human form, I guess, so she can temporarily summon giant demons of her own to do her dirty work while she dances semi-nude in the foreground.
The camera for these battles remains behind Bayonetta, so the fights are in the distance, making it difficult to see what’s going on. They’re also very cumbersome, going against everything that makes the Bayonetta gameplay so much fun. Worse, Bayonetta can still take damage while she has her demons out, so you spend more time trying to create distance between yourself and the enemies than you spend fighting them. These battles would be fine if they weren’t a major part of the gameplay, but you have to summon these demons so often that the game is simply never able to build up any momentum.
The third deviation from the core gameplay, however, works quite well. Returning character Jeanne gets to star in her own 2D stealth mission levels, and these were much more effective at breaking up the core gameplay with interesting diversions. They were challenging, but fun, and they didn’t outlast their welcome. If the developers had dropped the kaiju and just given us Jeanne’s side missions Bayonetta 3 would’ve provided a much slicker and engaging experience.
Level exploration is also a double-edged sword. PlatinumGames has crafted some wonderful worlds here that are a blast to explore, and they’ve packed them with goodies to uncover as you do so. Unfortunately, many of these goodies can only be obtained by successfully completing timed platforming challenges, and they’re far too difficult to be any fun. Maybe they get easier with abilities acquired on multiple playthroughs, but I’ll never know for sure. You can certainly just skip them, but they reward you with various items and power-ups you really need as you progress. So, if you don’t waste 15, 20 minutes trying to perfectly execute a platform challenge, you’re just making things more difficult for yourself down the road.
“But Kirk,” you chastise, “the challenge is a selling point of a Bayonetta game!” That’s fair, but how about this? Another selling point of a Bayonetta game is her sexiness. Here, she’s just goofy. All of the characters are goofy, and the enemies are uninteresting. Nothing is cool. Maybe the series’ over-the-top take on gaming stereotypes has simply worn thin. I don’t know.
The visuals are fine, and the cinematography and staging of some of the battles are wonderfully bonkers. Combat is snappy as ever when you’re allowed to just be Bayonetta, and she moves throughout the levels with speed and grace. Honestly, each time I hopped into Bayonetta 3 it won me back over within the first 10 minutes or so, but then I’d encounter something too cumbersome or annoying to just let me have fun.
And then you get to the ending, which is almost as controversial as the voice actress flap. I won’t spoil anything for those still trying to reach it, but I will say it’s not great. I have no problem with the decisions the developers made for Bayonetta herself; she’s their creation, and they absolutely can do with her what they want. Modern audiences have largely forgotten the importance of being an audience, and sometimes you just have to leave the theater disappointed in how things ended. But I’d prefer a bad ending over an indecisive one.
What we end up with after five years of anticipation is a game that reminds us of how much fun Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 were, but also of how much better they were. Too much was shoved into this game, seemingly at the expense of Bayonetta herself: combat and character. It’s still PlatinumGames, mind you, and it’s still Bayonetta. There’s fun to be had, there’s just more junk to deal with than I would’ve liked.