Bayonetta 3 is a game of extremes. One moment, it is mind-blowingly awesome as you smoothly fight through hordes of enemies, stopping time with expertly timed dodges and summoning giant monsters to absolutely devastate your foes. In the next, it is rage-inducingly frustrating as the game grinds to a halt mid-climax for a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors or leaves you wandering aimlessly in a small area, demanding you do something specific to progress without properly telling you what to do or how to do it. This is the true Bayonetta 3 experience.
The basic gameplay loop remains largely constant across the game’s 14 chapters. You play as Bayonetta, exploring a parallel world on the verge of collapse and encountering different versions of herself and her friends. In each world, you move between open areas connected by linear corridors filled with baddies. Each open space has several optional objectives: hidden chests and animals to find, challenge rooms to conquer, or jumping puzzles to overcome. You face off against minibosses before fighting the final boss of the world—which inevitably throws the normal gameplay mechanics out the window and replaces them with something like a bullet hell shooter, rhythm game, or the aforementioned game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Bayonetta 3 presents the best combat of the series so far. While you’re now only able to equip one weapon at a time (as opposed to separate ones on your hands and feet), the variety of weapons and expanded move sets quickly make up for it—especially the creative ways Bayonetta merges with her weapons to end combos. Better still, Bayonetta 3 allows the titular heroine to summon any of her giant demons freely (as long as space allows) and control them directly. This completely changes combat and allows for all kinds of new combos. (And it doesn’t hurt that you feel like a badass each time you summon a giant lady to stomp your enemies.)
Unfortunately, it’s outside of the combat that the game suffers. When it comes to jumping puzzles or certain challenge rooms, it feels like you’re fighting the game’s controls more than anything else. And while the sudden changes in gameplay during each world’s climax are supposed to keep things exciting, they often derail the pace of the game—slamming the breaks on the non-stop action while you figure out a whole new system with only an unintuitive controller map as a guide for what you’re supposed to do.
After every few chapters as Bayonetta, you’ll get to play as either Viola or Jeanne. Viola’s chapters are largely the same as Bayonetta’s (though they inexplicably don’t share their HP and MP bars, so you’ll have to level them up separately). However, the big difference comes in how Viola plays. While she has only one set of weapons (her katana and exploding darts), she can summon Cheshire by throwing her sword, a demon who moves independently of Viola. This means that, unlike Bayonetta, who cannot do anything but dance in place when summoning, Viola can continue fighting with fists and feet even if her sword is otherwise occupied. This opens up more than a few creative combos between the pair.
The other significant change in her gameplay is one of those things that’s great in theory but terrible in execution: Viola activates her time-stopping powers (“Witch Time”) not by dodging but rather by blocking. The issue here is that when dodging as Bayonetta, even if you fail to activate Witch Time, you’re still safe from damage and may even be able to avoid another hit in the same combo to activate it. In other words, there’s no downside to mashing the dodge button when in danger.
When blocking as Viola, however, there is a windup (i.e., the time between the button press and the time when damage negation starts) which means you not only have to start blocking earlier than you’d think but if you release the block to try and parry the next hit in a combo to activate Witch Time, you’ll likely be stuck in the windup/winddown animation when the next attack comes. This dramatically alters the flow of combat as you’re stuck in place, blocking until the enemies are done attacking you if you miss the window to activate Witch Time on the first hit—and makes what would be trivial groups of enemies for Bayonetta a deadly challenge for Viola.
On the other hand, Jeanne’s chapters are a 2D Metroid knock-off—and that’s putting it kindly. Rather than running and gunning, these levels are stealth-based—even though a giant countdown timer encourages the opposite of careful, deliberate stealth action. Moreover, while a 2D Bayonetta game could be fun, Jeanne is locked out of the vast majority of her powers, making combat stilted and unenjoyable, especially in boss battles. Like so many things in the game, it is an exciting idea brought down by sub-par execution.
The writing is likewise polarizing. On the one hand, we have Viola. Eager to prove herself and full of teenage bluster, she is an excellent foil for someone like Bayonetta and steals every scene she’s in. Her character manages to walk a fine line: while she could easily be nothing more than an annoying blowhard in the hands of a lesser writer, she instead comes off as a teen desperate to impress her hero. And while more than competent in a fight, Viola doesn’t quite have the over-the-top stylishness that Bayonetta oozes—no matter how much she tries to emulate it. It all comes together to make her the right mix of badass and adorkable. She is, hands down, the best part of this game.
On the other hand, we have the actual story. Don’t get me wrong, while Bayonetta’s plot has never been a literary masterpiece, it has always been competently told with excellent characters that tie everything together. However, it is also here that Bayonetta 3 stumbles. The parallel world-spanning adventure is a solid concept, but how it is handled is utterly predictable. The same plot beats repeat again and again in each world, and the game’s key revelations (like both Viola and Singularity’s identities) are obvious from the start. But the real problem is the game’s final chapter, which manages to undercut Bayonetta 3’s story and everything that came before.