Bayonetta 3 has been one of my most anticipated games since it was announced almost 5 years ago. I've played both of the previous games and all 4 Devil May Cry games in preparation. I've been ready. In short, my expectations were pretty high. I wanted something that would surpass Bayonetta 2 and Devil May Cry 5 in terms of gameplay. I was also hoping that the game could maintain a smooth 60 FPS after 5 years in development for a system that both Platinum and Nintendo have plenty of experience working on. I don't think any of those dreams came true, though.
The big new thing in Bayonetta 3 is the Demon Slave mechanic. Bayonetta has always been able to summon demons for special attacks, but now you can summon them at will and directly control them. While holding ZR (default controls), Bayonetta will do a little dance as you take control of a summoned demon. The demons are very slow, have long drawn out animations, and you can't control Bayonetta while they're out, so you'll be vulnerable to attacks, but they're very powerful and do a lot of damage. This mechanic is actually required to do damage sometimes, so you can't just ignore it if you don't like it. There is an accessory that lets you control Bayonetta while summoning a demon, but then the AI will control the demon and it won't do what you want. You'll also still have to hold down ZR, so you'll need 3 fingers on the shoulder buttons to also use the dodge and stance buttons while fighting as Bayonetta. Demons can also be used for some light puzzle solving a few times throughout the game. It's not quite Zelda, or even DMC, levels of puzzles, though. They don't slow the action down too much.
I'm not a big fan of the Demon Slaves. Sure, it's flashy, but controlling the demons isn't fun. They are slow, clunky, unresponsive, and come along with a number of camera issues, like blocking your view of the action with their huge bodies. This is one mechanic too many. I think it makes combat worse, especially during boss fights, which sometimes require you to do something specific with a demon. It takes the focus away from Bayonetta, who is actually fun to play. I also hate having to use my middle finger to hold the button down. Why isn't this a toggle? The whole thing feels like something they only did because it looks cool. It doesn't ruin the game, but it does make it less fun to play than the previous ones. Keeping it simple would've been better.
The actual combat in Bayonetta 3 might actually be the best in the series. There's so many ways to attack and zip around all over the place. It's very easy to do moves, and I always feel like I have an answer for every enemy. It's just too bad that often the answer is to just summon a demon.
A big part of what makes combat so fun is the wide variety of weapons. Every weapon you get in Bayonetta 3 is some crazy off the wall thing. There's a yoyo, a train, a microphone stand, a magician's top hat and wand, and all kinds of stuff. I don't like all of them, but there's something here for everyone. Sadly, the only returning weapons are the guns. I miss the swords from the other games. I was also kind of sad to see that you can't put different weapons on your hands and feet anymore. The new weapon's flair and creativity almost makeup for that, though.
Another thing I really like about this game is the freedom it gives you to customize your characters whenever you want. You can go into the menu and equip different weapons, accessories, and even learn new moves right in the middle of combat. You don't have to buy moves from Rodin anymore. He mostly sells cosmetics now. Every weapon has a talent tree now, so that's where you go to learn new moves. It's more like a mobile version of Rodin's store than an RPG talent tree. You can also change costumes and equip different demons from the menu.
The other major addition to the game is the new playable character, Viola, who you can play as in a handful of levels. This isn't like DMC5, where you're constantly switching characters. Viola is a young Umbra Witch, like Bayonetta and Jeanne, but with more of a Punk Rock Ninja style and nowhere near the elegance and grace. Her gameplay is a lot more grounded and realistic. She looks kind of clumsy compared to Bayonetta. She reminds me of a Devil May Cry character. Her gameplay even seems to be borrowing from DMC and Ninja Gaiden. Viola exclusively uses a 2-handed katana, she has a grappling hook for swinging around, and she activates Witch Time by blocking at the last second instead of dodging. She has a dodge, but it isn't very useful. Viola also has the demon slave ability, but she only has one demon, Cheshire, a huge Alice in Wonderland inspired cat. Unlike Bayonetta; however, Viola can't take direct control of Cheshire, so she can still attack during summons, but you still have to hold the shoulder button down.
Playing as Viola is a lot of fun. I wouldn't mind a whole game where you only play as her. This isn’t that game, though. She's a secondary character in Bayonetta's game and she plays very differently from her. That’s kind of an issue. Since her Witch Time is on block and not on dodge, her buttons feel like they’re flipped, even though they’re the same as Bayonetta’s. You can put block on ZR with one of the button presets, but then you’re putting your stance button on ZR because they’re both on the same button. The stance button is the same as the lock-on in Bayonetta 1 and 2, except it doesn't lock-on here, it just keeps you facing a certain way so you can do directional inputs. There is no button configuration that doesn’t make switching between Viola and Bayonetta not feel awkward every time. It’s not a game breaking issue, but it’s dumb that it even is an issue because this could have easily been fixed if the game allowed you to fully customize your controls.
One thing that really sticks out about this game is the size of the levels. They’re huge! They’re not just long, they’re also full of areas hidden behind buildings and down branching paths. I really wasn’t expecting so much exploration in a Bayonetta game. Rumors say the game was more Mario 64-like in structure at one point, which makes a lot of sense. There’s always some collectable or bonus area to find, so your exploration is rewarded. Levels aren’t just big for the sake of being big. They even put a waypoint button on L3, so you’re not going to get lost.
They really went all out with the minigames in this one. It’s not just a Space Harrier level. There’s Panzer Dragoon-like on-rails shooting, a 2D shoot ‘em up, Kaiju battles, and Jeanne’s levels, which are based on games like Elevator Action 2 and Rolling Thunder. There’s 4 Jeanne levels, which I feel is too many, but they’re not super hard or complicated, so I didn’t have too much of a problem with them. I just don’t think they needed to do 4 of them. There’s even more of them available after beating the game, along with a sort of Witch Trials survival mode in which you can play as all 3 characters.
If you said this looks like a PS360 era game, you wouldn’t be far off. There’s probably some textures and effects that couldn’t be done on Wii U, but aside from those, this game doesn’t look any better than Bayonetta 1 and 2. The framerate is just as inconsistent as in those games on Nintendo systems, too. The game aims for 60, but it’s usually hovering somewhere around 45-55 and sometimes drops into the 30s. It’s usually fine, but it does get visibly choppy in a few areas.
The soundtrack is absolutely amazing. It doesn't have a classy Frank Sinatra cover as its main theme, but it's still great. There's punk, disco, metal, opera, some Castlevania-ish classical, and there's some jazzy big band stuff in there, too. It's definitely the best part of the game's presentation.
Don't get me wrong, Bayonetta 3 is a good action game, and I had a good time with it, but I don’t think it’s as good as the first two, or DMC5 for that matter. The melee combat is better than ever, but there’s way too much focus on the demon slave mechanic, which just sucks in every way. I really like playing as Viola, but switching between her and Bayonetta never stops feeling awkward because they are so different and the lack of fully customizable controls. This game just feels like it was designed by a very stubborn person.