Bayonetta 3: Bayonetta and the Multiverse of Madness? Not quite, but it may as well be at times.
Who is the coolest character in Bayonetta 3? There are many candidates. There is Bayonetta, naturally, a witch with homicidal hair who sports a pair of stilettos fashioned from handguns. Not bad. Then, of course, we have Bayonetta, who prefers hot pants, kneepads, a denim jacket, and four bladed yo-yos – one strapped to each limb. There is also Bayonetta, whom we find in a desert, robed in white, trimmed with gold, and troubled by the notion of conflict. But she isn’t that great. Personally, I would nominate Bayonetta, who wages war in ancient China; she does this by running people over with a demonic train, called the Dead End Express. Are you keeping track?
Bayonetta 3, if you didn’t know, is set in a multiverse. That fractious narrative framework, prized especially by superheroes, has grown popular recently; it speaks, I guess, to our Plath-like appetite for regret, our thirst to know What If?, and our hunger to have it all. As such, it has a habit of slipping into the frenzied and the cracked. Hence the sight of Bayonetta (one of them, at least), the pale skin of her face crazed like an eggshell, with a crimson glow beneath. It may be the signature image of the game: she is just as devilled, scrambled, and fried as the narrative, and yet it coheres with her, even as it flies apart.
What has bound the Bayonetta games since their inception, in 2009, is combat. Despite the plots and the haircuts, both of which have been given to chop and change, the abilities of our heroine have remained intact. The new game sees her, once again, summoning monsters to savage her foes. She shoots, she kicks, and she kills as she always has. Most heartening, she still cartwheels free of harm and activates Witch Time, plunging the world into a void of purple and letting you wail on your enemies as they flounder in gloopy slow motion. It is difficult to undersell the joy of Witch Time (a phrase that would serve as a decent tag line, title, and product description for the series as a whole). Like Active Reload, from Gears of War, it is a perfect mechanic: simple, laced with difficulty, wed sublimely to the ideas of the day, and all about time – the way a fleeting moment can stretch into a mini-eternity when we’re mired in play.
Along with these cheering constants is a couple of new tricks. In an insectoid flourish, Bayonetta can now hover above the ground, like the buzzing star of Kameo: Elements of Power. Plus, she can now not only summon demons, weaving her tresses into mountains of well-conditioned malice, but she can actually pilot the things as well, laying waste to her adversaries and generally having a good time. At one point, she embodies the form of Gomorrah, a dark lump of Godzilla-shaped fun, and romps around downtown Tokyo. Why not?
The series has always revelled in this spirited too-muchness, and the director here, Yusuke Miyata, along with art director Yuki Suda, keeps the tradition alive. Watch as Bayonetta is whisked, in a blink, from a dripping cave to a subway car in Shibuya and then, minutes later, chases a flying whale along a motorway, which curls up into the heavens. Where Bayonetta 3 stumbles is in the crowding of its plot. Along with all manner of duplicate Bayonettas, we also have Luka, who is roughly as interesting as granite, and the charmless Viola. Or, as she introduces herself, “V-I-O-L-fucking A Viola!” She wears a leather jacket and fingerless gloves, a samurai sword on her back, and lipstick as numbingly blue as her language. She is a witch-in-training, or something, and we play as her in passages of pared-down action.
As for the baddies, they are a watery horde – staffed by the dull likes of floccus, a “Heavy Humanoid Combat Unit” – and headed up by the flying whale, who is called Singularity, and who enters our world amid a tsunami not unlike the one at the start of Final Fantasy X. In other words, he is as boring as Sin. Bayonetta, of course, is wise to all this. On meeting the new villain, she says that she is “Not in the mood for cheap science fiction.” It’s a good line, but the truth is that cheap science fiction is exactly what she has always needed. She has never been faced with a truly interesting opponent, nor does she need one; all she needs is a frothing tide of ghouls to lift her, like a surfer, into a realm of lofty performance.
That is why the company that surrounds her seems so flat; the only person who could match her, or even reach her, is Dante, from Devil May Cry. He clomped around a castle slaying demons, and, like Bayonetta, he did so in style: with a pair of handguns, a sword, and a long coat the colour of blood. (Though, it must be said, her footwear was always of a higher calibre.) Both series were created by Hideki Kamiya, and Bayonetta 3, for which he is credited as both story writer and supervising director, is haunted by the multiverse of his work. Check out Phantasmaraneae, an enormous molten arachnid, and a dead ringer for the one that was carved up by Dante all those years ago. We also learn of the Homunculi, an army of “man-made bioweapons,” and it’s impossible to hear that phrase and not think of Resident Evil. And what is Viola, with her sword, her coat, and her chalky coiffure, if not a nod to the annoying Nero, from Devil May Cry 4?
And yet, Bayonetta 3 doesn’t sag into self-indulgence. For one thing, it has too many selves to indulge, and for another it’s way too busy indulging in other games. One moment you’re a giant spider swinging on a silky thread, as Shibuya does a low-poly impression of the New York in Marvel’s Spider-Man; the next you’re Viola, staggering through a desert like Nathan Drake, in that parched and blazing segment of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. But strangely enough, what lingers, when all is said and done, is a faint sense of the wistful and the relieved.
These aren’t so much mindless homages as hosannas to the miracle of any game that manages to get made. After all, Devil May Cry sprang from Kamiya’s failed attempt at making Resident Evil 4; and it was only by the grace of a needy Nintendo, five years on from the first Bayonetta, that we ever got a sequel. Bayonetta 3 is glad to exist and is all too aware of those universes, not too tough to glimpse, in which it never existed at all.
Game: Bayonetta 3
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: October 28, 2022