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Bayonetta touches a gloved hand to the right side of her glasses in a close-up image of her face from Bayonetta 3

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Bayonetta 3 broke my heart

PlatinumGames nails the combat and fails its heroine

Image: PlatinumGames/Nintendo

It’s hard to review a video game where you hated the ending, because of course, you can’t cover that in the review. It’s also hard to review a video game when it’s the third entry in a series of which you’re a super fan, to the point that it feels almost like a personal insult when the ending doesn’t line up with where you wanted the series to go. Unfortunately, that is the exact situation I face in reviewing Bayonetta 3.

PlatinumGames’ newest entry in the Bayonetta story opens with a monologue, but it’s not from Bayonetta. Instead, the first voice we hear is a brand-new character named Viola; she’s a teenage, punk rock witch in training who serves as the secondary protagonist. This story may appear to be about women, since you only play as Bayonetta, Viola, and (briefly) Jeanne, but this opening monologue is all about Viola’s father — an important piece of foreshadowing, because the patriarchy ends up playing a significant role this time around.

When Viola was a kid, her dad told her about the multiverse, leaving her with this haunting thought: “I’d always believed there was only one truth. But — what if some other version of me, on a distant world, was searching for all possibilities? And what if, when all the possibilities were overlaid, the path that stood out the clearest was the real truth?”

At this point, if you’re brand new to all things Bayonetta, you might be worried that Viola’s monologue is referring to the prior two games, which have deeply confusing lore. Guess what? None of that lore is relevant to Bayonetta 3. That’s because this game has entirely new confusing lore.

Viola, a witch in training who makes her first appearance in Bayonetta 3, faces the camera for a close-up shot that shows off her colorful blue lipstick, pink and blue eye makeup, and short blond haircut with purple streaks Image: PlatinumGames/Nintendo

As Viola delivers this opening monologue, a scene plays out that depicts the shocking death of Bayonetta. Viola screams in horror, then uses a magical necklace to transport herself to another corner of the multiverse — another time and place, where our heroine Bayonetta and her pals are still alive, still kicking butt, and still capable of saving the day. Or so Viola hopes, since she wants nothing more than to prevent Bayonetta’s demise.

Like Viola at the game’s outset, I found myself haunted by the implications of the multiverse — the idea that, with all these different versions of Bayonetta overlaid on top of each other, the truth about her would finally become clear. The end of the game hammered that truth home, and it was ugly: Turns out, the fantasy of Bayonetta was never meant for me. Instead, Bayonetta’s true destiny is not a female power fantasy at all.

Since the review embargo prevents me from going into detail, I’ll instead describe what I loved about Bayonetta in the first two games, in hopes that a clever reader will understand what may or may not happen in Bayonetta 3. In the first two games, Bayonetta has no romantic arc or relationship, and since she’s presented as a dominatrix, the extent of her sexual expression is oriented around self-pleasure. I always liked the idea of Bayonetta as eternally single, although my runner-up choice for her one true love would be Jeanne — plus, official game art and social media posts from the games’ creators have suggested that Bayonetta and Jeanne are in a queer relationship. In any case, the Bayonetta I know and love doesn’t tie herself down to a man, and she certainly wouldn’t need to be rescued by one.

Unfortunately, Bayonetta 3 ensures that one of the few female characters in a mainstream game who owns her sexuality must pay some sort of tax for the privilege. Meanwhile, Viola — who’s dressed in a far less feminine outfit and who doesn’t get ogled by the game’s camera during cutscenes — serves as a more PR-friendly Strong Female Character to slap on a video game box. Perhaps Bayonetta was simply too complicated, too sexual, too brazen. She had to get cut down to size.

As a gray, overcast city falls to ruin in the background, Bayonetta reaches out to touch a cloud of red sparkles on the wind in Bayonetta 3 Image: PlatinumGames/Nintendo

Luckily, I found plenty to enjoy before the game’s closing cinematic twisted a knife in my heart. Jennifer Hale’s take on the character, controversial as it may be, struck my ears as a perfectly serviceable echo of Hellena Taylor’s initial two performances. The game’s strongest element is the lightning precision of its combo-heavy combat, bolstered by power-ups and healing lollipops from the in-game shop. Bayonetta 3 introduces a whole new facet to combat that makes it significantly easier and more varied: Bayonetta can now summon a host of massive demonic entities to smack around her enemies. (Don’t miss the skill trees for these demons and the themed weapons that come with each one; the leveling-up process is buried in submenus.)

Bayonetta 3 also occasionally puts you in the shoes of Viola, who wields a katana and shares Bayonetta’s Witch Time slo-mo ability, although Viola triggers it through parries rather than dodges. I never felt quite as comfortable or powerful when playing as Viola as I did Bayonetta, but that seemed on brand for the witch in training who lacks the confidence and power of her foremothers Bayonetta and Jeanne. I loved her slapstick comedy bits and her tendency to lightly slap herself in the face when willing herself to concentrate.

Then there’s Jeanne, who’s playable in a series of 2D stealth missions that feel unlike anything else in the game — almost like Mark of the Ninja or Invisible, Inc., albeit much simpler. I prefer pummeling my enemies rather than sneaking up on them (Jeanne does have the ability to take down her foes the old-fashioned way), but I also found it surprisingly fun to attempt some patient sneaking. These missions also provided a nice break for my hand muscles, given the combat-heavy nature of the rest of the game.

Meeting versions of Bayonetta from other parts of the multiverse didn’t make much sense, but it did prove to be entertaining as hell. They didn’t come across as interdimensional beings so much as just Bayonettas from around the world; there was an ancient Egyptian Bayonetta, who’s dressed like a witchy version of Cleopatra, and then there was an 1800s French cabaret Bayonetta, who’s dressed for a performance at the Moulin Rouge. As for why each of these other Bayonettas (as well as Jeannes, Enzos, and so on) hailed from these particular locations and time periods, who knows? And who cares? It was just plain fun to meet them all and see the goofy variations on their personalities and power sets, even though I could have done without hearing all of the voice actors’ abysmal French accents.

The version of Bayonetta from our universe (foreground, wearing all black) chats with a Bayonetta from another universe (facing the camera, wearing an imperial Chinese-inspired red and gold costume) Image: PlatinumGames/Nintendo
A Bayonetta from another universe (left), wearing an ancient Egyptian-inspired white gown and gold jewelry, stands next to our universe’s Bayonetta (right), wearing all black Image: PlatinumGames/Nintendo
A screenshot from Bayonetta 3 depicting a Bayonetta from another universe who has pale pink hair and is wearing a leather vest with a white puffy jacket Image: PlatinumGames/Nintendo
A French-speaking Bayonetta from another universe (left) clad in a blue top hat and jacket faces off against our universe’s Bayonetta (right) clad in black Image: PlatinumGames/Nintendo

Between Bayonetta, Viola, and Jeanne, Bayonetta 3 is a well-rounded beatdown with a diverse range of combat styles and plenty of ways to mix up how you play, ensuring that you’ll never get bored. Just like Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2, the game scores player performance at the end of each level, encouraging you to replay every mission until you get the coveted Platinum ranking.

So then why, upon completing this game, did I immediately uninstall it?

Well, reader, as I’ve said before, I can’t reveal all the details of why. All I can do is tell you how much Bayonetta has meant to me over the years, particularly when I first started out as a games critic back in 2007 — one of the few women in the field at the time. When I first saw ads for Bayonetta back then, I assumed she’d be just another sexpot designed with straight male gamers in mind — like Lara Croft, or Samus Aran in a bikini that gets smaller and smaller depending on the player’s efficiency and skill. These were female characters that I related to despite the fact that their bodies were presented as sexualized rewards. And in the first Bayonetta, too, I noticed the way the camera panned lovingly over the heroine’s breasts and butt during cutscenes, assuming you were there purely to lust after her rather than to imagine yourself wearing those high-heeled gun stilettos yourself.

And yet Bayonetta — much like Lara Croft and Samus Aran before her — got reclaimed and reinterpreted by many, including yours truly, as an empowering fantasy. In Bayonetta’s case, the fantasy also involved in-your-face femininity plus dominatrix trappings; as the witch dodged her foes, she’d condescendingly croon, “So close!” Her powers were undeniably, unavoidably sexual; her skintight black suit is actually made out of her own hair, which she can fashion into fists that beat back her enemies, leaving her body naked in the process. The stronger the attack, the more naked she becomes.

Bayonetta disrobes as part of her summoning ritual for massive demonic entities like Madama Butterfly, pictured at left fighting against one of the homunculi enemies in Bayonetta 3 Image: PlatinumGames/Nintendo

Could something like that ever be empowering, critics wondered? Was this not the ultimate expression of straight male desire and the sexual objectification of women? At the time, I countered that Bayonetta had also fulfilled a fantasy for those players who craved the chance to inhabit an unapologetically feminine protagonist. The ponytail, the lollipops, the lipstick, and the stilettos were worlds away from the gruff Marcus Fenixes and Master Chiefs of the era, and the further decision to make Bayonetta a dominatrix added a new layer to the fetishization in play here. Sure, this witch was somebody’s fantasy, but she was not exactly a normative one.

I also loved how, even though Bayonetta made a deal with the literal devil in order to get her witch powers, eternal damnation never seemed like the end of her road. That’s because even though Bayonetta’s mom was also a witch, her dad was a Lumen Sage — meaning he works for the heavenly powers that be, not the demons down below (Bayonetta’s parents had a Romeo and Juliet situation going on). Since witches are a symbol of feminine power, Bayonetta’s joy in the face of her future damnation always felt like a triumph — a rebellion.

And yet I understood, all that time, why some of my friends didn’t vibe with Bayonetta — yes, even my queer and female friends. There was just something that seemed... off. Something deep down that suggested that this heroine wasn’t meant for us. That’s because it turns out that Bayonetta was made with Luka in mind.

Luka, wearing a brown fedora, fur coat, and brown leather gloves, points a finger gun at the camera in Bayonetta 3
Luka wears a fedora in this game. A fedora!
Image: PlatinumGames/Nintendo

Who the fuck is Luka, you might be asking? Well, I can’t blame you, because he isn’t exactly an important part of Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2. He’s a side character best described as a simp, although that slang term didn’t get popular until years after Bayonetta 2’s release. Better yet, I’ll quote this description of Luka said by Loki in Bayonetta 2: “Hey, you’re the pervert staring at Bayonetta’s tits all the time. You really need to learn how to talk to a lady!”

Throughout the games, Luka lusts after Bayonetta, constantly tripping over himself in his failed attempts to keep up on her adventures. He’s no Lumen Sage or Umbra Witch; he’s just a regular human being, without any superpowers or mystical destiny. My most charitable read on Luka is that he’s an audience stand-in — but, of course, that isn’t particularly charitable to the audience, since this characterization would paint them all as pathetic man-children who slobber after Bayonetta, incapable of matching her level of coolness and sexiness.

In this gif capture of a scene from the first Bayonetta game, Luka and Bayonetta look like they’re about to kiss, but Bayonetta lets go of him at the last moment and flies away on her own. The next shot mimics Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting, with Bayonetta in God’s position and Luka in Adam’s position. Right after that, Luka does a comedic pratfall to the ground Image: PlatinumGames/Sega via CJake3/YouTube

I don’t see myself as anything like Luka. I see myself as... well, Bayonetta. It’s a fantasy, OK? Let me have this one! Except, of course, Bayonetta 3 doesn’t let me have this one. Not the way that Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 let me have it, anyway. In those games, Bayonetta was always the coolest person in the room, and mere mortals like Luka should’ve counted themselves lucky to breathe the same air. Yet inexplicably, in Bayonetta 3, Luka gains completely unearned power and importance. Why he’s suddenly such a big deal, when previously he was little more than comic relief, amounts to a big heteronormative shrug.

I don’t know what to tell longtime Bayonetta fans about this game, let alone the newcomers hoping to come aboard with this installment. If all you care about is button-ramming combat that’s similar to Devil May Cry, you’ll have a ball. But if you ever wanted to believe that there was something deeper to Bayonetta’s story — some grander statement about femininity and sexuality and power dynamics — you’ll find the truth to be quite a disappointment. Viola did tell me at the very beginning of this game that it would reveal this fundamental truth to me. I only wish I could have lived in ignorance for a little while longer.

Bayonetta 3 will be released Oct. 28 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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