PlatinumGames’ new Bayonetta prequel for the Nintendo Switch is a breezy change of pace for the series that exceeds by keeping combat simple and satisfying.
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Each of PlatinumGames’ mainline Bayonetta titles has been a high-octane, high-camp celebration of feminine witchiness that relied on overt visual extra-ness to compensate for repetitive — if mesmerizing — combat mechanics and stories that have left much to be desired. While its fancifully illustrated storybook aesthetics suggest otherwise at first glance, Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon has a narrative heart and soul reminiscent of its more mature, gun-filled predecessors. But between its more simplified approach to combat, and the gentle emphasis it puts on controlling two characters simultaneously, Cereza and the Lost Demon isn’t just a delightful prequel — it’s one of the Bayonetta franchise’s most inspired and delightful entries yet.
Set in one of the cozier and more vibrant but nonetheless stylish corners of the multiverse more thoroughly explored in Bayonetta 3, Cereza and the Lost Demon tells the tale of how a young Cereza variant’s life is forever changed when she wanders into an enchanted forest one fateful day. As an enthusiastic, but somewhat unskilled Umbra Witch in training, Cereza knows better than to disobey her mistress Morgana’s strict rules about steering clear of Avalon Forest until she has better control of her burgeoning power to summon and control demons.
But as the loving daughter of a witch imprisoned for violating Umbran law, Cereza can’t help but be tempted when a mysterious presence begins urging her toward Avalon and a strange power hidden there that she might use to free her mother. Elegant wuss that she is, it isn’t until Cereza accidentally manages to summon a demon, name him Cheshire, and bind him to her stuffed animal that she’s willing to enter the forest and the game properly begins.
If you’ve spent time playing previous Bayonetta games — especially Bayonetta 3 — then series creator Hideki Kamiya’s signature flair for the outré will be readily apparent as you first start poking around Avalon, controlling Cereza with the left joystick and Cheshire with the right. But what immediately signals how hard a pivot Cereza is from the rest of the franchise is art director Tomoko Nishii’s lush, dreamy, cel-shaded visual style and the game’s storybook framing, which brings a refreshing kind of whimsy to Bayonetta’s lore.
Rather than another Bayonetta game focused on pulling off long strings of combo attacks, Cereza and the Lost Demon plays more like an interactive book whose pages you’re meant to pore over both to solve a variety of puzzles and to drink in its beauty. As witch and demon, Cereza and Cheshire are bound to one another and can only wander but so far apart while the beast is in “unleashed mode” until they’re forced to come back together in their cooperative “hug mode,” where he essentially becomes an extended grabbing arm for her.
Because they’re both so inexperienced with their powers, Cheshire and Cereza also have to rely on one another in battle as they encounter the many different types of wonderfully gnarly faeries lurking all throughout Avalon who want nothing more than to lead them to their dooms. It’s a bit disorienting the first time Cereza and the Lost Demon sits up straight to tell you that a battle’s about to begin in which you have to use Cereza’s relatively weak magic to temporarily bind enemies in place while also commanding Cheshire to tear into them with his claws and fangs. But after a few seconds of moving the witch / demon duo around and getting accustomed to thinking of them as two halves of a whole meant to be working in concert, Cereza and the Lost Demon quickly becomes just the right amount of mildly gimmicky to feel both inspired and accessible.
Cereza and the Lost Demon isn’t the first Bayonetta game to ever hit a Nintendo system. But it is the most Nintendo-esque entry in the franchise yet — both in terms of the way its visual language feels perfectly calibrated to make the most of the Switch’s hardware and in how much more oriented toward a younger audience the game’s story feels. What Avalon lacks in terms of high-definition detail, the game makes up for and then some by building out a pulsing, illustrated world full of otherworldly beasties and playful forest spirits who each bring their own unique energy to Cereza’s dark fairytale with their presence.
But as interesting as nearly all of Cereza and the Lost Demon’s character designs are, fighting baddies never really becomes all that much of a challenge as your adventure takes you deeper into Avalon, and Cereza and Cheshire gain a variety of more powerful but rather simple to pull off attacks. Once you’ve really gotten accustomed to timing Cereza’s cooldowns and Cheshire’s attacks, it’s beyond easy to mow your way through the batches of ornery battle-hungry fae folk who really don’t need to telegraph their attacks quite as obviously as they do. As repetitive as combat can be, though, the game does try to keep it feeling fresh and visually stimulating by giving Cheshire a number of new elemental physical forms like Fire Cheshire that grant him unique abilities and designs that feel like something plucked from Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo.
While they’re very different beasts, playing Cereza and the Lost Demon in 2023 feels a lot like playing Capcom’s Ōkamiden for the original DS back in 2011 in the sense that the new game is a technical triumph that’s still almost certain to rub many fans the wrong way simply because it’s different from the games that came before it. To be fair, Cereza is undeniably making a bold gamble by taking such a beloved character in a new direction that reads as kid-friendly first and true to Bayonetta second. But with its charming story, clever expansion of the franchise’s multiversal mythos, and a healthy selection of unlockable costumes, Cereza and the Lost Demon is pure Bayonetta at its core, and after the controversy surrounding Bayonetta 3, it might be exactly what the series needs.
Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon drops on March 17th.