Bayonetta 3 begins with an impossible boss battle and slow-walk segment which centers Bayonetta's struggle and suffering against her implacable foe, until she is summarily executed by them. Each game in the series begins with an in medias res slice like this, to be contextualized later, but never before has the game's stated and prevailing focus been spotlit so revealingly by an anticipation-building preview: this is a game about killing women--often the same woman--over and over.
The depiction of violence sits at an odd crossroads within the series. Bayonetta is fundamentally about performatively stylish combat, in which the infliction of injury upon opponents is not really dwelled upon both for their supernatural hardiness and the emphasis on slapstick pratfalls even in the moments most suggestive of bodily harm or gore--the violence, down to dismemberments, is tuned comical. Similarly, when the protagonist or other people-shaped folks take their hits, the effects are antiseptic and nondescript; the gravest injuries are shortness of breath and being knocked off one's feet. It is not important to emphasize the physical cost on the cast either mechanically or narratively, as the stories simply aren't about that kind of mundane consequence and mortal limitation.
This baseline is something that kept insisting itself in my head, as Bayonetta 3 is largely in keeping with it for much of its duration: the violence is choreography, it is an anodyne spectacle. Where it differs is in the framework for the action to occur in, through its multiverse crossover premise. Every Bayonetta in every world is in mortal danger, specifically targeted for murder by a superscience boogeyman invader, and it is the context in which you will meet all of them. The details vary in each instance--you could briefly play as them, fight alongside them, even fight against them--but they all conclude identically: after their fifteen minutes of fame, the game routinely disposes of each and every alternate Bayonetta by violently killing them before your eyes.
It's difficult to put into words how antithetical to everything I enjoy about the series this recurring, overpowering and unbreakable pattern is. It's not a momentary diversion to be compartmentalized away; it's the overarching narrative game structure of the entire game: meet a you-but-not-you in kinship and sisterhood, and watch her and yourself be murdered repeatedly for... what? To establish "stakes" or the villain's bonafides as a legitimate threat? I think the multiversal invasion force would have sufficed. The framing of these scenes is so out of step with the previously detailed attitude about violence and bodily harm in the series, as the Bayonettas are skewered and crushed, their physical pain and duress lingered upon uncharacteristically and uncomfortably until they expire.
This is the last series imaginable in which I could conceive an emotional or narrative appeal in seeing the protagonist struggle over anything; smug virtuosity is her calling card and that sovereign one-dimensionality is the reason to inhabit her role. To concoct a narrative in which alternate versions of Bayonetta are not elevated but offered up as sacrifices (mirroring the banal routine of the plotting, you are always awarded their weapon, demon, and even clothes once they've been killed--the worst spin on Mega Man ever conceived) to facilitate a sham of a murder-tour crossover is as far as I'm concerned a severe disempowering and undermining of the character, in reframing her from a single-minded dominator into a multiversal sufferer and victim. At least she's not alone, as multiple Jeannes die throughout the story as well, as well as Rosa, who has always been dead through her appearances in the series. The Jeanne whom you play as--the third protagonist of the game--is killed callously in a cutscene as an afterthought, barely acknowledged by the game, her assigned role rewarded and concluded in the only way the game knows how to do with women.
That is the ongoing and raging conflict inherent in Bayonetta, a series ostensibly about the adventures of a ridiculous funhouse mirror caricature of a woman, but which has always centered men narratively and emotionally as the subject of their timey-wimey stories, with Bayonetta herself often occupying the role of a sardonic spectator even when she has nominal personal investment in the proceedings. For the purposes of relative merit, the first game cashes its cheques the truest: Bayonetta and Jeanne spend most of it fight-fucking and working out their dynamic, with Bayonetta's journey of self-contextualization being in focus even by the time dear old mastermind dad shows up to hijack the narrative with his convoluted machinations. Even so, Jeanne gets to make a wonderful rescue assist at the eleventh hour for a genuine goodfeel high point in the series and how it utilizes its cast mechanically and narratively.
Bayonetta 2 grasped onto the thread offered by the first game's time loop maneuverings and spun it into a story in which Bayonetta and Jeanne feel like guest appearances in their own gal pal-suffused story. It is not a game about either of them, even if Jeanne wasn't damseled immediately upon starting it, as the arc that occurs on the heroic side belongs to Loki with Bayonetta as his bemused babysitter, and the oppositional antagonism is played out by Balder, the younger incarnation of the previous dadly nemesis fought at the first game's conclusion. Bayonetta 2 is invested in "redeeming" and contextualizing Balder's actions above any other narrative purpose it might have; it is fully a showcase for him and his emotional arc, rendering Bayonetta (and her mother Rosa) an accessory for the character development of her posthumous, patricided father. If the cracks weren't already there from the series's conception, by the sequel they had widened into a gaping chasm.
It's for this consistent precedent that the nature of Bayonetta 3's story does not come as a particular curveball, though one might still fumble the catch for the level of gobsmacked disillusion it can inspire in the receiver. If Balder was the pet project and character of the previous game(s), Luka Redgrave rises to fill the role in the third game. Luka, the committed comic relief buffoon, the would-be Casanova, the aspirational sex pest and Bayonetta-botherer. Luka always had a purpose in these games, and it was to pine after the unreachable Bayonetta, whether as a presumed audience insert or an extension and avatar of her creators's personal kinks, and if the schtick wore thin it was always "justified" by him pratfalling out of frame, trying and failing to maintain the suave facade. It was a one-dimensional bit for a one-dimensional character, but in a series of static caricatures, who was really complaining? The just desserts of Luka were as had been ordained by the limitations of his archetype from the start, and it was enough to either take the character as read or to simply put him out of mind for the duration.
Bayonetta 3 does not allow you to forget about Luka. This is really his story, with both Bayonetta version 3.0 and their daughter Viola serving as extensions of his arc and importance to the overall trajectory of the story. From the start, Bayonetta longs after him, her attitude inexplicably (because this is an alternate her, the only real difference being her dynamics with said leading man) shifted from amused and performatively flirtatious to the sentimentally bereaved, as if instead of a momentary bit of entertainment and diversion Luka now defined her existence. When Bayonetta and Viola talk, it's usually about Luka; where is he, what is he doing, how could we help him--the entirety of Viola's playable chapters consist of simply chasing after her father's shadow, literally and figuratively. Luka's bumbling semi-competence is now reoriented into a multiversally empowered and crucial nexus, with him having some kind of faerie king-themed lineage and powerset which both informs Viola's passed-on abilities and his new role that plays into his inflated storyline status. From Jeanne to Balder, Bayonetta 3 decides that Luka as a magical werewolf should occupy the role of the recurring rival character and boss. It would be laughable if it wasn't so transparently forced as a way to endow the character mechanical relevance in addition to his newfound narrative priority. Instead of justifying the other, I found each half of the equation rendered contrived in the process, in mutually assured self-destruction.
The final insult of Bayonetta 3 is how much it banks on the romantic union of Bayonetta and Luka in context of all the rest of the production. You can peruse the copious character biographies and in-game notations, or the character dialogue, and everywhere in it you will find thematic reinforcement of the sheer destined inevitability of their relationship, paraphrased or verbatim. The terms "Arch-Eve" and "Arch-Adam" associated with each not only profess the intended hokey thematicism but also the grandiosity with which the game would like it to be observed. By designating the Bayonetta of this game as the most important (through her point of view, through her succeeding and surviving where all her sisters failed, through her taking up their cause in remembrance) of all, the game renders her as the truest incarnation of the character yet for whose arc the rest are literally sacrificed or play support for.
Was Bayonetta ever queer? Sure, if the queerbaiting ambiguity was enough to allow that reading; it was the indistinct status quo that propped up the series for those that saw that quality in it. Bayonetta 3 contrives a way to disassociate that history from its heroine by literally separating the prior two games' protagonists into their own distinct incarnations, whose life experiences are mostly identical but ultimately distinct, and it is they who follow the lead of the heteronormative focal point in front of them. Queerness always has the burden of proof placed on it to begin with, while heterosexuality reigns as a default, but Bayonetta 3 goes a step further in surgically excising the open-to-interpretation narratives from its central character, and dedicating its entire runtime to a tale of signing in print the definitive record of her heteronormative destiny so none who disagree can dispute it or claim the protagonist's power fantasy for themselves.