Review Date: 9/1/23
We've seen young Cereza before in "Bayonetta" (2009) and "Bayonetta 3" (2022), and now she has her very own game! As you recall, Cereza was born from the forbidden love of an Umbran Witch and a Lumen Sage, which made her an outcast of society and left her mother rotting in a prison cell. Cereza would eventually grow up to become Bayonetta and take on the role of being "The Left Eye Of Creation." Maybe. Unfortunately, "Bayonetta 3" made a huge mess of the timeline with the introduction of infinite alternate realities, which were presumably created when Cereza was time-displaced in the first game. Regardless, I don't understand any of it, so I'm just going to pretend that this is the story of a 10-year old Bayonetta and the adventure that changes her fate forever. Her friend and rival Jeanne also seals her own fate in a bittersweet side story.
Being an outcast, the orphaned Cereza was finally taken in by an exiled witch named Morgana and trained in the dark arts. Morgana is a cold and strict master, and despite her warnings to never enter the Forbidden Forest, a vision in a dream ignites defiance in Cereza and lures her in. Hoping to meet the young boy in her dreams and obtain the power to free her mother, she finds herself trapped in the faerie kingdom of Avalon and at the mercy of the cruel faeries who live there. Being a witch in training, Cereza manages to defend herself by summoning a demon and binding it to her stuffed cat doll, Cheshire. The demon is none too pleased with this arrangement, but Cereza lacks the power and ability to bind him properly or to send him back to Inferno, so they form an uneasy alliance to liberate the forest and escape. What follows is a heartwarming and heartbreaking tale of adversity, friendship, loyalty, loss, betrayal, and sacrifice.
It's a Bayonetta game to the core, but its presentation is an extreme departure from the rest of the series. The game unfolds in a storybook fashion and is narrated by a wise old woman, as if your grandmother were reading you a bedtime story. Cut scenes are rendered on pages with text, and transitions are naturally page turns. The narrator even takes on a different voice when reading Cheshire's lines, which is both awkward and endearing. The game world itself is rendered in a whimsical and colorful storybook style, which perfectly complements Cereza's innocence and youth. The music is instantly recognizable from other Bayonetta games, but pared down to simple piano melodies with some light strings accompaniment. Again, the music enforces the game's simple childlike innocence, and while the forest is a dangerous place, the music makes it feel calm and inviting. The voice acting is superb, and Angeli Wall's performance as Cereza is consistently brilliant. While the narrator starts the story sounding very stern and crusty, her tone warms up and softens considerably as the story progresses. Or maybe I just grew accustomed to it. Early in the game, the story veers heavily into "NieR: Automata" (2017) territory, but later on the game resembles "Okami" (2006) more than anything else.
Despite its whimsical and family-friendly presentation, the difficulty can be brutal. The game has only one difficulty setting (although a hard mode is unlocked when you finish the main story), but it features numerous options for tuning the gameplay to your style and ability. This was a life saver for me, or I would have never finished the game. Much like the game mechanic in "Astral Chain" (2019), Cereza and Cheshire are controlled independently: Cereza uses the left stick and left buttons, while Cheshire uses the right stick and right buttons. Unless you're naturally ambidextrous, it is nearly impossible to control them simultaneously, which is required during combat. To complicate matters, Cereza is so small onscreen that it's often impossible to keep track of where she is. You also have to watch Cereza's health and magic, as well as Cheshire's magic, and you can't let Cheshire stray too far or else he'll revert back to his stuffed animal form. It's a lot to juggle, which is where the help options come in handy. I could never get the hang of casting spells, so I set the option to automatically cast for me. Then about halfway through the game I had to resort to infinite health and magic because the bad guys ramped up much faster than I did. I really appreciated being able to do this so that I could focus more on the journey and the narrative, without getting frustrated by the controls and my incompetence. And even so, the game is no pushover.
<<< SPOILER ALERT!!! >>>
Completing the game and fully exploring the map unlocks several costumes as well as a short adventure featuring Jeanne as the main character. This is a very poignant tale of friendship and rivalry, but it also introduces some annoying continuity flaws, including the baffling question of when it takes place. It starts with Cereza back in Avalon Forest and being frozen by an unknown entity. Jeanne senses trouble and sets out to rescue her. Cereza's opening line is "We're back in the forest?" which implies that the story takes place AFTER she escapes, except that she still has her hair in the style from the second half of her story arc. But Cheshire is still bound to the stuffed doll, which means that Jeanne's story must take place some time AFTER defeating Puca at the Faerie Fortress and BEFORE meeting up with Lukaon in the heart of the forest. Cereza appeared to sleep through the entire ordeal, which makes you wonder how much of the game was just a dream and never really happened. And who is responsible for this? Evidently, Singularity's defeat in "Bayonetta 3" sent him back in time, and in true "Terminator" style, he's attempting to kill Arch Eve Origin before the multiverse can be created. Ugh. None of that makes any sense, but regardless, Jeanne gets a glimpse of what the future has in store for her if she protects Cereza, but she defiantly refuses to abandon her friend.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed "Cereza And The Lost Demon," even though the combat can be tedious and overwhelming. Cereza's tragic coming of age tale is brilliantly told, and the emotional beats left me sobbing uncontrollably on several occasions. Fleshing out Jeanne's history was also very emotionally resonant. The world of Avalon Forest is enticing and engrossing, as long as you don't let the lore and the confusing timeline get the best of you and melt your brain. I'd be very interested to see more "Bayonetta Origins" stories, like how a teenage Bayonetta met up with Rodin and Enzo. To be honest, I was surprised that this game didn't end with Cereza making her fateful pact with Madama Butterfly. That would be another tale I'd be interested in seeing. That said, the game was full of surprises and "oh shit" moments that I wasn't expecting at all, which really kept me on my toes and coming back for more.