Even better than starting a game with no expectations, a game can start with the wrong expectations. When I first heard about Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon, I looked at the child protagonist, the hand-drawn illustrative art, and the fluttering of parchment, and I assumed it was all some sort of visual novel. Sure, Cereza starts off with a lot of storytelling and a lot of reading, with just a few moments of moving a 3D character between chunks of text.
But then I found myself in my first fight and thought, Hmm. Maybe I’m wrong about this. I was wrong about this. Cereza is, all things considered, an exploration, fighting, and puzzle game of sorts. It’s hard enough to define even before you get to the relationship with Platinum’s Bayonetta action games. Crucially, though: it’s delicious. It’s beautiful and generous and playful and extremely beautiful. Someone has really taken care here, and it’s obvious from the start, whatever misconceptions someone can deal with.
Actually, let’s start with the Bayonetta cases. This is the story of an apprentice witch and her cuddly cat toy. The witch will one day become Bayonetta, but for now she is young, inexperienced, timid and on an adventure that towers over her on all sides. While there’s a lot of fighting going on here, it’s a very, very different game from the main Bayonetta adventures. It’s much slower, even in combat, and it’s more about mixing fights with different things that vary the pace than chaining one fight after another. By the second half of the game – and in the boss fights scattered throughout – you’ll get that Platinum surplus. But you only get this stuff in bursts.
You spend much of the game exploring a mystical forest, solving puzzles and battling troublesome fairies. The hook is that you control Cereza with the left Joy-Con and her cat Cheshire with the right. Cereza can cast a few spells, most notably a binding move that tightly traps enemies for a while, but most of the fighting is done by Cheshire, who can grow so big that he becomes a bit of a beast, and a nice array of swipe and crush attacks, even before the story gets going and you start collecting new powers.
Cheshire is designed around combat, and there’s a nice mix of attack and defense as you deal damage with the right hand and build combos, while using the left to keep Cereza out of harm’s way, and hopefully manage to get into some bind-based helps along the way. As the game progressed, I really started to look forward to the combat, not only because of the surprising ferocity of the animations, but also because of the ways different enemies require different approaches. Binding shieldboys, plucking floating boys from the sky, and defusing all kinds of magical protection all play a part, and every few levels a new enemy type bursts from the ground or falls from the trees and gives you something new to think about.
But Cereza and Cheshire also team up in puzzles. Cereza can hold Cheshire, in what’s called a hug mode, which makes navigating a bit easier, and then there’s a growing range of moves they can perform together and separately. The game likes to split them up, but for the most part they stay pretty close together, Cereza exploring one path, Cheshire another, while puzzles encourage them to work back and forth by pulling things, breaking things, switches convert and the like to keep them both going.
Puzzles are entertaining and interactive, but rarely really brain-teasing, and for the majority of the game they involve working out the stages necessary to unlock a way forward. Cereza throws Cheshire onto a ledge they can’t reach on their own, and they can then smash through some thorns to access another level. The growing array of powers comes in here in intriguing ways: Cheshire’s plant form can pull parts of the environment to itself, while their stone form can destroy rock walls, for example. In collaboration with Cereza, it’s great to see how many different challenges a few simple ideas can create when combined in new ways. Crucially, I’m the kind of person who’s never been able to distinguish left from right, and Cereza’s unusual control scheme didn’t faze me too much.
There are many other things here. There’s an upgrade system you can access from safe places in the sanctuary, there’s Zelda-style battles and puzzle dungeons centered around the fairies, and sequences where the world you think you’re exploring isn’t entirely trustworthy. There are potions to craft, resources to collect, and plenty of sweet little story moments. Much of the game is also optional: by the time I finished the main campaign, I was still in the 60 percent completion range.
All this tells you that Cereza has a lot of things for you to do, but what really surprised me was how nice it all looks, and how much that kept me moving forward. Cereza’s world in the game is a haunted, enchanted forest, and levels, while linear, never seem so, forming curls, creeper paths, caves, and clearings. Bushes conceal collectibles but also rustle beautifully as you pass, while later levels introduce fairy architecture in all its rusty, complicated clunkiness. There are pools here, shielded from the sun by thick canopies, which feel quite magical, and gorgeous, none of it photo-realistic, opting for Mary Blair’s watercolor and mixed media feel.
A friend recently told me about Metroid Dread and why it felt disappointingly 2D, not because it was all on one plane, but because it forgot to use both the foreground and background to create depth. I often thought of that while playing Cereza, because every few minutes a path leads you away from the floating camera and under the curly branches of a tree where animated owls stand watching, or through a network of swaying grass that temporarily obscures your vision. It’s these things, like the range of things to engage with and the frenetic action of the second half of the game, that make Cereza feel so luxurious, I think. There is care here, rising from the page, like a story that emerges from the open pages of a children’s book and sweeps you away.
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