If you happened to find the secret chapter in last year’s superlative Bayonetta 3, you’ll already have been treated to a surprise glimpse of the art style and general atmosphere found in Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon.

That secret area was, as it turned out, a short playable demo, one we assumed pointed to some incoming DLC for the main game before this T-rated spin-off was officially announced. With a family-friendly rating and whimsical storybook art style combined, we had initially guessed that this one was going to be a rather throwaway affair, a breezy prologue aimed at a younger audience that filled in some backstory and not much else.

However, having spent a good chunk of time blasting through the game’s first five chapters, we’re happy report that this is in no way a throwaway effort. What we’ve got here is an elegant and enchanting fairy-tale adventure that deftly combines puzzles, platforming and combat, making for a Bayonetta prologue that we’ve found ourselves really quite addicted to.

Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon kicks off with baby Bayo being born, the forbidden child of a Lumen Sage and an Umbran Witch. As punishment for their outlawed love affair, Cereza’s parents are both exiled, with her father sent off to a faraway land and her mother locked up tight in a prison deep underground.

We first catch up with our young heroine as she spends her time training under the guidance of Morgana, a kindly witch who has also been exiled from the Umbran community, and we take control of Cereza as she wanders through a short dream sequence. During the course of this dream she’s visited by a young boy who tells her she must visit Avalon Forest and follow the trail of a mysterious white wolf if she's to be granted the powers required to save her dear old mummy.

From here, you're introduced to some early gameplay mechanics by performing some simple chores for Morgana. You’ll get to fetch a pail of water and then use a few spells, Witch Pulse to manipulate plants into growing and Thorn Bind to capture and hold a slippery customer who tries to escape your clutches. After a failed attempt to summon an Infernal Demon, Morgana chastises Cereza which leads to the young girl thinking back on her dream and making the decision to wander off in the middle of the night into Avalon Forest, AKA the Forbidden Forest, clutching her cuddly toy, Cheshire, as she goes.

Of course, it’s not long before Cereza is in big trouble and, surrounded by enemies, she attempts to summon an infernal demon once more, this time managing to mess up in such a way that the demon now inhabits Cheshire's stuffed toy body. Upon attempting to attack Cereza, the demon finds it's prevented by some unseen force and, furthermore, it needs to stick close to the young witch in order to keep up its energy and magic abilities. And so an uneasy alliance is formed. Cereza promises to help the demon get back to Inferno and it agrees to help her find the white wolf.

After a fairly slow start, things kick into gear nicely once we get to grips with controlling Cereza and her demon pal. Each character is assigned to a Joy-Con thumbstick and can wander off in their own direction within a limited space. This mechanic is then employed to fun effect with a series of simple platforming puzzles that teach you the ins and outs of gameplay. Cheshire can attack barriers and enemies with huge swipes of his powerful claws, whilst Cereza can use Witch Pulse and Thorn Bind to create platforms and tie up foes so that Cheshire can get in and finish them off without taking damage.

The game gives you a few battles to get used to all of this before introducing Cheshire’s two modes of traversal, Unleashed and Hug. Unleashed mode is where you control the demon as a separate entity, moving around areas and attacking barriers and foes, whilst Hug mode sees Cheshire shrink down to cuddly toy form and travel in Cereza’s arms where he can be thrown up onto ledges or extended in order to make jumps, dash and gather collectibles from nearby bushes and undergrowth. Hug mode also serves to replenish Cheshire’s health/magic gauge, so you’ll find you need to balance both Hug and Unleashed modes during more heated battles.

And, surprisingly, there are actually some more heated battles. They may not be anything near the level of the scraps you’ll be used to from mainline Bayonetta, but the combat here throws enough different enemy types at you that you’ll at least need to plan who you target next in order to bypass encounters without taking some knocks. Just five chapters in there’s already a fairly impressive roster of baddies here, too, mischievous forest faeries whose names are pulled directly from Celtic tradition and mythology – there is a big Celtic connection here. There’s even a lad called Amadan, which we’re almost sure means idiot in Gaelic. So, hard luck to that wee guy on the name front.

With shielded foes who need to have their cover whipped away, to burrowing enemies who Cheshire will need to ground stomp in order to reveal, rocket-shooting faeries whose shots can be deflected back into their faces and a host of bigger minibosses to engage, there’s certainly plenty to think about here. Both Cereza and Cheshire have got the skills to pay the bills too, with two separate skill tress full of dodges, double binds, finishing moves, and charged blows to unlock using Avalon Drops and Onyx Roses that you’ll accumulate through battles and exploration.

Indeed, as the adventure unfolds here, we’ve been impressed with just how many mechanics there are to get to grips with. We fully expected this one to keep things very, very simple – and there are a ton of accessibility options for those who do wish to automate certain aspects of combat – but what we’ve found is a game that dishes out lots of fun variations on its core skills at a rate that keeps you interested to see what comes next. Cereza can eventually tie up multiple foes and even kill smaller enemies on her own — something she’ll need to do during periods when the pair temporarily split up — whilst Cheshire can take different elemental forms to batter baddies and unlock various paths forward.

As the story unfolds, our two heroes learn that they must destroy four elemental cores in order to attain the power that Cereza requires to rescue her mummy, and each of these cores, once destroyed, imbues Cheshire with a new elemental form and a bunch of skills. So far we’ve unlocked a wood and stone form for the big guy, and these allow him to latch on to enemy shields to rip them from your foes, pull bridges down during platforming sequences, smash boulders out of the way, dish out damage to enemies cocooned in elemental forcefields and more besides.

All of this stuff adds a satisfying amount of variety to both the combat and the fun exploration here, and Avalon Forest really does feel like a place worth exploring. The painterly art style and wonderful, Celtic-inspired soundtrack make for a hugely atmospheric adventure, and the forest itself is absolutely alive with animals, strange noises, and all manner of flora and fauna. There's a little bit of Nier Automata in how the camera shifts dynamically to frame the action at all times, too, with lots of wonderful depth-of-field effects that give the sense that this forbidden forest really is completely enveloping our protagonists. This is a gorgeous-looking game, make no mistake, and we’ve had zero performance issues in either handheld or docked modes so far.

Adding to combat encounters and exploration that always reward you with a treasure chest or some ingredients that Cereza can use to concoct potions, blast bombs, and energizing tonics, you’ve also got Tir Na Nogs to deal with. Tir Na Nog's (Land of the Youth in Irish) sections see you locked into mischievous faerie manipulations of reality that you’ll need to break free from in order to continue your adventure. These mini-dungeons consist of a battle and some platforming or puzzling that sees you face off against a bunch of faeries or even a miniboss before swiping some loot from a big old treasure chest and destroying the spell that’s been cast on the surrounding area.

Beat a Tir Na Nog and your in-game map will fill up with the locations of nearby collectibles; treasure chests, journal pages, and extra powerful sparklies that gain you access to some of the more powerful moves in your skill tree. These mini-dungeons can also be replayed once you’ve beaten them by simply selecting them from the menu at one of the game’s sanctuary rest spots, where you can dive back in, in either normal or time trial mode, in order to earn more goodies.

There's a decent level of Metroidvania-esque action to the various areas you'll move through in Bayonetta Origins and, as you push forward through the story, you'll sometimes find yourself winding back on yourself and turning up in areas you've visited before, now armed with new skills to open up paths that were blocked to you beforehand. It's rewarding stuff that's made all the more engrossing by the level of care and detail that's been put into every aspect of the world-building and atmosphere here.

For the purposes of this preview, we can't share anything beyond the fifth chapter but, as we left our protagonists at that point in the game, we'd already had a great a big boss battle with a huge faerie in a twisted circus tent and made friends with forest wisps who we've agreed to rescue as we find them in return for rewards. We'd also used our powers to outrun trains, clamber up towers full of beasties, and blast open a series of increasingly fiendish Tir Na Nogs in order to reveal all manner of goodies on our in-game map.

So far, then, we're thoroughly enjoying how this one is panning out in terms of its mix of gameplay styles, and there's lots still to discover as we push forward to see how this delightful prologue eventually connects (or not) to the main series of Bayonetta games. Look out for our full review before this one finally releases on St. Patrick's Day. Told you the Celtic connections were strong!

Looking forward to Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon when it releases on 17th March? Let us know in the comments.