NO MORE HEROES and its sequel, DESPERATE STRUGGLE, had a unique brand of badass style and offbeat humor. The bastard offspring of Deadpool and Grand Theft Auto, these games captured everything cool about living in a comic book, while also satirizing everything that fuels such fantasies. Antihero Travis Touchdown is a loser who lives in a motel with his cat, spends all of his money on anime paraphernalia, and recharges his “beam katana” with a well-practiced masturbatory shake. His spur-of-the-moment decision to become a professional assassin feels less like a step in the direction of becoming a responsible adult with a steady paycheck and more like a sad attempt to emulate the characters he watches on all-nighter Crunchyroll sessions.
Neither game can really be considered a masterpiece in the traditional sense, but they’re essential experiences for their aesthetic accomplishments alone. For director Goichi Suda, AKA Suda51, the series marked a new direction for his career, one that was defined not just by punk-rock sensibilities and some involvement from pre-Marvel James Gunn, but also a more hands-off approach to game development. Suda has been acting mostly in a supervisory capacity for the better part of a decade now, and his latest offering, the long-awaited third entry in the No More Heroes series, marks his return to the director’s chair.
This featurette for DESPERATE STRUGGLE still stands as one of Suda’s greatest works
It doesn’t take very long to realize that TRAVIS STRIKES AGAIN: NO MORE HEROES is a sequel in name only. You still hack-and-slash your way through waves of goons, but now it’s in a top-down, co-op format that prioritizes dispatching hordes of enemies in as little time as possible, rather than the methodical dismemberments featured in previous titles. It’s certainly simplified, but this shift in gameplay is not unwelcome, providing a satisfying plug-n-play escape that feels like the coin-op button mashers of yore. While forcing each player to allocate XP to their respective character from a shared pool is one aspect that’s a little too archaic for my tastes, the drop-in/drop-out co-op and simple control scheme keeps things refreshingly intuitive.
Eerily familiar to 2017’s RUINER, however, is how quickly TRAVIS STRIKES AGAIN’s stale presentation sabotages what fun there is to be had in the gameplay. TSA’s basic premise sees Travis and newcomer Bad Man fighting their way through a selection of tiles from the Death Drive Mk. 2, a haunted game console, yet outside of a few gimmicks, these worlds are virtually identical. Sure, one might be modeled after a quiet suburb and another a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and some even have minigame interludes, but all inevitably lead to more repetitive grinding through hordes of reused enemies. This would almost be acceptable if TSA kept the scenery changing at a decent clip, but each of these stages overstay their welcome, making players pray for new ways to be bored by the time the level’s final boss appears.
A game within a game within a game
Okay, but not the end of the world, right? Combat is arguably one of the least important components of a No More Heroes game anyway, a chore that must be completed before the next bizarre scenario can befall our gormless protagonist. That, too, somehow disappoints in TSA, as Travis himself seems to have lost his way. Gone is the parody of gamer culture, the pathetic otaku who collects figurines, obsesses over high scores, and shuts down around women. This older Travis is content to just share his opinions on indie video games and ramen recipes, becoming more of a vehicle for Suda to voice his personal tastes than to make any real statement.
So Travis finally grew up—good for him! At least he can still wind up in some wacky scenarios and riveting exchanges, all delivered through Suda’s exceptional directorial vision. Right?
What is easily the most critical omission in TSA is the lack of cutscenes; rather than cinematics, the story is advanced through mountains of text boxes. Voiceovers are nonexistent outside of the game’s intro movie, and anything resembling an animation has been replaced by both static participants of the conversation facing each other in complete silence. Suda’s humor has always translated thanks to some stellar localization and vocal performances, but his jokes fall flat when converted to written form.
Joking about it isn’t the same as doing something about it
Perhaps holding TSA to the same standards as its predecessors isn’t totally fair. While those games had the benefit of being published by Ubisoft, TSA is a self-published title that needed to cut corners. By Suda’s own admission, TSA is a spinoff, not “NO MORE HEROES 3,” and represents his attempt to try something new. If a working auteur wants to experiment with his craft, it should be encouraged, not dismissed.
All of that being said, I still have to ask: if Suda wanted to try something new, why bother resurrecting Travis? More than a decade later, NO MORE HEROES is remembered mostly for its one-of-a-kind look; take that away, and you’re left with an action game that’s serviceable at best. Using the No More Heroes name establishes a certain set of expectations, but TSA is entirely uninterested in pursuing them. There are painfully brief moments in TSA where the director’s brilliance shines through, proof that the game could have been worthy of the name it bears, but they are always swept away as suddenly as they appear. In a lot of ways, the game is reminiscent of THE SOPRANOS: ROAD TO RESPECT, a PS2 brawler that somehow interpreted a show largely about family and therapy as an unending gorefest.
Even graded on its own merits, TRAVIS STRIKES AGAIN fails to live up to the hype. Suda promised six different games that would play to their own individual style, and that simply is not the case here. Tight budget or not, this shouldn’t have been an impossible concept for the seasoned developer to nail, and the time it took for this game to roll out makes its shortcomings even more baffling. Ironically enough, TRAVIS STRIKES AGAIN makes me want a NO MORE HEROES 3 more than ever now that I can fully appreciate how far sheer personal branding has carried this series. As it stands, only the most diehard fans and Suda completionists will find something worth sticking around here for.