By Josh Speer / January 25th, 2019
While the first No More Heroes games were action adventure games more in the vein of Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, it would be easier to compare Travis Strikes Again to Gauntlet. You’ll wander forward, get gated in areas with enemies, and need to kill them to proceed. Don’t get me wrong, there are still recognizable features like how Travis “charges” his Beam Katana and flashy super attacks, but in every other way they are something different. For one thing, you have zero control over the camera now, and Suda likes to move it around to display the action in unique ways. Some stages will have a top-down view, others you’ll be able to see a more open area, and some function like 2D platformers. Another stark departure? There are no wrestling moves (well, almost), no blocking and no QTEs during regular combat.
Things have been stripped down in many ways, though perhaps not bad ones. Yes, I had fond nostalgic memories of the combat in the first games, but after watching them again, I realized something: there was a lot of unnecessary and frustrating elements to the combat before. I don’t miss playing around with the camera, I don’t miss blocking tons of attacks and I don’t miss the QTEs, but I do still wish there was a bit more nuance to combat here. You have a weak attack you can literally swing rapidly in succession, a heavy attack, jumping attacks, a dodge and that’s pretty much it. Beyond that, there is a feature where you fill up your katana charge meter and, when full, can unleash a massively powerful series of attacks, as well as skills. Skills are totally new to the series. As you progress, you’ll unlock skill chips, and can equip up to four to any of the directional buttons. By holding L and pressing a directional input, you’ll unleash the skill. There’s a wide range, from lightning blasts that stun foes to bombs that detonate after a set amount of time to a healing field and much, much more. Each of them has a cooldown until you can use them again, so it behooves you to use them sparingly and carefully.
Point being, it probably doesn’t sound much like a No More Heroes game right now. And that’s both good and bad. While I did grow to enjoy the combat, it tends to get a little monotonous, at least for fighting regular enemies. The variety comes from the enemy diversity (there are a lot of different types) and playing around with your skill loadout. Another unique aspect is that Travis gains EXP and can use it to level up. Sadly, all that does is increase his ATK and HP. I really would have loved a skill tree or something similar. I also miss learning optional techniques in the first games. But having said that, there is one area where Travis Strikes Again truly feels like a Suda51 game: the epic boss fights. Though there are only six total, they each are dripping with style and creativity. From a teleporting serial killer to a old man in a wooden mech suit to a supernatural skeletal avenger, you won’t get bored with any of them. Best of all, they all battle very differently, which requires you to fight smart, pay attention to attack patterns and not rush in blindly. I tried hack-and-slash a couple times, and was always met with painful failure. While it goes double for the boss fights, all these tactics are also important for regular combat.
You’d think this review was almost done, having covered the plot, style and combat, but there’s another area that I need to spend more time: the references. Earlier I talked about some of the popular culture nods, but I doubt you understand the extent of them yet. One example? Practically all of the T-shirts Travis can buy in this game are from indie games. Even some that aren’t out yet, like Wargroove. I had a blast rocking out with Bit. Trip. Runner, Hollow Knight and Dandara shirts, but there’s so many more. Despite having beaten the game, I still need more cash to purchase all of them, as there’s 60+. But that’s not all. Another area where you see Suda’s love for gaming is in the text-based interludes between stages. No, you didn’t hear me wrong. There are many sections where Travis rides on his Schpeltiger with his kitty Jeanne and searches for more Death Balls. These segments are completely linear, but god are they entertaining. All sorts of crazy cameos abound, such as Travis searching in a Romanian Castle for a certain Count, to characters popping in from The Sliver Case and The 25th Ward, to even more I’m afraid to ruin. Best of all, during these sections Jeanne is magically able to talk, and she’s one sassy feline, even for a fat cat. One of my favorite nods is whenever you boot up a Death Ball, and the Death Drive logo sounds, reminding me of Sega’s old tune. Point being, if you love fourth wall breaking shennanigans and referential nods to pop culture, Travis Strikes Again is chock full of it.
As for the aesthetic design, for the most part I love it. There’s a purposefully grungy, old school vibe to the way every stage is presented. While it may seem primitive, I suspect it’s a completely intentional move on Suda’s part. After all, the Death Drive Mk II is supposed to be an old, esoteric game system, so why wouldn’t the stages on it look like old games? Having said that, there’s a lot of beautiful art in the game. While the bosses are all full of color and chaos, the enemies are also varied and strange. Going with the “death” theme, each of the bugs has a skull face, and their bodies can be wildly different. Some are humanoid, others have tentacles and some are gargantuan hulking beasts. I also loved the variety of art used in the game introductions, as well as the green-hued art in the Travis Strikes Again text segments. The one area I felt that the art fell short, however, was how small the character models generally were. Often that was due to the camera placement, but when comparing it to the older games, it was really striking. Musically, the game is a wonder. Each stage has their own tunes, and the sound effects are perfect. Travis grunts, swears and yells as he fights, which does a great job of conveying his intensity. While there is a bit less profanity than in previous games, there’s also less voiced dialogue. While unfortunate, again it makes sense given the focus of the game taking place in a old game system. After all, most older games didn’t have voice acting. Overall though, the art and music come together beautifully to represent this strange game.
Most of my 14 or so hours with Travis Strikes Again were positive, but there are some areas I feel it could have improved. A more minor complaint is the load times. Frankly, they are way too long, lasting upwards of more than a minute. Another complaint regards the combat. Though it’s pretty simple, there is real satisfaction to be had when you’re going for a high score, since doing so requires smart dodging to retain your katana charge. The problem is that a couple of factors work against you: the camera placement and enemy aggression. If you take too much damage, you’ll lose your charge level, and many times I would get hit by a projectile from off screen doing just that. Later in the game, they introduce some rather aggressive foes, including one that fires a barrage of bullets at you. That same enemy also likes to rush you, pushing you into the corner, and attack you frenetically to keep you from responding. This made it very hard to retain my full katana charge for extended periods, and of course the game grades you on exactly that.
A similar complaint is that your chip attacks can be interrupted by enemies, and then you have to wait for them to recharge. This was beyond irritating, especially when the game gets super frantic later on (and I played on Mild). Also, apparently some skills don’t work on some enemies. Once I tried using my standby Wing Chip at a foe, which fires a paralyzing bolt of electricity, only for it to be unaffected. It would seem some foes have elemental protection to certain attacks, but given there’s no bestiary, I was never clear on that. And while this last one isn’t about something Travis Strikes Again does wrong, it is about something shockingly absent from the game: the gratuitous violence. I remember blood gushing, beheadings and all sorts of mayhem in the first games, but that’s barely present. Again, that may be an intentional thematic choice by Suda, but if so it was a bit perplexing.
In the end, I did enjoy Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes, but it felt like a placeholder until we get No More Heroes 3. It’s not all bad, and I did enjoy a lot of it, but when everything is coupled with a very perplexing ending, I wasn’t sure what to think. Thankfully, it’s pretty inexpensive at $29.99 for the digital version, and if you are a completionist, there’s a lot to do after you beat the game, such as finding secrets, buying T-shirts and getting better scores. I only managed to get one A in my time with the game, and many Cs and a couple Bs. If that wasn’t enough, a recent update added New Game+ and the Spicy difficulty, if you feel like a tough guy. And if you bought the physical version, you’ll be able to try out two DLC adventures in coming months (or pay for them individually digitally). Sure, the game didn’t go at all where I expected, and played rather differently from previous games, but it’s also a good reminder of the mad genius of Suda51. His capacity to constantly take risks and reinvent his games is impressive, even if it does occasionally provide mixed results. If nothing else, at least it seems likely we won’t have to wait too much longer for the next game…
Review Copy Purchased by Author
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