Reviewer: Philip Smith
Overall: 8.5 = Excellent
“It’s called ‘fashionably late,’ fuck face.” And so begins No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle (NMH2). It’s been three years since Travis Touchdown sliced through the ranks of the United Assassins Association (UAA), and he’s back at it again. After quietly retiring from the circuit, the UAA shifted its ranks and a new number one emerged: the man Travis wants to kill. Told through a series of flashbacks detailed by a noir-style narrative, you get to relive Travis’ quest for revenge as he dismembers and disembowels a cast of psychotic assassins.
Having never played but hearing much about the original No More Heroes, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I knew going in that Grasshopper is known for developing some rather eccentric titles, and that I should probably prepare myself for a lot of missed in-jokes and references. Funnily enough, this exact topic is made in the very begin, after Travis’ first fight, whenever he breaks the fourth wall during an argument with UAA representative Sylvia Christel as they bicker about just how much backstory the audience needs during their discussion – or if the player even cares. Newcomers are quickly brought up to speed with said conversation and its preceding fight, both of which succinctly let you know what the series is all about: tacky jokes, fountains of blood, assassins, and laser katanas. Awesome.
Set in the town of Santa Destroy, Travis slums it at the No More Heroes Motel, where he spends his downtime with his fat cat Jeane, wrestler magazines, and Bizarre Jelly 5 memorabilia. He doesn’t have much time to relax at home, though, what with the demanding needs of an assassin’s life always calling him away to eviscerate a deadly space siren, beef up at the gym, or deliver pizza. Utilizing a map hub, an array of revenge missions, jobs, and other locations can be quickly reached around the city. The jobs are largely 8-bit-inspired mini games that are highly addictive and add a significant amount of replayability, which is surprising considering their low level count. Save for one, that is: the eighth and last, black sheep job. Set within the game’s engine, the last unlocked job is a tedious fetching assignment that has Travis fighting clunky controls and detection to pick up scorpions. The rest of the jobs are grand throwback minis that will have you matching tiles with Tetris-style blocks, delivering pizza ala Hang-On, collecting coconuts, and even cooking steak. The retro style is completely endearing throughout but especially so for the jobs, which set the tone perfectly.
In addition to earning money from work, you can also ‘hustle’ it out of treasure chests and beat it out of enemies. Money is used to pick up new gear and weapons – and cat food. Clothes have no tangible effect on the game, other than adding a bit of flair and making Travis look all kinds of punk – or put-on, depending on your taste. There are only two purchasable weapons, which make for a total of four beam katanas. Each katana is different, with various attributes in speed, strength, and battery charge; the most notable being Rose Nasty, the dual katana set sported on the cover. The katanas cannot be upgraded, unlike in the original, but new moves for them and melee are learned throughout the game. Aside from picking up some new slams from reading a weekly wrestling magazine, Travis will also be inspired by Jeane to learn a particularly nasty side slash, but only if you choose to exercise her back to shape and keep her happy with the enough food (I always went with the pricey Premium grade, because I care).
You can also spend your money to train at the gym. Travis is put to the test with increasingly difficult—and expensive—exercises that focus on strength and stamina. Both exercises suffer from some less-than-optimal controls but are invaluable, with stamina increasing your health gauge by tapping buttons to run on a treadmill and strength increasing by punching and kicking incoming weights. It’s an often-trying process to beef up, but it’ll be necessary to tackle the hordes of foes and assassins.
For being a game about assassins, though, the assassins aren’t utilized very much. Much of the game is spent fighting thugs, training, and working. The process typically starts with you working or going a revenge mission to earn cash, spending the cash on a weapon or training, and then entering the rank battle. However, the rank battles are dominated by the pre-title bout fights that have corridors and rooms filled with gun-, sword-, and bat-totting henchmen. I would say that the setup is somewhat anticlimactic, but I actually found the fights themselves anticlimactic enough.
Assassin fights are much stronger in the beginning, with each having a set of attacks that form patterns which must be memorized and exploited. The encounters are exciting at first, even if the battles aren’t as awesome as the characters’ design and personality. It’s during the endgame when things being to turn into a slog. The last three or four bosses are really didn’t get their due as they’re saddled with some lame attacks that focus on getting in a cheap hit after knocking you down and draining your battery by some block-breaking moves—what skill had been involved is all but gone, replaced by circle strafing and button mashing. I was particularly aggrieved at the treatment of the wandering Cosmonaut that unknowingly finds himself back on Earth and uses a satellite to attack; he is such a great character, immediately engaging, that you can’t help but be disappointed after defeating him.
Unfortunately, the last two hours of the game is made up largely of filler. What had been a terrifically imaginative, funny, often-crass adventure of a confused and embittered anti-hero turns into a series of forgettable revolving door fights. What’s more jarring is the sudden increase in pre-assassin fights; around the fourth-to-last assassin, the amount of areas needing to be cleared of thugs jumps from about four to 10. Some of the spawning groups are the exact same, too, as if someone is just Xeroxing sets of baddies in the inaccessible side room. Things get a little shaky earlier on whenever you have to play as female apprentice Shinobu against two of the ranked assassins, fighting the poorly designed and shoehorned platforming section in addition to the thugs. She’s actually enjoyable to use during combat, but the emphasis on jumping and rudimentary puzzle solving is so slipshod that it’s as if the game itself has zero interest in it. Another interlude in Travis’ adventure fares much better, however, as his brother Henry engages in a surreal bout with a mechanically enhanced child who has trapped him in a dreamland. It isn’t until later on, as you’re face with your sixth or so checkpoint, that you realize the game is dangerously close to jumping over the nearest shark.
Despite those complaints, I really did enjoy NMH2. In fact, before the last act, the only problem I had was with the stiff camera that is about three inches too low and inch too far to the side. There is a strong sense of self throughout the game that I really took to and appreciated, whether it’s a walking segment just to add to the tone or the sultry, cryptic narration. The combat is also very gratifying, with a lenient quick time event element for death blows and wrestling moves that actually adds to intensity and leads to some very, very gratifying finishers: beheading a giant man with a chainsaw with a leftward swing by hitting or moving ‘left’ is satisfying, every single time. Or better is when you have to use multiple elements, such as both analog sticks on the classic controller, for a multi-step suplex that ends with your opponent laid out and impaled. The support for the remote is a step up from most titles as well, with the height of the remote dictating the type of melee or katana attack used—high or low—and the classic controller is a great option all around. Switching katanas can be a bit clunky, but each are well worth becoming acclimated with as they offer a great deal of variety to encounters. A slot machine function that engages after a deathblow adds a bit of spice as well, with triple digits bringing faster attacks, fireballs, blowback strikes, and triple bars turning you into a tiger. A tiger. The over-the-top presentation, exemplified in tiger form and your instruction to ‘kill everything,’ is humorous and actually quite endearing. For those who didn’t get enough slicing and dicing, completing the game also unlocks an additional, harder difficulty mode—thanks, game, but you can keep that—and a Death Match mode where you can again face off against each assassin.
I would also like to make special mention of the presentation, which is quite good. Not only do the retro graphics bring a little pizzazz, but the engine used is one of the nicest I’ve seen on the Wii. Aside from brief moments of slowdown during some of the larger fights, and issues endemic to the system (e.g., low polygon counts), the visuals are both aesthetically and technically fantastic. The audio is solid as well, with voice acting that manages to be bad in a good way and music that manages to keep up the momentum without overwhelming. Although the limited quips spouted by the random baddies can annoy, with some repeating the same line over and over—until you cut their heads off.
No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle provides a raucous experience that plays out like a psychedelic Kill Bill. Despite the excessiveness of the last act, and a rather fussy camera, I was most disappointed by its unfulfilled potential—awesome assassins who are so-so fighters. So much was done right that, when it starts to become a grind, it feels as if Grasshopper realized they were running out of steam, shrugged their shoulders, and just phoned in the rest. Still, the game is chock-full of silly fun, be it from slicing someone in half like a melon or playing the Bizarre Jelly 5 shooter at Travis’ place, that is somehow both wildly violent and tactlessly funny. Fans of action and the bizarre would do well to try out NMH2.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)