I never played the first No More Heroes, and Goichi Suda seems to think that you more than likely didn’t either. Or at least he does if you’re from Japan, where NMH experienced exceptionally poor sales when it was released. In No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, Travis Touchdown – the piece’s protagonist, and Sylvia Christel – his untrustworthy and unhinged deathmatch organiser, comment as such to the player at the very beginning of the game, immediately obliterating the fourth wall within minutes of the opening. From this moment on, you’re never quite sure where Suda51 (as he’s also known) is going to take the direction, production or story of the piece, ensuring for a game that’s dangerous not just for its relentless action or deadly foes, but for its structure, pacing and tone too.
Suda never falls back on old ideas, never gets lazy with his presentation, never stops you questioning why he’s chosen to show you specific elements of Santa Destroy – the game’s setting – and this is very much what adds to the feeling that this is a well crafted, utterly anarchistic art house title, albeit one that is still accessible for a ‘mainstream’ audience. You see, while NMH2 is on the surface a mindless brawler, such as Streets Of Rage or perhaps God Hand, it is in reality a complex critique of video games, the commercialisation of sexuality, the corrupting effect of mass media consumption and an exploration of the effects of violence on both society and the self. And you thought it was just a story about some Otaku with a light sabre…
And what an Otaku with a light sabre our anti-hero Travis is! This fairly repulsive young man is not your average good guy, he swears like a sailor, has a twisted moral compass, takes an unhealthy amount of toilet breaks and has a rather disturbing fascination with a set of fictional, pre-pubescent looking, anime characters from a show named Bizarre Jelly. Not exactly the character trope you’re looking for in an action title in which you take on legions of bad guys and bosses over a series of fairly short but well paced levels. But this is a welcome change to the meat headed avatars you might find elsewhere, and besides, it allows the team to inject so much personality into a character that, by the end of the title, has the full backing of the player behind the Wii Mote and Nunchuk. So when Travis exclaims that ‘people deal with violence in different ways, some fuck on the battlefield, I behead people’, it’s not an out of place, coarsely delivered line for shock value, it’s just all part of the world and character Suda has created in the No More Heroes franchise. It’s also fantastically funny and well delivered throughout, falling somewhere between the hard boiled grind house of talkie director Quentin Tarantino and the philosophical musings of Hideo Kojima.
But you won’t just be playing as Travis in your adventure, nor will you only be chopping up bad guys, there are alternative playable characters, mech fights, bike battles, NES style mini games plus a ton of collectibles to find throughout. Not that you’d get bored of the combat anyway, as it’s simple enough to be instantly engaging and deep enough to be rewarding when you pull off a spectacular finisher or impressive combo. Sword play is the order of the day, with Travis and pals wielding Beam Katanas against their foes, incorporating high and low attacks, plus kicks, jumping attacks and dashes, to give the action even more flavour. The Wii Mote is used to great affect, you’ll mostly be using the A button to attack, but you’ll also be able to swing the controller at certain points for more damage or within pre-scripted end-of-battle moments. It’s a really subtle, empowering and engaging use of the Nintendo’s unique control hook and never feels forced or tacked on. Movement from fight to fight around the closed off environs is a little unusual at first, with a perspective similar to that of the aforementioned God Hand, but give it twenty minutes or so and you’ll feel comfortable enough with the controls to not feel hindered by this element. The dramatic camera angles however can be a mixed blessing. The game has a lock-on function for targeting enemies, which works well usually, but some boss encounters are so fast paced that the camera has trouble keeping up, feeling like a trade off between presenting the action in a cool way and giving the player a clear view of enemies.
Where there are no compromises in the game’s camera though is in Grasshopper Manufacture’s flawless framing and direction. Fast cuts, massive zoom shots, tricks of perspective in both first person and third person, this is highly accomplished stuff and, together with the Killer7 influenced polygonal character designs, makes for some truly striking visual motifs and breathtaking moments of virtual cinematography. If you haven’t already done so, go and check out Trailer-gasm Special to see for yourself.
Story telling is strong throughout, though the final furlong of NMH leaves a lot of questions unanswered, which is fine to a point, but does feel slightly abrupt. That said, some of the game’s visual highlights are towards the end of the game, as is one of the most shocking moments of a title that has already asked you to decapitate, brutalise and otherwise maim hundreds of enemies throughout…
Finally, if you’re looking for something that’s going to stretch your physical and mental dexterity, then this is the game for you. As noted before, the game is extreme in its sexuality, everything is framed on crotch shots or breasts or legs or ass, but again this isn’t for the sake of sex selling units, this is Suda51 opening a discourse with the player about sex in games and wider culture. He even plays with sex by presenting us a stripper behind a one-way glass, in which the player can see everything but the woman’s face, which, by the end of No More Heroes 2, is of course the only thing you desire to perceive. Similarly the ludicrous nature of video game violence is highlighted, by the time the credits roll, Travis will have battled a walking tank, a multi-armed levitating killer and even a ‘whole fucking space program’ as the man himself puts it. The game is full of blood, but never gorey, stuffed full with aggression but tainted by sentiment and emotion.
It’s clever stuff, far beyond most games you’ll see released this year and there’s nothing else quite like it on the horizon which is why it deserves your attention. It serves as a perfect representation of artistic expression within the medium of video games, yet never becomes particularly pretentious. It’s deep enough for the art crowd to discuss almost endlessly to its subtext, gamey enough to satisfy the hardcore market, and is without question Goichi Suda’s most accessible game to date.
MLG Rating: 9/10
Platform: Wii Release Date: 28/05/2010
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a physical copy of No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of five days on a Nintendo Wii. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.