Thursday, August 26, 2021

No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle (Switch)

After playing through both the original Wii and updated PS3 versions of No More Heroes, the next natural step was to play No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, originally released on the Wii in 2010. Much like the original game, however, we didn’t own a Wii at the time Desperate Struggle came out, so when we wanted a copy of our own, we found that due to its low initial sales, it was harder to find. As such, we opted for the physical Nintendo Switch release from Limited Run Games for the purpose of this review. We also discovered that at this point in Suda51’s career, he had less direct involvement in the games developed by Grasshopper Manufacture, so Nobutaka Ichiki directed Desperate Struggle instead. While the game still has merit, the general lack of involvement from Suda51 still shows.

Following the events of No More Heroes, Travis Touchdown walked away from the United Assassin Association (UAA) once he had reached Rank 1. Three years later, he returns to Santa Destroy and fight Skelter Helter, who seeks revenge for the death of his brother, Helter Skelter. After Travis wins, Sylvia Christel reappears and informs him that he is now recognized by the UAA as Rank 51, though Travis doesn’t care as much about the rankings as he did before. That night, however, a group of criminals kill Bishop, Travis’ best friend, motivating Travis to kill the man responsible, Jasper Batt Jr., the CEO of Pizza Batt and the current Rank 1 assassin.

Syvlia drags Travis back into the UAA for revenge.

As Travis climbs the ranks, the story tackles much of the same themes as its predecessor, including the glorification of revenge and the cycle of violence, but the less subtle writing and increased amount of blatant meta commentary don’t hit the same way. The characters more often reference that they’re in a video game and how the player might respond to it while Travis is more frequently called out for his obsession with revenge. When Shinobu and Henry Cooldown enter the story, however, the plot falls apart in places, with a rather weak explanation for their involvement.

That said, the writing does have its moments of brilliance. For instance, the endings of the fights with Ryuji and Alice Twilight have great examinations of Travis’ motivations while having some emotional resonance. Jasper Batt Jr.’s motivation for killing Travis is also interesting, since both Travis and the player had killed his relatives while grinding for LB$ in the original game and forgot all about them because they weren’t important. Where certain games would handle this poorly, Desperate Struggle also goes the extra mile by depicting the cycle of revenge from both parties as pathetic, showing Travis’ revenge as unfulfilling after he inevitably wins while Jasper Batt Jr. spends a lot of time whining.

Those coming off of the original No More Heroes would know what to expect from the gameplay of Desperate Struggle, which incorporates many of the same ideas, though executed differently. Travis’ combat HUD is shuffled around, with the tiger now in the lower right corner and representing the new Ecstasy Gauge. As Travis lands blows uninterrupted, the tiger awakens from its slumber and turns red, but will revert its state as Travis takes damage. Once the tiger glows red, players can activate its power, granting Travis faster speed and longer combos with his Beam Katana. Like the previous game, Travis can wield one of four Beam Katanas, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, except now he can swap between any of them during combat, though he’s vulnerable during the process.

Desperate Struggle's gameplay is similar to its predecessor.

Despite the similarity in combat, however, the core gameplay loop within Santa Destroy receives a significant overhaul, removing much of the original’s bloat. No longer are players forced to drive long distances on the Schpeltiger, as they can now select their destination from a list and arrive there immediately. Ranking Battles no longer require an entry fee, as players can challenge the next boss as soon as they appear. This also significantly reduces the amount of money required to complete the game, as players can instead spend their hard-earned LB$ on Gym training and Beam Katanas from Naomi’s Lab. As such, there are only eight Side Jobs and Assassination Missions are replaced entirely with Revenge Missions that players can only clear once. Players also don’t have to worry about collecting trading cards and will instead collect items that automatically deck out Travi’s motel room.

Although these changes give No More Heroes 2 a faster pace than the original, it introduces new issues that make the experience feel oddly empty. Converting Santa Destroy to a list feels more sterile and arguably lazy, like the developers could have instead focused on fleshing out the open world and making the interactions within it more meaningful. It also oddly inverts the structure of the original, as now Travis can freely walk around within buildings, including his motel room, even if the only thing he can do is interact with an NPC in an otherwise empty space. I experienced the most issues with Ryan’s Gym, replacing Thunder Ryu’s Gym from the original, in particular that prices for the exercises aren’t listed, you have to talk to him again every single time you complete or fail the exercise and the minigames, rendered in an 8-bit retro style, are clunky compared to the original. There’s also a glitch in Naomi’s Lab that I understand is exclusive to the Switch version, where even after you’ve already bought one of the Beam Katanas, you can waste LB$ buying it again for no discernable reason.

While I enjoyed the variety in the eight available Side Jobs, most of them also rendered as an 8-bit game, each of them had certain quirks about them that made them annoying at times. The worst one, however, is Stings So Good, which brings back the awful Scorpion Extermination minigame and somehow makes it even worse, as scorpions can more easily escape or sting you and the spaced out first aid kits are a one-use deal.

Pizza With a Vengeance, however, is actually fun.

During combat, the action didn’t seem as snappy as the original, despite the increased framerate of the Switch port, and Beam Clashes also feel slower than before. Then you have the bosses, who largely aren’t as interesting or memorable as those from the original game, with an increased focus on quantity over quality. These include returning bosses from the original game, who feel underwhelming in their execution. However, the ones that did stand out include Skelter Helter, Nathan Copeland, New Destroyman, Ryuji, Margaret Moonlight, Alice Twilight and Jasper Batt Jr.

In a neat turn of events, Shinobu and Henry Cooldown return from the original game and have their own playable sections where the player can take advantage of the unique abilities and playstyles they showcased as bosses, despite controlling similarly to Travis. Unfortunately, they’re both underutilized and underwhelming in their execution. Shinobu gets two segments back-to-back, including two boss fights, but her portions are the only ones with platforming that’s awkward at best, including a particularly bad execution of it required for an already bad boss fight. Henry doesn’t fare much better, as he only gets one fight that isn’t too difficult once you figure out what to do.

Shinobu's inclusion is underdeveloped.

A more enjoyable addition, however, was how Travis interacts with his cat, Jeane. Between games, Jeane put on a lot of weight, so Travis must help her work it off through four different minigames. However, each minigame, which you can only access once a day, diminishes her Mood, so Travis must spend some of his LB$ each day to feed her and raise it back up. Not only does Jeane provide a good break from the otherwise hectic gameplay, Travis also learns a new move if he can get her around or under 10 pounds, which provides some actual incentive to play with her.

Once you beat the game, you can also play a Deathmatch mode where you can replay all fifteen boss fights, though they’re all on Bitter difficulty, the highest setting.

As with No More Heroes – Heroes’ Paradise, Desperate Struggle features both Joy-Con and standard Pro Controller support. With the option present, I played through the entire game with the standard controls and didn’t find them awkward in the slightest. Afterwards, I tried out the motion controls and still found the standard controls more comfortable, though control scheme really comes down to player preference thanks to the increased number of buttons on the Joy-Cons compared with the original Wiimote and Nunchuk combination.

Naturally, Desperate Struggle features a cel-shaded art style similar to, but improved over, the original game. While cloth and hair physics are improved, the sexual imagery from the original is also amplified, with more noticeable jiggle physics and the Battery icon hammering in the intended connection with Travis’ recharging animation. The retro style of the minigames also looks convincingly like it came from the NES era, with one from Ryan’s Gym reminiscent of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! in particular.

As with the original, Desperate Struggle features great voice work from talented voice actors, especially Robin Atkin Downes in his return to the role of Travis Touchdown. However, the soundtrack has a different approach, likely a result of placing Jun Fukuda alongside Akira Yamaoka rather than Masafumi Takada. There’s a more noticeable increase in chiptune music, owing to the retro style of the minigames, and while Akira Yamaoka still shows off why he’s such a great composer, there’s less unity with the reduced presence of “N.M.H.” as a leitmotif. Despite this, there are still some great tracks like “It’s kill or be killed mix” and “Philistine” (the latter of which is conspicuously absent on the Limited Run version of the physical soundtrack, along with one to three others). Interestingly, while "Philistine" originally had different mixes between the US, Japanese and Australian Wii releases, the Switch version uses the Japanese mix.

If you’re already a fan of No More Heroes or are gearing up for No More Heroes III, then you’ll want to try out Desperate Struggle. Just know that the lack of direct involvement from Suda51 results in a game with some interesting ideas, but a messy execution compared to the original.

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