Friday, August 27, 2021

Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes (+ DLC) (Switch)

What journey to No More Heroes III (NMHIII) would be complete without a look at Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes (TSA), the first in the series released on the Nintendo Switch and the first one directed by Suda51 himself sine the original game? Back when this game first released, its connection to the other games wasn’t certain, so we ended up skipping it. Once NMHIII received a formal announcement, however, we regretted this decision, as demand made owning a physical copy prohibitively expensive, so we ended up buying the game and DLC digitally. While this may be a cheaper and more convenient option for many, however, I’m not sure I would recommend it at full price unless you’re a hardcore Suda51 fan.

Seven years after the events of No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle (NMH2), an assassin named Badman seeks revenge against Travis Touchdown for killing his daughter, Bad Girl, back in the original No More Heroes (NMH). During their struggle in a trailer in a forest in Texas, however, Badman awakens a dormant video game console in Travis’ possession, the Death Drive Mk II (DDMKII), and the two get sucked into the game contained inside a Death Ball in Badman’s possession. Once inside the game, they learn that by finding and beating all six games created for the console, they’ll be granted a single wish. With this knowledge, the two assassins form a truce to help resurrect Bad Girl.

While not a proper sequel to NMH2, TSA does feature an interesting storyline that presents the series’ main themes of revenge and violence as entertainment in a pretty straightforward fashion. As is series tradition, the game has its own share of fourth wall breaks and while not all of them work, they more often feel like a commentary from Suda51 about the difficulty of developing a game like TSA on a small budget, which can make it feel more personal. Though the story was written with newer players in mind, even addressing how so many years have passed that few of the people playing would have played the original Wii games, it also acts as a celebration of Grasshopper Manufacture’s output as a whole. Hardcore Suda51 fans will notice the occasional references to the studios’ other work, including, but not limited to, The 25th Ward: The Silver Case, Killer Is Dead and Killer7, all of which recontextualize those games as a part of the No More Heroes universe. While I didn’t recognize everything, I still got some kick out of what I did.

Alongside the overarching story elaborated on in the DDMKII games and faxes from the character K, there’s also a visual novel component called Travis Strikes Back, which elaborates on how Travis acquires each of the Death Balls. Most of the story is in this visual novel and while watching it is required to advance, it’s still entertaining and allows Travis more room to show off who he is outside of the text boxes in the DDMKII. Interestingly, while he’s still characterized as a loser otaku, his good traits are brought out more, showing some character growth on his end. As such, the game feels like a refresh for Travis, which can work for those unfamiliar with him. This story structure also reminded me of The Silver Case, where the player had to go back and forth between two different visual novels to get all of the details of the story and get the full effect.

The visual novel segments allow more room for storytelling.

Much like the previous games, however, TSA has some great gameplay ideas, but a rough execution. Gone are the motion-based fighting mechanics, instead opting for a simpler isometric 3D hack-and-slash where players can change the difficulty level at any time. Rather than learning new techniques and wrestling moves or upgrading the Beam Katana, players can equip Travis or Badman with Skill Chips, with one exclusive to each character, found in each level or obtained after each game’s boss fight. Each Skill Chip also has a cooldown relative to their power, so finding the right combination of abilities with these cooldowns in mind can greatly help when killing each game’s Bugs.

Playing through each of the DDMKII games, I enjoyed the unique presentation and different storylines. For example, Coffee & Doughnuts involves searching for the titular items to help solve a murder mystery while Golden Dragon GP involves modding a vehicle to win a series of races. However, each game also has its own unique flaws, like spreading the coffee and doughnuts in Coffee & Doughnuts across multiple floors and rooms of a mansion that players can get lost in or having the player in Golden Dragon GP change gears through a randomized maze. Then there’s the execution of Killer Marathon, which can come off as a ploy to sell the DLC (the game even addresses this kind of, which doesn’t excuse doing it).

If only the combat were as interesting as the presentation would let on. No matter which game you play, Travis and Badman still have to fight through hordes of increasingly difficult enemies in tedious and repetitive stretches. It doesn’t help that the charge on weapons diminishes much quicker than in previous games and, in a rather annoying design choice, one hit from an enemy can disrupt the ability of whatever Skill Chip you’ve activated. There’s a mechanic similar to the Ecstasy Gauge in NMH2 where striking enemies builds up a gauge and lets the player pull off a powerful attack with three different levels, but getting struck just a couple times can lower this gauge from level three all the way back down to level one, leading to even greater frustration. Each of the DDMKII games also has a midboss, but each one uses the same model, but with minor cosmetic differences and one unique attack; they are otherwise exactly the same.

Level three moves are hard to pull off, but worth the effort.

Outside of combat, there’s not much else to do within each game. Travis and Badman can save their progress and restore their health at bathrooms, as well as eat from the occasional ramen cart. On top of restoring health, ramen carts unlock a new article in the Ramen Blog back at the Trailer, as well as up the numbered gauge to the next level. Thanks to the aforementioned frustration with damage, however, it’s best to use this bonus quickly, especially if the ramen brought you up to level three. Clearing a game can also trigger a fax from Jeane, Travis’ cat, asking you to find her in a specific spot in the previous game. Should you answer all five of her faxes, you’ll be rewarded with a unique Skill Chip.

TSA also has a bad monetary system. Within each game, players can freely pick up LB$ and Azteca Stones for use in the shop back at the Trailer. However, players can only exchange either currency for unlockable T-shirts based mostly on different indie games and nothing else. Due to a nasty glitch close to launch, however, Grasshopper Manufacture patched in an option to give the player all of the T-shirts for free as an apology. Should you take this option, as I did, you’ve instantly made the entire exercise of collecting LB$ and Azteca Stones completely pointless. As such, it would be more interesting if players could buy other things with the useless currency, like special store-exclusive Skill Chips or upgrades apart from just health and attack power (as the game’s EXP system limits itself to).

If you want some variety, however, you can always try the co-op functionality, where the second player defaults to Badman. This does actually break up the monotony, if only because you can comment on the tedious gameplay with a friend and because dying isn’t an instant loss, as players can revive themselves through means that aren’t well-explained. However, there’s an odd form of friendly fire active and while Travis is understandably the only character who can interact with the Trailer, he’s also the only selectable character for Golden Dragon GP. While dropping in and out of co-op is pretty simple, players can only do so within a level and not at the Trailer. Playing this mode also makes the stripped-down nature of the controls more obvious, as it’s designed around letting each player use a Joy-Con, which naturally has limited functionality compared with a standard controller.

Only Travis can play Golden Dragon GP races.

On the upside, TSA has some pretty good graphics that work well with the Switch’s capabilities and fit in with the aesthetic of previous NMH titles. While the game leans more into the retro aspect of the narrative, it’s mostly contained within the visual novel portion, which itself has an attractive art style that captures the likenesses of the characters with more of a Japanese flare to them. I also appreciated that the Archives section of the Trailer went the extra mile in replicating the look and feel of old-school video game magazines. However, I was mildly annoyed by how the bottom panel in the visual novel segments consistently looked off-center to the left by one or two pixels. During actual gameplay, the HUD for the second player still cuts off one side of the screen even when not in use and, interestingly, Shinobu and Bad Girl don’t have a bathroom animation, not even using a shower like in NMH2.

As with previous games, TSA has good voice acting and a great soundtrack. This time, the music includes more noticeable uses of “N.M.H.” than NMH2 and I enjoyed hearing retro versions of previous themes during the visual novel segments, including “Season of the Samurai” and “Pleather for Breakfast.”

A little over a year after TSA’s release, the game saw the first of its two pieces of DLC, Black Dandelion. This DLC introduced Shinobu Jacobs as a playable character, along with two new Skill Chips exclusive to her, GekkĊken-Ran and Isamiashi-Shinobu. Additionally, it introduced the Badman Strikes Back visual novel, which expands on Badman’s backstory and his motivations for rescuing Bad Girl and avenging her death. At $3.99, this DLC feels fairly priced considering that the new visual novel adds more story content and Shinobu’s skills help her feel more unique.

Two months later, TSA would receive its other piece of DLC, Bubblegum Fatale. On top of receiving a playable Bad Girl with her own unique Skill Chips (Cleanup and Prospect), the game gets a new level, a fully playable version of Killer Marathon. This version of Killer Marathon is the hardest level in the game, with a timed pinball-themed course with tough enemies and obstacles, with the restriction that if you fail any part of the course, you have to start all over again, though thankfully just the beginning of the game’s current level. This culminates in a battle with Silver Face, the hardest boss in the entire game. His conversations explain that he’s angry because he was relegated to DLC that people only bought for Bad Girl and he’s not even the fighting type, which fits in perfectly with the lyrics to his great boss theme, “On Your Mark, Get Set, Go” by DubbyMaple Feat. Tokyo Trill, Devin, Meebee and surapurutame. In addition to the Killer Marathon game, the Travis Strikes Back visual novel also gets one final chapter that sets up the circumstances behind No More Heroes III.

All of this combined helps make Bubblegum Fatale worth its $5.99 asking price.

If you’re a hardcore Suda51 fan or are already a big fan of No More Heroes, then you’ll find something to like in Travis Strikes Again, especially because of how the DLC leads directly into No More Heroes III. For everyone else, however, the tedious gameplay makes it hard to recommend at full price and some may even be better off just watching the cutscenes on YouTube.

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