Wednesday, September 8, 2021

No More Heroes III

Over ten years after No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle (NMH2), Travis Touchdown returns to the spotlight with a proper third installment, No More Heroes III (NMH3). As a fan of Suda51, I was excited enough for the prospect of NMH3 and Suda51 returning to directing games that it acted as a catalyst for buying a Nintendo Switch in the first place. With little knowledge of the game’s contents, I got a physical copy on release day and eagerly returned to the Garden of Madness, wondering just how Suda51 would wrap up Travis’ story for good. Unfortunately, I felt increasingly disappointed as the game went on and felt cheated by the end result, especially at full price.

Two years after the events of Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes (TSA), an alien prince named FU arrives with the intention of taking over Earth by posing as a superhero. Travis notices the aliens invading Santa Destroy and fends them off, which leads FU to establish the Galactic Superhero Rankings, a ranked ladder with himself at the top, to determine the fate of the planet.

FU is determined to conquer Earth.

Right away, the story won’t make any sense without prior knowledge of TSA, since Travis’ relationship with Shinobu, Bad Girl and Badman comes out of nowhere otherwise. TSA also plays an important role in the story, as minor characters like Damon Riccitiello and Kamui Uehara (the latter imported from Suda51’s visual novel The 25th Ward: The Silver Case), make their return and have a comparatively greater role in NMH3. Related, one of the ranked assassins in the Galactic Superhero Rankings is Midori Midorikawa, who was imported from a supplemental short story for The 25th Ward called Red, Blue, and Green. Bad Girl’s wildly different personality compared to her original incarnation in No More Heroes (NMH) also gets explained in TSA.

Beyond the TSA connections, I like the idea behind how NMH3 presents its story. Each Ranking Battle is broken up like a Netflix anime, complete with an OP and ED, credits, a next episode visual and a spoof of Netflix episode transitions (with a green “G” for Grasshopper Manufacture instead of the Netflix logo and a similar sound effect). Partway into the story, there are also visual novel segments inserted between eyecatches. Alongside Travis’ story, there’s also a parallel one between Damon and FU where we gradually see how Travis’ actions affect FU’s mental state. Despite the outlandish premise, the game lays out the groundwork for an interesting story that is, at first, engaging.

Unfortunately, NMH3 never taps into its full potential and instead feels like a complete narrative mess. Travis feels more like his original NMH self rather than how he was portrayed in NMH2 onward, though now he also occasionally stops the plot cold to gush about the work of prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike (who also makes a cameo appearance). While Henry Cooldown returns, he feels absolutely nothing like his NMH or NMH2 self, with a radically different appearance and personality that started in TSA, but comes with little to no explanation. Despite how the game builds up Shinobu and Bad Girl at the beginning, they’re completely sidelined until the very end, making their appearance nearly pointless. The aliens start out as interesting characters, but due to how the game treats them as a complete joke, it’s nearly impossible to get invested in any of them as individuals outside of maybe FU. Unlike previous games, NMH3 also doesn’t really explore the traditional theme of violence as entertainment and instead prioritizes an absurd and sometimes annoying amount of goofy and self-referential humor even by the series’ own standards. This includes entire conversations where Travis and his opponents openly discuss various video game tropes and even call out specific references made to other video games (once, Sylvia even throws up copyright info onto the screen and thanks the director). The ending also doesn’t help matters, since it doesn’t feel conclusive despite Suda51 mentioning that NMH3 would end Travis’ story.

In short, NMH3 feels like it’s trying too hard to be funny and wacky at the expense of good storytelling.

Don't get too attached.

Where NMH2 abandoned the open world and TSA went for an isometric hack-and-slash experience, NMH3 returns to the formula established by the original NMH, where Travis must drive around the open world and earn money for the next Ranking Battle. Combat also returns to the full 3D used in NMH and NMH2, but with some noticeable differences.

One obvious difference is that Travis only has one Beam Katana, Blood Berry, throughout the whole game. Instead of buying or equipping new Beam Katanas, the pixelated Tension Gauge in the lower right absorbs energy from combat and gradually transforms Travis’ weapon into stronger forms with additional blades, though taking too much damage will revert it back to its original state. When Travis lands attacks at specific moments, defeats an enemy or lands a wrestling move, the Slash Reel will activate and potentially trigger one of a few effects, much like in previous games. This time, however, the reel grants access to Mustang Mode, which allows him to rapidly slash an unblockable Beam Katana; Throw Crazy Mode, which lets Travis continuously grab enemies; and Full Armor Mode, which Travis can trigger at any time after getting a 777 result (even between battles) and deals a significant amount of damage to a single enemy or a small group. Later in the game, Travis can also use Full Green Armor, which replaces Full Armor Mode if he gets a green 777 on the Slash Reel and gives him increased movement and power, along with unique special moves, all while wearing a small mech suit.

Full Armor Mode is a great addition.

Due to the events of TSA, Travis also wears a Death Glove, a controller from the DD-MKII game console that lets him use abilities from the system in the real world. These take the form of Death Glove Skills, which look and behave like the Skill Chips from TSA and have an associated cooldown rate. Though the player can’t choose which of these skills Travis has, they can augment him with up to three DG-Chips, which provide certain different stat buffs and bonuses, some of which come with their own downsides. Players can create up to three of the same DG-Chip, as long as they provide the correct junk dropped by enemies after combat and can pay the associated cost of UtopiCoins (Uc), a currency that players can earn alongside World End Super Nova (WESN). If Travis dies in battle, players have the option to either return to the Motel “NO MORE HEROES” or retry the fight. Retrying the fight also spins a wheel for different effects, positive or negative, including increased attack power, Mustang Mode on the next Slash Reel spin, continuing on the spot with full health if you’re really lucky or, if you’re really unlucky, no battery power in the Beam Katana. On that note, Travis can now recharge his Beam Katana while moving at the expense of his walking speed, as well as freely dash and jump.

One last addition expands on the sushi mechanic from TSA. Here, Travis can order sushi from DonMai Sushi with Uc and either Eat In for a bonus that affects the next battle or get Takeout for an in-battle bonus like replenishing health or battery power. You can only Eat In one type of sushi at a time, but you can stock on up to five of each Takeout sushi, which you can select and consume on the fly. Eating Takeout sushi can really help in a pinch, but players should be aware that if they die and choose to return to a previous location instead of retrying, they won’t get back any of the sushi they consumed or any of the Uc they previously spent.

Order sushi whenever you can.

Whenever Travis encounters a new type of alien, a card will appear on the screen outlining what it is, what it can do and tips on defeating it more easily. Learning this info is helpful, as it gives players a good idea of what to expect and the initial fight also gives them the knowledge of how to approach different crowd combinations in the future. Plus, the cards all follow a template that’s easy to digest and shows that a lot of care went into giving the design a specific retro feel.

After avoiding it for two games, NMH3 returns to the open world from the original NMH, though naturally with its own twists. In a similar formula to the first game, Travis has to complete a certain number of Designated Missions while also earning enough Uc from the open world, then pay the appropriate fee at an ATM before he can take on a Ranking Battle. However, Travis can now travel outside Santa Destroy and visit other towns, including Perfect World, Thunderdome, Call of Battle and Neo Brazil. In these towns, Travis can earn Uc and WESN through completing Defense Missions, where he fights off multiple waves of various aliens, or Volunteer Missions, which serve the same purpose as Side Jobs from the original NMH.

Some Volunteer Missions are repeatable tasks, like mowing lawns or mining WESN, while others are cumulative and require searching all across each map for different items, including Jeanne’s children, Deathman trading cards and the infamous scorpions. There are also T-shirt Aliens who can give Travis new clothing for free, provided he has met certain conditions like landing a certain number of wrestling moves, killing a certain number of enemies or obtaining a cumulative total of Uc or WESN.

Lawnmowing is improved from NMH.

Defense Missions come in two flavors, one with enemies on the ground or in spaceships and the other where Travis fights a miniboss in space. For these missions, his Full Armor Mode upgrades into Bougainvillea, a special mech suit that can target specific weak points and charge energy that can fire off as smaller projectiles or release all at once as a more powerful laser at the expense of free movement. There aren’t that many different minibosses, but they all have interesting designs and attack patterns that keep players on their toes.

One of the minibosses.

Within each town, Travis can also use public toilets, allowing more opportunities for saving a game. However, he has to repair them with a quick minigame first. While this adds an unnecessary extra step, it at least doesn’t take that long.

Travis’ iconic bike, the Schpeltiger, doesn’t return this time, instead replaced with the more advanced Demzamtiger. Compared with the Schpeltiger, the Demzamtiger has much better handling, with more reliable power sliding capabilities. As an added bonus, Travis can summon the bike and have it teleport to his location instantly, provided he’s far enough away, and he can bail at any time while driving. The latter is especially helpful, since the Demzamtiger doesn’t slow down as quickly.

Alongside Travis’ bike, his motel room also gets a significant upgrade and now passes through multiple floors connected by a fire pole. On the first floor, Travis can change his wardrobe, save his game or interact with Jeane in different ways depending on where she is in the room. On the top floor, Travis can not only save his game, but view his capsule toy collection and play a fully playable version of the Deathman video game briefly played in NMH3. There’s also the basement, a relocated version of Naomi’s Lab where Travis can fight previous bosses with the Time Machine on any difficulty level, order Takeout sushi over the phone, create and equip DG-Chips and spend WESN in the Power Up Machine to boost his stats and learn new abilities. Travis can also explore other rooms in the motel, including one that gives him DLC shirts and another where he can spend Uc and WESN in three different Gacha machines to earn capsule toys.

Travis' motel room is a bit different now.

Much like TSA, there’s also a New Game+ mode where you can carry everything you’ve unlocked, including upgrades, time machine bosses and capsule toys, with you to another playthrough.

As much as I like the new additions, however, there are several issues that collectively bog down the experience. During combat, the Beam Katana’s battery doesn’t last as long as it did in the first two games unless you upgrade the battery life, which you can’t do until after the second boss fight. While I got used to the lack of additional Beam Katanas, I didn’t like the complete absence of Dark Side Attacks, especially now that two of the Slash Reel results are additional Uc and WESN instead. When you’re scored after each fight based on your performance, you’re also penalized for using the Death Glove Skills too often, which made me question why the game lets you freely use them, especially since the fight against FU has very small windows where you can actually damage him, forcing me to lean more heavily on those skills. Additionally, if you play on Berry Sweet difficulty, Auto Guard prevents you from taking any damage, rendering much of the sushi system completely pointless and trivializing the bosses. On the first difficulty where you have to worry about damage, Bitter, it also felt like some of the Defense Missions were more difficult than the actual boss fights due to the game's uneven enemy balance.

Outside of combat, the open world is where most issues come to light and not just Travis’ unbearably slow walking speed inside buildings. The game world is poorly designed, with towns that aren’t nearly as big as the map makes them appear, since the large forbidden areas never open up, which gives the impression Grasshopper Manufacture started with the star logo shape and then filled it in. As a side effect, Santa Destroy also doesn’t quite resemble how it looks in NMH and NMH2, with altered geography to match the new aesthetic, and towns end up somehow even more barren than the open world in the original game.

The Burger Suplex is now attached to the
motel instead of across the street.

While there are plenty of side activities, now fully 3D instead of the NES style from NMH2, there isn’t much variety, with only five different jobs and three missions that lead you all around the map for pitiful end rewards (usually just a T-shirt and some currency). There are also three types of collectables, mostly for earning more currency, and some Adventures (read: visual novels) with varying rewards like the Gacha machines. It also doesn’t help that the T-shirt aliens are a clunky substitute for Area 51 and you have to refresh the map in some way before you return for the possibility of a new shirt. All of these activities are spaced enough away from each other that you get the impression that there’s more to do than there really is, unlike the Lovikov Balls from the original NMH, where you at least get something meaningful for your trouble, or the comparative wealth of different activities in NMH and NMH2.

Driving around is another matter. While the Demzamtiger is indeed mostly an improvement over the Schpeltiger, the streets feel much narrower in NMH3, meaning the Demzamtiger can more easily hit an object too quickly and make Travis fly off. I also noticed that if Travis bails while the Demzamtiger is stuck in the environment, the bike maintains whatever momentum it has, which more often than not means Travis spends a couple seconds getting back on his feet. While the open world finally has a Fast Travel feature, it only takes you between different towns and not to specific locations on the map, unlike the system employed in Heroes’ Paradise.

What's the point?

Much like in TSA, you can also easily render half the monetary system completely pointless. By the end of the game on Bitter difficulty, it’s possible to have most of the upgrades from the Power Up Machine through normal gameplay. From there, you can quickly and easily grind WESN in the Time Machine by fighting certain bosses on Berry Sweet difficulty and max out on upgrades. After that, the only other purpose for WESN is on the Alien Gacha machine, which requires 200 WESN (not 200 Uc like the initial text suggests) and once you’ve completed that, your WESN just pointlessly counts up.

Of course, I can’t complete this review without addressing the myriad of performance issues, which all suggest that the game, which proudly uses Unreal Engine 4, wasn’t properly optimized for the Switch.

I’ll first mention that while the game ditches the cel shading present in NMH and NMH2, I didn’t mind the change all that much and thought the characters were all rendered pretty well. I also liked that the Death Glove’s color scheme resembles the Switch’s Joy-Cons (specifically the red and blue ones) and appreciated that the bottom panel in the visual novel segments was properly centered. The game also blatantly recycles assets and animations from TSA, though I suspect that was just a way to save time and/or money.

The art direction isn't really an issue.

Unfortunately, those are all the positives there. While not unplayable, the framerate noticeably chugs while in the open world and is plagued with texture loading and texture pop-ins, even during cutscenes. There’s also some noticeable clipping and Travis’ dash animation doesn’t look that much different from his regular running animation. I also had it where the loading screen animations stuttered enough that I thought the game froze and once ran into a crash during the postgame that undid several minutes of progress on multiple side missions. The subtitles also don’t always match what the characters are actually saying, one cutscene had de-synced audio and another had mistimed subtitles, not to mention there were times where the English translation looked rushed, with incomplete or missing words (both in subtitles and in-game text). I also ran into a glitch where during the boss fight against FU, he teleported into a rock and couldn’t move forward (he still teleported back out).

On a lesser note, the capsule toys have a noticeably low polygon count and, in a case of hit-and-miss audio mixing, some of the enemy and boss attacks either sounded very quiet or were completely silent. Add to that how the motion controls don’t feel too dissimilar from using the already comfortable standard controls.

The only other positive is that the voice acting is generally good, even Jeane’s inexplicably male voice, though I can’t say the same for the music. While I loved the increased use of “N.M.H.” as a leitmotif, none of the boss themes really stuck with me the same way those in the original NMH did.

NMH3 definitely has a lot of style, perhaps more than any other Suda51 game, but sadly lacks in substance, constantly subverting expectations solely because it can and cheating the player out of certain moments, and even entire fights, by exaggerating and overusing ideas present since the first NMH. If you’re already a die-hard Suda51 fan with an itch to scratch, you’ll definitely find something enjoyable in this game. For everyone else, wait for a sale.

No comments:

Post a Comment