No More Heroes 3

Like its prequels, No More Heroes 3 overcomes design shortcomings and technical issues through the force of its style; and given that this time around these problems seem more blatant than ever, enjoying the game strongly depends on how one feels about the property’s unique personality

No More Heroes 3 begins in 8-bit glory, as the franchise’s protagonist, Travis Touchdown, reminisces about an arcade title he used to play when he was younger. Called Deathman, it was a side-scrolling action game with a weird premise behind it. In it, aliens from the planet Death invaded Earth, which is not such an original starting point. But to add flavor to the proceedings, the extraterrestrials opted for a unique method of conquest: they forced humans to partake in a twisted murder competition by printing, on everyone’s arm, a counter that represented their score. If the number dropped below one hundred, that person would get killed. The horror only comes to an end when a hero rises among the victims. Going by the name of Deathman, he vaporizes ten of the top evil aliens; faces off against their leader, General Death; and reveals his identity. Travis comments he was never able to get to that ending as a young boy, leaving him wondering who Deathman really was, but the arrival of a remake – which players get to briefly experience in the opening – is about to change that.

Following that bit about Deathman, No More Heroes 3 shifts gears and goes for a style of anime that recalls the work of Studio Ghibli. As the movie rolls, players watch the tale of a child, called Damon, who befriends a furry little being from outer space. While avoiding government surveillance, the boy helps the alien, who he nicknames FU, build a ship that will take him back to his home planet. Before the sad farewell, though, the creature makes a promise: he will return in exactly twenty years.

no_more_heroes33

No More Heroes 3 then makes another abrupt cut; this time, to the cell-shaded tridimensional art style that is the standard of the series. Through it, players learn that the Damon from the previous segment is not a boy from an in-game work of fiction, like Deathman, but an actual person who exists in the same reality as Travis Touchdown. Now a powerful executive, Damon goes to the top of the tower that carries his name to wait for FU’s promised return. The alien proves to be true to his word, and a giant spaceship soon emerges. Sadly, in the twenty-year interval between his departure and his reappearance, FU has become a deranged psychopath who has used his family’s power to annihilate entire planets, and Earth is next on the menu.

Be it because they have gone through the previous installments of the saga or be it because they are vaguely aware of how wild the series is, it is unlikely that players stepping into No More Heroes 3 need any introduction to how events unfold in the world of Travis Touchdown and to how the mind of designer Suda51 works. Nevertheless, these first few minutes of the property’s third chapter do a fantastic job synthesizing the franchise’s spirit, as both their alternations between radically different visual formats and their presentation of a slightly nonsensical script reveal a highly hyperactive game that sacrifices usually essential elements like cohesion and consistency at the altar of its only true God: style. And it is through that quality that No More Heroes 3 lives beautifully and dies horrendously, as the game absolutely refuses to find a balanced middle ground.

As it occurred in previous games, protagonist Travis Touchdown – a cool fearless otaku with a dirty mouth, a deep love for the work of director Takashi Miike, and a beam katana – is suddenly thrown into a competition governed by the United Assassins Association. The respectful institution intervenes when the extraterrestrial overlord FU chooses to conquer Earth not by simply vaporizing it, but by daring someone to slash their way through his generals. As such, once again, a ranking system is established and after Travis Touchdown – who is absolutely pissed off an alien is trying to mess with his beloved town of Santa Destroy – happens to kill the 10th-placed assassin, he moves out of retirement to climb that ladder one step at a time until he can get a shot at FU.

The hero, however, cannot simply move around town looking to cut his next target in half: as stated by the United Assassins Association, there is method to this madness. And it is out of these rules that No More Heroes 3 extracts its main gameplay loop, because before being allowed to duel against the adversary that is ranked right above him, Travis Touchdown must clear a couple of tasks: he needs to find and defeat three groups of minor evil aliens to prove his worth, a type of skirmish the game calls Designated Matches; and he has to acquire enough money to pay the fee that will allow the United Assassins Association to set up the next ranked combat. With those two boxes checked, players will finally be able to access the boss battle. Undoubtedly, the loop can get repetitive and even lead to some grinding, especially towards the second half of the game when a lot of money is required to unlock the boss. Yet, despite this problem and a few other glaring issues, the game can still be enjoyable thanks to the property’s fantastic style.

no_more_heroes32

Returning to the format exhibited in the franchise’s Wii debut, No More Heroes 3 houses that action in a metropolitan area that is divided into six pieces of land. It is worth noting, though, that this is not an entirely open world, since access to different islands is only granted as Travis climbs the Galactic Superhero Rankings. It is clear, however, that developer Grasshopper Manufacture intended the overworld to be the game’s calling card, since the need to fight minor battles and acquire cash has the protagonist traveling all around the city. Sadly, in the end, this is a choice that ends up being more detrimental than beneficial to the overall experience, and for one simple reason: to put it gently, Santa Destroy and its surrounding districts do not come off as very interesting places.

For starters, it is all rather lifeless, to a degree rarely – if not never – seen in a big-name game. Cars roam the streets, very few scattered pedestrians walk around, and not much else: that is the entirety of the effort developers put into breathing life into this setting; consequently, at no point does the world emerge like an actual place. One could argue the emptiness seen everywhere might have to do with how deadly aliens are attacking the planet, but No More Heroes 3 clearly does not go for that apocalyptic vibe, meaning the islands where the action happens end up feeling like a very artificial videogame world.

Furthermore, the open world is also related to three technical hiccups. Firstly, the framerate observed in the segments when Travis is out exploring is not ideal, being much worse than the smooth one that is seen in the moments when he is fighting, which is done in more enclosed spaces. Secondly, loading screens abound, being triggered not just as the hero travels between the islands, but also before every single task players find in the overworld, since these take place in separate scenarios that, usually, do not look all that impressive in spite of their limited size. And thirdly, the movement can be clunky, as there are a lot of obstacles Travis inexplicably cannot jump or drive over, like short fences and small hills.

To boot, there is really nothing inherently clever in the way No More Heroes 3 implements its map. Born in an era where titles like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild succeeded in proving that open worlds can step away from being a silly collection of scattered icons, Grasshopper Manufacture does the exact opposite here, making the city just be a place where Travis drives around a little as he goes from one marker to the next. Due to that, it is easy to think this third installment would have likely been much better off by going down the route of its immediate predecessor and betting on a more streamlined setup.

These stumbles in overworld design are an even greater shame because No More Heroes 3 does a respectable job in giving players tasks to do, with the game keeping track of which ones have been cleared and – where it applies – the rank achieved in the activity. Other than the mandatory Designated Matches, which appear in a greater number than it is necessary to complete the game and involve powered-up versions of the many species of creatures that have joined forces with FU, there are also a few sidequests involving collectibles, battles against waves of regular foes, crazy space combats where Travis uses a mechanized suit to blast gigantic intergalactic menaces, public toilets which can be unclogged to become save points, friendly aliens that will give the hero new shirts if he completes certain achievements, and – of course – the franchise’s traditional job opportunities.

no_more_heroes35

Although all activities net Travis some cash, these jobs are by far the most efficient way to get enough money to acquire power-ups and, more vitally, pay the steep fees required by the United Assassins Association to set up the boss battles. As usual, these are greatly varied and provide a nice break from the combat gameplay that dominates the quest, since they involve mowing lawns, using a canon to stop enormous crocodiles from reaching the shore, cleaning trash from an alligator-infested cesspool, racing against joyriders to drive them off the road, and entering dangerous mines to collect ore. However, it has to be said that when compared to the tasks of No More Heroes 2, these are a step-down in a few senses: their standard 3-D presentation is not as interesting as the 8-bit look of those in the prequel; and, perhaps as a consequence of these more shiny production values, they are not as numerous, wild, and fun either.

Fortunately, though, there is one area in which No More Heroes 3 can be praised without big caveats; and, luckily for the title, that happens to be the gameplay that resides at its core: hack and slash goodness. Using his beam katana, Travis can unleash stunning combos made up of very simple moves: the X and Y buttons respectively trigger strong and light hits, B is used for jumping and can be combined with the two attacks, ZL locks onto enemies and keeps Travis in a guard position in case he is not delivering blows, and A activates a dodge motion that will slow down time and make the character invincible if done right as he is about to be hit. But sprinkled into these basics there are plenty of mechanics that speak more directly to the game’s insane heart.

As far as combat twists go, both attack power and the length of combos is determined by what the game calls Tension Gauge, a cat-shaped meter that increases as Travis attacks and decreases as he takes damage. Moreover, whether by attacking or by blocking, the battery of the protagonist’s beam katana will go down little by little, with the sword becoming pretty useless when it runs out. To avoid that, Travis has to step away from battle every once in a while to, ideally, look for cover and shake some energy back into his sword; a movement that can be done by moving the right stick up and down. Truth be told, some may see this particular mechanic as a silly joke on masturbation that only works to break the flow of the battles, but it can also be viewed as a small addition that brings some strategy into the proceedings by making it impossible for players to be on attack mode all the time.

On the matter of crazy moves, if foes are hit in quick succession, they may stunned, a state which is signaled by the usual halo of stars; at that point, the shoulder triggers can be used so that Travis performs a vicious and highly damaging wrestling suplex. Furthermore, once an enemy has been sufficiently hit, the game will trigger a quick-time event with a directional prompt that, if done correctly, will unleash a Killer Slash, a mighty move that besides hitting hard, also covers a large area and has, therefore, a chance to hit all aliens standing nearby. Finally, the performing of these two special attacks (the suplex and the Killer Slash) is tied to the activation of a roulette dubbed Slash Reel, which can dish out prizes like fully recharging the katana, making Travis become invincible and very fast, allowing him to use the suplex move at will, or even letting him wear his mechanized suit to either cut enemies down with ease or blast them into oblivion with missiles.

no_more_heroes34

To top it all off, No More Heroes 3 introduces the Death Glove. The hero’s new toy is tied to four special moves that become available automatically after the elapsing of cooldown periods. These attacks are activated by pressing L and one of the four face buttons, with each one being responsible for an attack, and they bring even more wildness to the table. The Death Kick is so mighty it leaves foes knocked out on the ground for quite some time, the Death Rain showers aliens in a circular area with minor but steady damage, the Death Slow greatly reduces their speed to the point it feels like they are moving in slow motion, and Death Force is a gravitational throw.

All of those ingredients contribute to combats that unfold at blistering speed and that constantly have Travis doing something stylish or crazy. meaning that besides being mechanically solid and visually stunning, battles are often incredibly satisfying. All of those qualities are further amplified by a nicely varied set of enemies. Truthfully, No More Heroes 3 does not have an incredible amount of different aliens for the hero to slash to pieces, but the ones that do exist offer different sorts of challenges and require unique strategies to be beaten, which are indicated by Travis as he analyzes his foes the first time he encounters each one of them.

To those who are familiar with the No More Heroes franchise, it almost goes without saying that the greatness of these combats reaches its peak when Travis is facing off against the ranked assassins, as these mark the meeting point between the two facets that have always made the property good: its hyperactive style and its spectacular hack and slash gameplay. This is true because rather than being straightforward boss battles, encounters against these main enemies are made more special due to how their completely wacky personalities are employed to turn these moments into events that feel far grander. Sure, at the end of the day, Travis will only climb the rankings by killing someone, and that will usually entail some sort of battle where a lot of slashing will be done, but as soon as they step into the light that will take the hero to where the United Assassins Association has prepared the fight, players ought to strap in for one hell of a ride, because No More Heroes 3 – like its predecessors – enjoys taking the concept of multi-phased boss battles to its very limit, whether it is by simply throwing wild mechanics into the duels or by forcing Travis to engage in rather unusual activities before he can actually start fighting.

And therein lies much of the beauty of No More Heroes as a franchise and of this third installment as a game. Some of Travis’s adventures are definitely better than others, but overall a motif that has followed the hero during his career is that the games in which he appears overcome issues related to both technical and design aspects through the sheer force of their wild spirit. There are plenty of works out there that will build an adventure by throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks, but No More Heroes is different because it does not hang around long enough to check if what it has done has clicked. By the time its audience is trying to figure that out, the game has already gone off on a different tangent, and that is pretty evident not just in its boss battles, but also in the development of its story and in its absolutely bonkers presentation.

no_more_heroes3

This is a game that invests hard in cutscenes, voice acting, script, character development, and art just for the sake of being as flashy as possible. To some, it will all come off as utterly ridiculous: there is too much cursing, the jokes are juvenile, the writing is heavy-handed, the plot is excessively goofy, and nothing really makes a lot of sense. This is a game that matches 8-bit icons with 3-D graphics, that introduces and concludes every iteration of its gameplay loop with animated credits respectively belonging to an American action cartoon and to an epic Japanese anime, that features casual heart-to-hearts between murderous aliens, and that brings characters into and out of the plot without any sort of reasonable explanation. Moreover, it portrays people who are nonchalant towards very graphic violence, who are unmoved by fountains of blood pouring out of decapitated heads or limbs, and who act like a deadly competition between assassins could be a normal daily activity one partakes in before going out for lunch.

If these sound more like positive traits than negative features, then No More Heroes 3 should be an enjoyable ride, perhaps to the point the faults that exist in its dull overworld design and repetitive gameplay loop can be overlooked. And if that is indeed the case, the game has a lot to offer, including a twelve-hour adventure that comes in three possible difficulty settings; controls that work nicely be it in a traditional setup or via the usage of motion commands; and a bunch of optional content, including extra missions and many collectibles. However, if none of those characteristics seem appealing, then No More Heroes 3 should be ignored, because perhaps to an even greater degree than its two predecessors, the game is very reliant on its style. Without it, the experience can easily come off as more faulty than finely tuned. With it, though, it is a respectable effort that stumbles quite a bit but that ends up being a nice addition to the Switch’s library.

FINAL SCORE: 7 – VERY GOOD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s