No More Heroes
Release Date: 01/22/08
No More Heroes is a weird little game.
That’s not really a surprise, to be fair. Grasshopper and SUDA 51 (the director of the product) are both known for their weird, quirky titles. The former has only really developed one title that could be said to have a sense of conventional appeal: Shining Soul 2. Everything else they’ve had a hand in developing that has found its way to American shores, from Contact to Killer 7 to Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked has been quirky and weird, both artistically and mechanically. And SUDA 51 has more than a little to do with that, as Grasshopper is his baby first and foremost. While his touch is felt to varying degrees through most of the games Grasshopper has developed, the game that most people readily identify with his personal style is Killer 7, a stylistically interesting on-rails shooter of sorts that attracted a decent cult following in the US.
Which brings us to No More Heroes, which, as noted, is a weird little game. It isn’t weird because it’s done in the now seemingly standard SUDA 51 artistic style, nor is it weird because it is a heavily violent video game on a system that has been marketed to people who don’t like heavy violence. It’s not even weird strictly because of any one thing it does or does not do, though some of the things the games does certainly are weird.
No More Heroes is weird because it never really seems sure what it’s aspiring to be, and aside from the artistic style, all it manages to be is a game that’s not terribly special.
The story in No More Heroes is centered around one Travis Touchdown, a dorky otaku/gamer/wrestling fan with more sexual energy than brains, whose only goal in life, at this point, is to ascend to Rank #1 in the Assassin’s Guild, either because he wants to fight someone who’s better than him or because he wants to sleep with his handler Sylvia, depending upon the cinematic. Along the way he does battle with a cast of colorful characters in various locations inside and outside of his home town of Santa Destroy (yes, that’s the name of the town), ranging from a corrupt detective with a broken family to a one-legged warrior with a part-time modeling gig to a magician to a wannabe superhero. The core concept of the story is simple enough that it works… reasonably well on its own, from the silly names to the even sillier themes running through the game (over half of the shops in Santa Destroy are named after wrestling terminologies, so you get Pizza Suplex and Luchacho Gas) but it never really knows what it’s trying to do. Part of the story is pure satire, whether it be of American culture or of fanboys or of whatever else it’s tackling at the time, but the other part of the story is more or less treating the subject matter somewhat seriously, and the two tend to conflict. The story ultimately seems as if it’s going for a serious resolution as you move closer and closer to the final battle, only to yank the rug out from under you, more or less, by spending nearly every possible moment that it can from the cinematic prior to the battle with the First Ranked assassin all the way up to the true ending breaking the fourth wall and making all sorts of jokes that wouldn’t be funny in a GOOD story, let alone in this one. It’s not even that the story is BAD so much as it spends so much time trying to be satirical and funny instead of simply letting the game carry the joke itself.
You want to see an example of this exact same type of story, done in this exact same style, only correctly? Play God Hand. THAT story was well written. THIS story is never certain what it really wants to be, and never succeeds at being anything, because every time it DOES do something successfully, it COMPLETELY changes gears again and leaves the player never knowing what they’re supposed to be getting out of it. You can’t take it seriously because Travis is entirely too much of a likeable dork and there’s entirely too much silly stuff going on, but you can’t laugh because a lot of the story elements are outright uncomfortable. It’s neither good nor bad; it’s simply bizarre.
Aside: memo to the person or persons who did the English translation of the game who felt the need to stick a Duke Nukem Forever joke in the game (and I have to believe that someone on the American staff did it, because the Japanese have seen maybe, what, ONE Duke Nukem game, and thus wouldn’t get the joke): you are not funny and your joke was an embarrassment to every one else who actually put time and effort into trying to write clever and/or witty dialogue. Your joke is bad and you should feel bad. And if, by some chance, this joke was in the Japanese release? Then your joke is worse, and you should feel worse.
Of course, this being Grasshopper, the game looks and sounds awesome. The visual style of No More Heroes is the same style used in games like Samurai Champloo and Killer 7, using cel shading and shadows to create a dark, living cartoon world of sorts, and it’s absolutely stunning, even the third time around. Characters and enemies animate fluidly, the game world is visually solid, and everything is generally smooth and of high quality (especially the violence). The game also features a lot of throwback visual elements that are reminiscent of the old 8-bit days of yore; your mini-map and options menu are done in 8-bit design, and the various icons that indicate missions, shops and such are also designed the same way, which is very neat and interesting. There are some draw-in issues while you’re riding around Santa Destroy, the odd frame-rate problem pops up now and again, and several of the enemy designs repeat on and on, but for the most part these issues aren’t a big deal in comparison. The audio experience, on the other hand, is spot-on perfect in all respects. The music? Fantastic, combining strongly composed action tracks with odd throwback tunes here and there. The voice acting? Superb; no one sounds at all miscast and the vocal performances are top notch across the board. Sound effects? Magnificent; combat sounds intense and powerful, and the various 8-bit sounds sprinkled liberally throughout the game are surprisingly well inserted and sound at home whenever they come around. The game also makes fantastic use of the Wii-mote speaker; various light-saber noises come from the speaker during battle, as does a note advising you if your Beam Saber is running low on battery power, but most interestingly of all, when Sylvia calls Travis to advise him of his next battle, you have to PUT THE WII-MOTE TO YOUR EAR AS IF IT WERE A PHONE to listen to her commentary. This is a fantastic use of the technology in general and it’s a great piece of audio presentation (though if you’re some sort of killjoy you can turn it off). If presentation were all that a game needed to be a success, NMH would be a hands-down winner, bar none.
Unfortunately, gameplay has a big say in the quality of your game, and in many respects, NMH doesn’t deliver in this department so well. The core gameplay split up between three major sets of tasks: assassination missions, which are your “kill everyone you see”Â action sections; part-time jobs, which are various tasks you perform for cash; and an open world GTA-esque city you can drive around in, so as to allow you to visit various shops and drive to various missions. Each of these elements works to varying degrees, but the assassination missions far and away work the best. The core of the assassination missions is, essentially, hacking apart everyone you see while taking as little damage as possible, and for the most part, the gameplay in these sections works well enough. You press the A button on the Wii-mote to attack enemies with your Beam Saber, and when they’re sufficiently damaged the game indicates on-screen a direction to flick the Wii-mote; do so and you’ll do some sort of violent finishing move or another to take them out (and, possibly, several of the enemies surrounding them). If you’re so inclined, you can also stun your opponents, either by hacking into them repeatedly or by striking them with the B button; once stunned, you can then grapple them (also by using B), and by flicking the Wii-mote and Nunchuck in the specified on-screen directions, you’ll perform a wrestling move of some sort. Travis can attack high and low depending on what angle you hold the Wii-mote at, and he can block attacks as needed when you lock onto your foes with Z. You’ll also occasionally lock swords with other enemies, which requires you to spin the Wii-mote in a circle to win the lockup; if you beat the opponent, you get a free chance at a killing strike, but losing leaves you free to take damage. Your Beam Saber also consumes battery power as you use it, and while you can find battery power-ups throughout the various missions from time to time, in a lot of cases you’ll have to press the 1 button to enter recharge mode; by wiggling the Wii-mote, Travis charges up the battery pack on the Beam Saber by, well, jerking it off essentially.
There are several different types of assassination missions, each with its own set of rules associated to it, but they all essentially come down to killing everything and moving on with your day. You’ll also have to go through various boss battles to progress through the game, against a large and colorful cast of characters. Each of the bosses in the game has a generally odd personal affectation about them that makes them unique in some form or fashion, and more than a few are attempts at satire to some degree (Destroy Man, as a primary example), but the main points of interest about them are that they all have fairly interesting and unique ways of engaging in combat with you, some of which are fairly interesting (trapping you in tiger pits and throwing grenades at you, for instance, or trapping you in magic boxes… yes, really) that require a little more work than you might have originally expected. The game is also pretty good about ramping up the challenge in combat as time goes on, though this isn’t a universal constant; the missions and boss battles associated with the 3rd and 2nd rank assassins aren’t anywhere near as challenging as some of the prior bouts, while the 1st rank mission and boss can be a pain… and the boss following that is nothing by comparison. In other words: the combat is mostly balanced, but not perfect.
The problem with the combat, however, is that it’s fairly one-dimensional: you’ve seen everything the core combat mechanics are going to throw at you by the end of the second mission, leaving the brunt of the “wow factor”Â to come purely from the bosses. This isn’t SO bad, but by the time you complete Ranking Battle 4 (Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii… yes, really), you will have seen virtually all of innovations the game was planning on throwing at you, period (save for two missions involving your bike, which aren’t really all that exciting in any case). The four boss battles following that one are substantially less interesting than the HMV battle (one isn’t even a battle, two are easier than this one, and one is just an exercise in frustration more than anything else), and by the time you’re getting closer to the final battles it becomes more of a chore to actually CARE enough to finish them in the first place. Grappling, outside of boss battles, never really has a practical use; most of the time, swinging your sword about as needed is sufficient enough to deal with all of your problems. There’s not really a lot of strategy that needs to be applied outside of boss battles, either, so the game literally becomes a case of hacking foes apart to get from one point of interest to the next with little to no deviation from that formula. And while boss battles require more strategy, the strategies are generally similar: block, wait for an opening, strike, repeat. Unless you get hit with an instant-death attack (and more than a few of the bosses have these, for some asinine reason), you’ll most likely be able to muddle your way through most of the boss fights without a problem.
Granted, part of the reason the combat gets to be boring after a while is partly because THERE’S AN AWFUL LOT OF IT, but it’s also due to the fact that outside of the combat, there isn’t a lot else interesting to do in the game proper. Your options outside of combat are essentially limited to driving around the city of Santa Destroy or taking on part-time jobs to make money. Driving around the city more or less has a very distinct GTA sort of feel to it; the city is very open and you can explore it as much as you desire, whether it be to dig up cash from the ground, kick open dumpsters, look for Lovikov balls (which can be traded in to learn special enhancements) or to just drive to other locations in the game world. Moving around the game world, however, isn’t terribly… well… FUNCTIONAL is probably the closest word. Your bike controls adequately enough to get you from Point A to Point B, but there are some serious issues involved in this thing, most notably the fact that you can get stuck fairly easily on pieces of the environment and the fact that the collision detection is weird; sometimes you’ll go head-on into a wall and fall off your bike, while others you’ll just stop dead. Passing too close to a car also frequently causes both your bike and the car in question to stop dead, presumably to prevent you from hitting it. The city essentially seems to exist AROUND Travis instead of having a life of its own; had the entire gameplay dynamic been excised entirely in favor of a simple overhead map that allowed you to go from place to place, that would have been a more functional choice.
Part-time jobs fare a bit better; essentially, you’re offered a job to undertake, be it collecting coconuts, catching scorpions, pumping gas, et cetera, each with its own control schematics and goals. The point of doing these jobs is two-fold: first, they provide something different to do in-between assassination missions to earn cash, and second, they unlock OTHER assassination missions that you can take for cash. The jobs themselves are mostly functional and play okay, but you’re not going to spend hours and hours doing any of them (unless you can get the timing of the gas-pumping job down solid) because they don’t pay any more cash than killing people does.
Regardless, you’re going to spend some time earning cash, partly because there are things to buy and partly because the game demands it. You can customize Travis’ appearance by buying various pieces of clothing (or by scrounging shirts out of dumpsters), and you can upgrade his arsenal by spending money to improve his stats, upgrade his Beam Saber or acquire new ones, and learn more wrestling moves by buying wrestling tapes. But you also need cash to advance the game; each ranking battle for the Assassin’s Guild requires you pay an entry fee (which goes up as you go on). This, in turn, leaves you undertaking various part-time jobs and assassination missions until you earn the required amount of cash needed to pay for the next Ranking Battle, only to rank up and repeat the process all over again.
Which brings up the single largest problem with No More Heroes: IT’S TOO LONG. That’s a… really weird complaint to make about a game, but it is what it is. See, if you do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ELSE but run like mad to complete the game, and I mean NOTHING… you don’t buy clothes, you don’t upgrade anything but your Beam Saber, you just aim straight for the end of the game… you could probably complete it in about ten hours. The average completion time will most likely run between twelve and fourteen hours, depending upon how much time you spend poking around Santa Destroy. Now, the longer any video game goes on, the harder it becomes to entertain the player… unless the player is REALLY invested in your story, they’re eventually going to give up on the game because it doesn’t give them anything exciting to do and they get bored. If the combat was deeper in NMH, or if the game kept upping the ante in boss battles, or if the game were shorter, it would be a lot better of an experience… but after fourteen straight hours of playing the game, several hours of which feel like they were wasted on arbitrary goals that the game shouldn’t have forced upon you, the game leaves a bad taste in your mouth. There’s such a thing as too much game, and NMH is one of those cases; by the time you complete the battle for Rank 2 you’ll start to wonder if the game has anything else to throw at you; unfortunately, it really doesn’t. This is doubly problematic, as the game not only doesn’t give you much of a reason to want to finish it unless you love the story… but it doesn’t give you a reason to play through it AGAIN. You can, if you wish, take your upgraded Travis through a higher difficulty mode, and there are Trading Cards (with pictures of wrestling masks on them) to collect (150 in total, I’m told), but there’s not much of a reason to do this thing unless you’re a completionist; the game doesn’t do a lot more to bring you back beyond that. Unless you love the combat, you won’t have any reason to play the game a second time.
That’s actually something of a shame, too; the game is fundamentally interesting in how and what it chooses to do things, from the crazy boss characters and their (mostly) interesting battles, to the weird retro elements and the cool art direction; from the big touches to the little ones, though you’ve played plenty of games that PLAY like this (to one extent or another), you’ve never really seen a game that FEELS like this. From an outside the box perspective, it’s also easy to look at it and think it’d be a game most people could jump into and enjoy; the earlier parts of the game are fantastic, and the interesting style and over-the-top violence are more than likely to draw players to the game, though whether or not they will stick with it is more of a challenging question.
In all honesty, No More Heroes is a stylistically interesting, conceptually unique, artistically wonderful, boring piece of work. Hacking the crap out of enemies for over half a day might well keep you entertained, and if it does, splendid, you’ll love the art direction, style, and design of the game. Strictly speaking, though, the gameplay starts out being novel and innovative and, ten hours later, degenerates into being boring simply because there’s nothing else to do and the game overstays its welcome. If you’re interested, you might want to give it a rental first; if the pretty pictures and over-the-top violence are your siren song, Killer 7 is probably cheaper and can be played on the Wii; but if you were expecting something of strong gameplay and substance, you’re going to be disappointed.
Overall Score: 61/10
Final Score: 6.0 (ABOVE AVERAGE).
Short Attention Span Summary
No More Heroes is mucho style, little substance. Underneath the pretty visuals and odd sense of style lies a meager experience that’s not really worth experiencing more than once. Only the most artistically interested or easily amused gamers need step up to purchase this; the rest can safely rent it just to say they’ve seen it.