Review: No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle (Nintendo Wii)

No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle
Genre: Beat ‘Em Up
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: 01/26/2010

I’m a fan of over the top style action, whether it is infused into the games I play or the movies I watch, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed the original No More Heroes game on the Wii. At the time, as a Wii owner, I was starving for lightsaber action that seemed destined to appear on the system yet never seemed to be released. Along comes this crazy game where a guy named Travis Touchdown, an Otaku obsessed with Japanese culture, mail orders a beam katana (aka lightsaber) and tries to work his way up the ranks of an organization for assassins.

It was a crazy game that destroyed the fourth wall, was filled with all sorts of absurd characters and required doing side jobs like mowing lawns in order to progress through the game. Plus, when I got the game it was fairly cheap, so it was easy to ignore some of the shortcomings of the game as intentional parody of other games. That and when you play enough mini-game collections you just start appreciating a game that seeks only to deliver a bloody good time on the Wii.

At least those are the excuses I tell myself as I’m trying to figure out, after beating No More Heroes 2, exactly what it was that I enjoyed about the series in the first place.

No More Heroes 2 starts with the protagonist of the last game, Travis Touchdown, returning to seek revenge for the murder of his friend. Three years have passed since the end of the last game, and during that time, Travis has retired from the rankings and the UAA organization that runs the rankings has grown in popularity based on Travis’s previous exploits. The town of Santa Destroy has grown with the wealth that the UAA has brought in and has expanded its borders. The first game ended ambiguously with Travis and his brother seconds away from killing each other while Travis questions whether or not he was even the protagonist of the game. At the beginning of NMH2 none of what happened at the end of the first game is addressed. In fact, the game breaks the fourth wall right away with the characters looking straight at the camera and saying that the explanation is long and the player would skip it anyway.

This is the first point that I realized the game developers were giving the player a virtual middle finger.

I get it. Suda51 is a guy who likes to present crazy game design ideas in weird ways. In some ways he reminds me of Quentin Tarantino, as he’s not afraid to completely break the rules of the media he works with in order to make a point. In the original game there was a boss battle that was completely non-interactive, not to mention the relationship between the last boss and the main character, as well as the whole crazy part after the credits. However, making a point by sacrificing game design for delivering that message does not make for an enjoyable experience. Ignoring how the first game ended in the sequel and claiming the player would be bored with the explanation is just lazy. I can skip cut scenes by pressing the plus button if I so choose.

If that was the worst of it, then I would just laugh it off as a satire for sequels in general and move on. Unfortunately, No More Heroes 2 is a mess of bad game design decisions that make it feel less like the development team is mocking video game cliches and Otaku culture and more like it’s actively insulting the very audience that is buying the game.

Let me explain.

No More Heroes 2 starts well enough. The game begins with a familiar rooftop scene against what appears to be Cloud Strife. That battle is interrupted by a narrator, a scantily dressed nurse looking person on the other side of a peep show booth, who is explaining the events of the game in a past tense. Then the action continues and the plot comes together to explain why Travis Touchdown is back in Santa Destroy: he is after the murderer of his friend. Coincidentally, that happens to be the current number one ranked assassin in the expanded UAA. Since Travis has been gone for years he has to start again from the bottom of the rankings and move his way back up the ladder again in order to challenge the current king of the mountain. Except that ladder is 50 assassins long.

Well, sort of. Apparently they have Travis start as rank 51 in order to pay homage to NMH creator Suda51. I call it false advertising. The back of the box states that he starts at rank 51 and fights through more epic battles. While it is true there are more boss battles, the final number is closer to 15 than 51. The game manages this by having one assassin and his cheerleaders count as 24 of the fifty. Then there’s a Battle Royal between twelve assassins and Travis. Before you get excited, there is no large scale battle with twelve different assassins. By the time Travis gets involved it is down to just one. At least six other assassins in the top ten are killed by people other than Travis, three of which are never even part of the game.

That doesn’t even begin to address the problems with the bosses themselves. They don’t even make sense for the rankings. At least one of them hasn’t even been on Earth for several years, so how he became one of the top ranked assassins is beyond me and doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Maybe I’m expecting too much consistency from a game where you can turn into a tiger, but the ranking system in NMH2 is bullshit. You can advance rank by other people fighting the battles for you? What the hell?

Then there are the matter of the bosses. In the first game these were over the top caricatures of different archetypes with some well done development before and after the fights. In fact, it is easy to say that the boss battles were the main attraction of the first game. In the sequel, these characters do not have the same flair. The introductory scenes are generally the character talking about how great Travis is. There are no scenes after the battle with the bosses, as these have been replaced with timed motion events. Because of this, the bosses lack the character that made them stand out in the original. Instead, they are boring, tepid affairs in which I didn’t even know the name of the character until after they were dead. There is one boss that is imprisoned and spits acid, and I still have no idea who she is or why I should give a damn about her character. You can say the boss is there to show Travis’s fear of intimacy, except the whole battle is forgettable. Compared to some of the battles in the first game, this is extremely disappointing.

While we are talking about changes, let’s go over what has been removed from the game. All of the Lakinov ball abilities? Gone. The free roam mode around Santa Destroy? Nope. Upgrading the beam katanas? Gone. Assassination missions? Not in the game. Side jobs? Changed.

Instead of the mini-games that the first one required in order to earn money to continue in the rankings, the sequel removes all of that. There is no monetary requirement to continue the game. Instead, nearly all of the side jobs have been reduced to 8-bit games. Overall, this is one of the best parts of the game, as the 8-bit mini games are more enjoyable than everything else the game has to offer. They’re simple affairs that look exactly like they’d fit in with 8-bit games of the past. The music is extremely well done for these games, which include a sound effect at the beginning of Travis blowing into a cartridge.

The only problem is that each of them only have a couple of levels and are over pretty quickly. There is no longer a monetary requirement to advance to the next ranking fight, so the only motivation to play these games is to train, buy clothes and buy more Beam Katanas. There are only two Beam Katanas to buy from Naomi and no upgrades for them. None of the clothes really stand out, and all of them just make Travis look like a douche anyway, so unless you are a completionist then you will not need to play these mini-games more than a couple of times. Then there are the training games. Most of the job side missions that were changed to 8-bit games made them more enjoyable. The 8-bit training games are less so. Much less so. Both of the 8-bit games are extremely frustrating at higher levels to the point where the only exercise that’s going on is an exercise in frustration.

Speaking of frustrating, in another effort to flip off critics of the first game, the only job side mission that carried over from the original title to the sequel intact was the scorpion catching game. The one no one liked because it was so terrible. The mini-game still is terrible. I guess it was included as a joke, but I’m not sure I understand how including the worst part of the first game in the sequel is supposed to be funny.

By the middle portion of the game I had already played the side job games enough that I had enough cash to cover everything I wanted to purchase, and I’d already played through the side jobs enough to the point that I’d beaten all their levels multiple times. From that point on, there was no need to play them anymore, so I could focus on going through the ranking matches. While doing so, I came to realize exactly why there had been a monetary requirement in the first game to proceed. By roaming around and doing these side jobs it put a buffer between one ranking mission and the next. By the time you finished doing the tedious side jobs you wanted to get back into the action. With no monetary requirement to keep you from doing the ranking missions in No More Heroes 2 back to back, the game becomes much more repetitive and the flaws of the combat stand out much more.

Another game sequel came out recently, Mass Effect 2, that stripped out certain game mechanics that weren’t fully realized in the first game. However, since that caused the game to focus much more on the combat, they made sure that this portion of the game was better developed than it was in the first game. No More Heroes 2 stripped out some of the things people complained about in a similar fashion, except the combat is just as bad or even worse than ever. No More Heroes 2 can’t be compared to brawling games or action titles as even the worst games in both of those genres hold more depth in their combat systems. Every minor enemy in the game can be beaten by just mashing the A button. The bosses are about the same, except with boss battles you dodge until they finish their attack animation and then mash the A button. Repeat ad nauseum.

I am not kidding whatsoever when I say that the combat mechanics of the game Kung Fu Panda are much better than those of No More Heroes 2. Hell, the combat in Dynasty Warriors is superior.

There are other combat moves in the game than just mashing A over and over again. Travis can punch and kick with the B button until the enemy is dizzy, then using the same button Travis will grab an enemy and a motion direction will appear on the screen. Moving the nunchuck and remote in the directions indicated results in Travis pulling off a wrestling move. Mashing the A button until an enemy is weak also ends a similar way, except the motion will only require the remote as you cut the enemy in half, which is referred to as a Death Blow. The game isn’t really particular about whether you follow the on screen movements or not. You can swing your arms in the air like you just don’t care when the screen pops up and that’ll work just as well.

The Z button is used for locking onto a target and to block, and dodging is mapped to the D-pad. While the game doesn’t ever really cover this move in the game, the Dark Stepping move is back. While locked onto an enemy and holding still, once they attack if you move the joystick left or right just as they attack Travis will slide around them. In the first game this move was extremely powerful and most of the enemies and bosses were a piece of cake with it. In No More Heroes 2 the power of the move has been scaled back so that time simply slows down and gives the player an advantage of getting a few quick shots in. The Lakinov abilities, as mentioned, are gone, as are some of the wrestling moves. Both the wrestling moves and Death Blows are just finishing animations, and as there isn’t a large variety of either, it gets pretty boring to watch the same animations over and over again.

Most of the game progresses like this:

Lock onto enemy. Approach enemy. Mash the A button or B button. Follow on screen motion when prompted. Move onto next enemy. If it’s a boss or a larger enemy with a chainsaw, use the same attack method until they obviously telegraph their attack, then dodge, and go back to mashing.

Seriously, that’s the whole game outside of the 8-bit side jobs. Even when you get the chance to control other characters, the combat is still essentially the same as with Travis. There’s the Dark Stepping move, but the AI in the game is so terrible there were times I waited in front of an enemy to attack while it seemed to be waiting for me to attack for far too long. That brings up another huge issue, the AI. Enemies with guns are generally the biggest threat, as they can do long range damage, though in my playthrough on Mild (the normal difficulty) the enemies with guns wouldn’t shoot at Travis if he was standing a few feet away. The enemies with weapons would circle… then wait. The larger enemies would telegraph an attack, then wait to be attacked. The bosses would cycle through a few different attack patterns, and I mean like three different attack patterns, and once you learned those then the fight was a breeze. If there was concern over the boss fight, the game generally left a box with health laying around. The only other notable ability is one where, if you can string together combos without getting, hit a tiger in the lower right hand corner of the screen will turn from yellow to red and start breathing fire. At this point, Death Blows will cause a slot machine reel to appear, and matching up different slots results in different random abilities. When the tiger turns red and glows, you can also press the minus button to trigger the ability to have Travis move extremely fast. This ability is a godsend, if only because while the amount of button mashing is the same, it goes by faster.

There are a few times that the game tries to add variety to the levels, and nearly every single attempt is an utter failure of epic proportions. There’s a Metal Gear Solid like stealth level, except there aren’t really any stealth mechanics in the game so it doesn’t work out so well. There’s a part where you can finally drive the motorcycle again, only it’s down an empty highway for a few minutes and is completely pointless. There’s a motorcycle sumo fight, only the motorcycle controls so poorly that I had to restart that fight several times because I kept inadvertently driving off of the cliff when merely trying to turn around. Plus there’s a really useful move on the bike that the game fails to mention as part of the control tutorial. A returning character is playable and has some platforming aspects to her levels that are so badly designed that whoever was in charge of those levels should just be ashamed of themselves. Another playable character has a level that is so short that I wonder why they even bothered including it.

There are multiple difficulty levels in the game, Sweet, Mild and Spicy. The hardest difficulty is unlocked after beating the game once, as well as a boss rush mode. The harder difficulty isn’t much harder than the default difficulty, except that enemies do more damage while Travis seems like he deals less damage. Enemies are quicker, as well so the window for dodging attacks or Dark Stepping is shorter. The hardest difficulty really exemplifies the poor combat, as there is no need to adjust strategy between Mild and Spicy. There’s no need to fight smarter, you only need to dodge faster and mash the A button more than usual.

To top it all off, the final boss has a one hit kill move. It mostly happens during the later part of the battle, though it can also happen really at anytime during the fight. The move is unblockable, and can only be avoided by dodging, though it happens so fast, and up to three times in a row, that it is extremely difficult to do so. The last boss is perhaps one of the worst final boss battles of any video game. I’ve seen several glowing reviews for the game, and I refuse to believe a single one of those reviewers have actually played through the final boss battle.

Some will argue that these shortcomings are intentional and are meant to parody the same shortfallings of the video game industry or game design in general. You know what? I couldn’t care less if that is true. What I do know is that these problems exist in No More Heroes 2, and it makes the entire experience less enjoyable. If the developers can’t make the same point while providing solid gameplay mechanics, then they aren’t doing their job very well.

The best thing I can say about the game is that No More Heroes 2 is still an extremely stylish action game. The art style from the first one is back and looks sharper than ever. The 8-bit games are fun for awhile. The music is excellent and fits the game perfectly. The voice acting is cheesy though that suits the game more than it hurts it. The voice actor for Travis Touchdown also really adds a strong element to the character and turned in a performance none of the other voice actors for the game come close to matching.

The style is great, and the message of the game is interesting. How the message is delivered is just a complete mess. Considering that every game with a focus on combat that Suda51 has been a part of (No More Heroes 1 and 2, Blood+ One Night Kiss, and Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked) have all been poor button mashing affairs that have relied more on style than engaging gameplay mechanics, maybe he should just turn in his video game controller and go make movies, or work with a better team of developers that can actually do something engaging with his vision. I was willing to overlook some of the issues with the first game because the style distracted from the poor design, and the game was a one of a kind experience. Well, it is no longer a one of a kind experience, and the flaws are more obvious than ever before. There is only so long a person/company can hide poor technical ability behind style, and I think Grasshopper Manufacture has reached their limit. There’s a lot of subtle messages in the game that can be analyzed and allow Suda51 to be portrayed as genius. However, much like a sculpture made of road kill by an animal rights activist could be discussed at length about the artistic merits of such a thing, at the end of the day, both the sculpture and this game stink.

Nothing against the publisher Ubisoft. In fact, if you own a PS3 or 360 I highly would recommend you purchase Assassin’s Creed 2 by the publisher instead. Currently, that game is actually cheaper, and it is by far a better interactive experience than No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle. Or save your money for Red Steel 2.

The Scores

Story: Poor
Graphics: Very Good
Audio: Great
Gameplay: Bad
Replayability: Bad
Balance: Awful
Originality: Awful
Addictiveness: Awful
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Worthless

Final Score: Very Poor Game

Short Attention Span Summary:

No More Heroes 2 is a technical disaster of poor gameplay concepts and bad design. Grasshopper Manufacture decided to sacrifice solid game mechanics and cohesive storytelling in favor of style and a message about video game characters, creators and the people who play them being stuck in a cycle of violence. Maybe in the hands of of a good developer this message could be delivered and backed up by an enjoyable experience instead of button mashing and a series of “WTF” moments. The only Desperate Struggle I had while playing the game was a desperate struggle to stave off boredom.

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