Review by MTLH
"Becoming number one isnít as glamorous as you might think."
One of the enduring complaints about the Wii is how unfriendly the system is to third party software, let alone software aimed at the so-called hardcore gamer. It is true that the console has mainly proved successful for Nintendo's own roster and for more casual fare like Just Dance. Still, that hasn't stopped some studios from trying to crack that market with titles as The Conduit and Mad World.
One of the more prolific persons supporting the Wii during the early years was Goichi Suda, also known as Suda51. The eccentric developer and his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, showed their commitment with the release of No More Heroes in 2008. Even though the game wasn't a particularly big hit, thus perpetuating the notion that these kind of games don't succeed on the Wii, it did sell well enough to warrant a sequel. That was quite fortunate seeing that No More Heroes, as will be explained, is a good game held back by some issues that the sequel could rectify.
The visuals go for a semi-realistic look with some added cell shading. The result looks very good, especially in motion, and gives No More Heroes a very distinctive style. The level of animation and detailing helps in that regard, although it is noticeable that most of the attention and care went to Travis, the ranked assassins and other important characters. With the odd exception, the cutscenes are also realised well. The European version doesn't contain any blood with enemies disappearing in a cloud of ash instead. I actually liked that effect but I understand some would have preferred seeing them turn into stumbling geysers of blood.
The visuals do have a few problems. Despite what is mentioned above, they can also be a tad crude and unpolished in places. Minor enemies for example tend to look a bit basic as do most of the environments. Santa Destroy as a whole is rather empty. There are plenty of pedestrians and cars on the streets but they seem to appear and disappear from and into nothing. Not helping is the draw distance which is just a bit too short, leading to buildings and other structures popping up either wholesale or in parts. For example, you're walking across a field and suddenly a fence appears shortly followed by a roof. A few steps further and the rest of the building pops up. Walk backwards and the whole sequence is reversed. Another strange occurrence are the overabundant shadows which can turn people, objects and buildings into silhouettes.
So in general, No More Heroes looks fine. The distinctive style does a lot for the visuals, compensating for the technical issues being one thing. Stop for a moment however to observe your surroundings and the seams do become glaringly obvious.
The soundtrack is fairly eccentric. It ranges from techno to pop and rock. I especially liked the tune that accompanies riding Travis' bike although those that play during the ranked battles are also very good. The sound effects have a satisfying weight to them, adding a great deal of oomph to each swing, strike and slash. Voice acting is decidedly over the top, putting forth the question if this was either intentionally or just a sign of poor quality. Seeing that it perfectly fits the style and mood of the game, I will go for the former. A stroke of genius is the way the speaker of the Remote is used as a kind of mobile phone which leaves you to wonder why this idea hasn't been used more since.
No More Heroes revolves around Travis Touchdown, an otaku obsessed by anime and professional wrestling. After acquiring a beam katana, essentially a kind of lightsaber, he finds himself without money. After accepting a job to kill an assassin and succeeding in his endeavour, Travis discovers he has entered the rankings of the United Assassins Association. With his life on the line, and the affections of the Association's representative, he decides to go for the number one spot.
If there is a single word that best describes No More Heroes' plot, it would be eccentric. The various assassins all have their quirks and peculiarities and Travis' allies no less so. A bag lady that hides an enormous cannon in her trolley, an demented illusionist, a mentor who continuously spouts sexual innuendos, an employer who elevates event the lowliest job to a godly task, No More Heroes contains them all and more. The humour ranges from dark to puerile, saving is done by going to the toilet for example, but a lot of it comes forth from the game over the top' mentality. Travis slashes his way across dozens of foes and numerous assassins without mush personal bother but when he does take an interest, the clichés and lamentations come quick and fast. That doesn't mean that there aren't a few genuine emotional moments. Even during those heavy handed moments it becomes clear that Travis isn't quite the twit he initially appears to be, eventually becoming a protagonist likable enough to spend the game with.
The bread and butter of No More Heroes is the combat. Travis can kick his enemies and slice and dice them with his beam katana. Sedate a foe, indicated by a few stars circling around his head, and Travis can use a wrestling move, usually with devastating results. When an enemy is on the brink of death, he can be finished off with a Death Blow, which in itself can lead to a Darkside mode in which Travis gains various superhuman powers. Another more common trick is Travis' ability to do a Dark Step. When timed right he can sidestep an attack, after which the screen darkens and time slows down which gives Travis the opportunity to really pummel the opposition.
These are the basics and they provide enough depth to prevent the game from devolving into senseless button bashing, at least to a certain extent. Fighting the droves of henchmen is generally just a case of repeatedly chopping into them, usually resulting in Travis killing half a dozen of them at once. Accompanied by their screams and the clouds of ash, that can actually be quite satisfying. One problem I found concerns locking on to an enemy. This usually works fine but in crowded environments, full of furniture and other obstacles, the lock sometimes gets lost or won't work at all. This can be quite annoying, especially during ranked battles.
The fighting system really comes into it's own when taking on one of the other assassins. Each has his or her own combat style which can vary a lot. One just stand in one place while shooting repeatedly at Travis, for example, while others prefer to fight him up close and personal. Each has a repertoire of normal and powered attacks, the latter of which can only be eluded and not blocked. These assassins can become somewhat gimmicky in their attacks but luckily they don't rely too much on those. Figuring out their routines and recognising the signs signalling which attack will follow, lend these fights a quaintly traditional feel. The cheap instant death moves of the latter assassins wasn't such a great idea however.
Even though combat is the core of the game, getting to a fight isn't as easy as you might expect. The Association requires an admission fee for the right to fight a ranked assassin, forcing Travis to earn some money. He does this by taking on hilariously brain-dead jobs like hauling coconuts, tracking lost kittens or picking up scorpions. Perform well enough and Travis can take on various assassination gigs in order to gain larger sums. Free fight missions are gradually unlocked, usually entailing killing a certain number of enemies within a time limit. Downed foes in general also leave behind some money which is always helpful.
Travis can also spend his hard earned wealth on upgrades. By visiting the gym and completing several mini-games he can improve his statistics, like increasing his health for example. New beam katanas and expansion modules can also be bought as well as wrestling videos which allows Travis to learn new moves. He can also purchase new clothing but besides making him look different there isn't really a point to this from a gameplay perspective.
This while grind of earning money, buying upgrades and eventually participating in the next ranked battle takes place in a freeform structure. Travis starts out at his hotel and can walk or, preferably, ride his motorcycle to various venues around Santa Destroy. He can pretty much go wherever he wants and the city has a decent size. It's both unfortunate that there is so little to actually do in town and that this whole structure actually worsens the aforementioned grind. Travelling to the job centre, going to the job itself, being dropped of at the assassination centre before driving off to the gig, completing it and motorcycling back to the centre to take on another gig to which Travis must once again drive. During all this he must also visit the upgrade locations and occasionally his hotel in order to save. All this can become quite a chore. It regularly takes more time travelling to and from a task than it takes to actually complete it.
Luckily this feeing is partially negated by searching out the hidden treasures and the Lobikov balls. Both are indicated on the map after buying the appropriate upgrade. The first are found by traversing grassy places and waiting for the Remote to shake ever harder. The latter are found in out of sight places. Collect enough balls and these can be traded in with Lobikov for upgrades like earning more money per kill and the ability to dash. This whole search is quite a lot of fun and also extremely worthwhile, especially for the different finishing moves and the dash. The treasures amount to not all that much but it is fun searching for them. Checking out the numerous dumpsters can also provide some moderate funds and even clothing. This may not be very useful but it is a nice touch. Even so, it doesn't take too long to find all Lobikov balls and the majority of the treasure and then it is back to the grind as usual.
All in all, being an assassin is hard work. In the context of the game, the title of No More Heroes is quite apt. Travis may be the hero of this game but most of the time he does little that can be classified as heroic. Taking on a deranged psychopath is one thing, having to scrub away graffiti to get to him or her is another thing entirely. Even the assassination gigs devolve into a tedious routine with Travis for example having to take on the CEO of a encroaching pizza chain three times during the game, all in the same parking lot no less. The glamour of killing for a living soon dissipates when it begins to feel too much like normal work. The somewhat desolate city can also be seen as a part of this sensation. The only venues of any worth all have something to do with Travis' quest while the customisation options offered by the clothing shop are hollow because they don't change anything except his appearance. On the one hand these concepts and mechanisms, together with the revelations at the end of the game, ensure that the actual ranked fights become all the more special and spectacular. On the other hand they say something about the futility of wanting to be a hero because in the end it really doesn't matter, your life will remain empty and mundane no matter what.
No More Heroes tries to utilise the Wii's unique controller to the best of the hardware's abilities. Perhaps recognizing that the Remote isn't the exactly the most precise piece of kit, Grasshopper has wisely resisted the urge to use it to mimic actual sword fighting. Instead, Travis will slice his beam katana with the push of a button with the position in which the Remote is held deciding the stance. Motion control is further used in combination with onscreen prompts, for example thrusting the Remote and Nunchuk in certain directions to perform wrestling moves. All in all, the controls do require some getting used to but eventually they become second nature.
The difficulty curve is a bit erratic. The ranked battles can be preluded by a lengthy fight through a large area against a lot of henchmen or by a short slog, and with each confrontation the prelude seems to get shorter and simpler. The challenge provided by the assassins vary wildly, with most being relatively simple to defeat and only the last two regular engagements and an early difficulty spike providing some opposition. The jobs and assassination gigs suffer from the same inconsistency. Still, No More Heroes does provide a good few hours of enjoyment, especially if you try to get all the collectibles. I finished the game in just over twelve hours. If you also want to try the unlockable harder difficulty setting this amount naturally increases.
No More Heroes is a game with a message and more or less sacrifices some of it's entertainment in order to convey the notion that whatever Travis does or achieve, in the end he will always remain a loser. It isn't that the grind is particularly terrible. The jobs and assassination gigs are moderately fun, cruising across town is strangely relaxing and the satisfaction accompanying an upgrade is enough incentive to pursue them. The problem is that all of this can turn actually playing the game into a drag, a feeling that is not diminished by the emptiness found in Santa Destroy.
Whether that bothers you depends on your willingness to buy into the premise and if No More Heroes' style appeals to you. I liked both the style and the theme and therefore enjoyed the game a great deal. Even so, I can understand that there are people who simply don't share that view
The above doesn't blind me from No More Heroes' less desirable traits. Besides the potential snag concerning the game's structure and message, it also becomes clear that there are some technical issues. Frequent pop-ups in the free roaming section for example or the erratic way pedestrians and traffic both behave and disappear. These kind of issues don't break the game but it would certainly have benefited from a bit more polish.
OVERALL: an 8,0.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 02/07/12
Game Release: No More Heroes (EU, 03/14/08)
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