Review by Quovak

Reviewed: 06/24/08 | Updated: 07/21/08

While it's definitely not for everyone, No More Heroes is a rich and unique title for those willing to experience it.

Suda 51 has never been a traditionalist, and the eccentric developer’s new title, No More Heroes, seems to have been created almost exclusively to throw established convention out the window and prove just how much can be done by eschewing commonplace design choices. Though perhaps not as offbeat as Suda’s earlier Killer7, No More Heroes is one of the most original and refreshing experiences available on modern consoles and, for anybody willing to try something untainted by the standard and the predictable, it’s a unique experience that deserves attention.

It is often said of great satirists that they choose their targets wisely, but it’s unlikely that Suda 51 will ever receive this commendation. No More Heroes is centered on the sprawling metropolis of Santa Destroy, an amalgamation of nearly every stereotype regarding the media's mythologized version of urban California. Travis Touchdown, an anime-obsessed twentysomething, becomes the proud recipient of a lightsaber-like beam katana and soon becomes involved in an assassination circuit wherein killers climb the ranks by murdering the ones above them. Before long, Travis decides to do something with his life and attain the coveted top spot, getting there through a non-stop barrage of social commentary, absurdist and black humor, and ideas for which the term “over the top” is an understatement.

As per the rules of Santa Destroy’s seedy subculture, ranked fights come with an entry fee, so much of Travis’ goal becomes dependent upon acquiring money. Armed with the aforementioned beam katana, a behemoth of a bike known as the Schpeltiger, and a surprising amount of work ethic for a laid-back psychopath, Travis’ first source of income comes from part-time jobs, after which his employers recommend him for “shadier” homicide contracts. After earning enough money and gaining access to the whereabouts of the assassin above you, the next task becomes forcing your way through legions of said killer’s guards and lackeys. A boss fight promptly ensues, our antihero gains a rank, and the process starts anew.

This routine seems as though it would quickly become monotonous, but that’s only until No More Heroes’ eccentricities truly become apparent. Early part-time jobs involve Travis performing menial tasks such as mowing lawns or gathering runaway cats, but these chores are accomplished through short minigames involving various functions of the Wii controller and, unlike the vast majority of similar minigames on Nintendo’s recent systems, these side missions are surprisingly well-polished and enjoyable. While such diversions may appear out-of-place in what is otherwise a game focused largely on death and destruction, it doesn’t take long to become enamored with these and other unique uses of the Wii hardware, such as cell phone conversations taking place through the remote’s microphone and stat-improvements being dependent on miming exercise routines.

The console’s unique control scheme also becomes integrated into common fights, though never in a way that seems too intrusive. Based on how you hold the remote, Travis fights in either a high or low stance, and, though most combat is based on traditional button presses, finishing moves require an accurate swing of the controller in a given direction, as do special wrestling attacks which also involve the nunchuk. In battles, the game’s exaggerated nature is made abundantly clear, as the final swipe of Travis’ katana unleashes a fountain of cel-shaded blood that engulfs the screen in an instant (the game’s dark humor is also evident throughout, as eviscerated or decapitated enemies will frequently use their last breath to bemoan problems such as the loss of their spleen). Although the combat mechanic seems simple, more and more moves become added to Travis’ arsenal throughout the game, his trusted beam katana receives increasingly deadly upgrades, and increasingly challenging bosses will require an understanding of more complex procedures only hinted at during the game. Furthermore, a slot machine system after defeating enemies in certain situations can grant temporary strength increases and special abilities, the sum of all this being an extremely addicting and satisfying combat experience.

The culmination of Travis’ efforts is ultimately a shot at facing higher-ranked assassins, whose personalities represent No More Heroes’ greatest accomplishment. Drawing inspiration from eccentric subcultures, provocative news stories, music history (unsurprising, considering the game’s title), and nearly anything else that may have come to mind, Suda 51 has crafted some of the most extreme creations seen in video games. These killers include the self-termed Destroyman (or, as Travis dubs him, Mister Cosplay), who has taken over an abandoned movie studio and created for himself a suit equipped with lasers and hidden machine guns, Letz Shake, a punk who lures you to a wind farm so as to fight a stereotypical giant robot, and Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii, a Russian magician who attempts to kill you over the course of his stage performance. Like most other part of this game, to call the assassins memorable wouldn’t be giving them enough credit.

The game’s routine never threatens to become tedious, due largely to the fact that Suda never appears to run out of ideas. The game is littered with homages and callbacks to a myriad of sources including the developer’s previous works (Killer7 in particular), lucha wrestling (which plays a significant role in combat and Travis’ implied past), and an 8-bit retro feel (marker icons are made up of large pixel-like blocks, Final Fantasy style treasure chests line the hallways of modern buildings, and Travis’ advancement up the ranks is shown by way of a high score screen). Crude and sexual humor abounds; toilets act as save points, the first question Travis asks his French, female agent is “If I become number one, will you do it with me?”, answering machine messages frequently berate the protagonist for failing to return (mostly pornographic) videos, and recharging the beam katana requires both player and character to perform a shaking motion which may as well be masturbation. Saying that the game is in your face doesn’t even begin to describe its nature.

At the same time, the plot never allows itself to become formulaic or the player to know where it’s going. Absurd caricatures show up to satirize whatever can be derided, such as the rigid environmentalist who encourages your reckless murder but vilifies your penchant for “bikes that pollute the air”, and no topic is too dark or disturbing to make fun of. Shinobu, a high schooler ranked #8, is so embarrassed by her status as a killer that she kills any fellow students who find out about her hobby, the second-ranked Bad Girl has become so addicted yet so desensitized to killing that she has begun bludgeoning clones of BDSM-inspired creations on an assembly line, and the degree to which violence has become integrated into an average person’s life can be seen through how casual everyone is about the senseless killings going on. Star Wars references abound, the owner of K-Entertainment (a middleman for assassination contracts) offers surprisingly zen-like reflections about murderous rampages, and the game gets under your skin at the same time as it provides just what it’s acting as a send up of: violence as a cultural source of fascination and entertainment.

Do all of these elements work together? Yes and no. The game is filled to the brim with unforgettable social satire, but it’s not always evident how much of the game was meant to be taken as such. Is a sequence wherein Travis slaughters his way through a school meant to be shock violence or a satire of shock violence? Are you meant to feel uncomfortable with some of your actions (there’s not a moment in the game when you’re asked to identify with the main character) or are you supposed to be enjoying your way through the often-disturbing nature of the game? Furthermore, when there are faults, such as the minimal interaction Travis has with the city, is it simply a poor design choice to greatly limit how many points of interest exist or is it meant to be a profound statement regarding the lack of depth to our present society? At times it seems as though, by calling itself a satire, No More Heroes is simply giving itself a free pass to cross any lines it wishes and have as many flaws as possible while leaving the player wondering what Suda 51’s true intention may have been.

No More Heroes is far from perfect. The entire game seems at odds with itself and it’s practically a miracle that what we’re left with even resembles a coherent experience. At its worst, it feels as though the developers threw a series of random ideas together and hoped that it would wind up being playable, and at its best it seems as though it might be a result of the same venture. Nonetheless, No More Heroes does something that far too few games do these days: it tries something new. The player is meant to question why things happen as they do, the game is meant to seem impossible to comprehend, and the end result is meant to be inaccessible and off-putting but ultimately extremely rewarding. In the end, it’s well worth checking out, if only to realize that, in a time of cookie-cutter mass media, there are still some people willing to take chances and make something unique that, in a way, needs to played to be believed.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: No More Heroes (US, 01/22/08)

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