Review by 47pik

"Head for the Garden of Madness"

I don't like starting my reviews with a score. I'm rather fond of them being at the end in fact. However, for the purposes of this one, I simply must give it right up front. I'm sixty-seven percenting No More Heroes. Dropping a 6.7/10. I can't give it a better score, there's just too much wrong with it. But at the same time, it's definitely worth playing, despite its flaws, for reasons I can't quite describe. Bear with me here, as I try to explain.

No More Heroes, designed by the crazy Suda51, is truly bizarre. Its premise is well known, but bears repeating. A perpetually broke otaku buys a "beam katana" (read: lightsaber) off an "online auction" (read: eBay). One night, while drunk at a bar, our (anti) hero, Travis Touchdown, meets an attractive woman named Sylvia Christel, who offers him the job of an assassin. Using his new weapon, Travis hunts down and kills the target, only to find out that he is now the 11th best assassin in America. And so, at Sylvia's urging, Travis aims for the top, with nothing but the glory of being number one, the joy of killing, and the possibility of getting laid to motivate him.

Beyond the unique plot, the rest of the game is quite strange as well. No More Heroes takes place in Santa Destroy, California, seemingly a Japanese parody of America. It's here, to pay for his extremely violent and strange assassination missions against the most "interesting" cast of villains I've seen in a game, Travis does odd jobs. These are such mundane tasks as mowing lawns, picking up trash, and catching adorable stray cats. I can't help but feel this is some comment on gaming culture. Critically speaking, I'm sure there are a ton of underlying themes, issues, commentaries, and metaphors, especially towards the end, straight from the mind of its creator. Sadly though, I never picked up on them much.

This sense of style is the defining characteristic of No More Heroes, from the contrast of decapitations and kittens to the random bullet-hell shooter thrown in during the Rank 4 assassination. Many people would describe this game as the epitome of style over substance. It's clear this is what Suda51 set out to do with No More Heroes, as there isn't a whole lot here in terms of gameplay (but more on that later). I have no problem with this approach, style over substance to me is a perfectly good creative vision, and I can appreciate it. Unfortunately for No More Heroes, for all the great moments it creates through its unique style, there are also too many times where the style doesn't come through, leaving you with no style, and no substance.

Let's begin with the areas where No More Heroes' style is at its strongest; bosses. Many of them are highly memorable, and interesting. Some that stand out to me are Shinobu, Bad Girl, and Destroyman. But there are also bosses that fail to impress, such as the woefully bland Holly Summers or the downright stupid Letz Shake. Other examples of style falling flat on its face include funny lines that just aren't funny when every single grunt in an area yells them upon death (I'm still a virgin...), and total blandness in level design. Most of my problems I have come from this latter issue. I understand that the Santa Destroy overworld being boring is part of the artistic message Suda51 is trying to communicate. Whether or not bad game design is excusable for art is a different matter entirely, what I'm talking about is the parts that are supposed to be interesting; the assassination missions. Leading up to the unique and interesting boss fights (for the most part), you fight through uninspired and boring locations with multiple waves of grunts who spawn right in front of you. At times the game mixes things up, with a baseball batting death challenge, or a humourous mini-cutscene, but for the most part the levels are extremely dull, and they should not be.

At least the combat is fun, so it's not such a huge problem. It's not deep, actually, it's just mash "A" a lot, and throw in a press of "B" for good measure, but it's very satisfying. Travis' beam katanas all feel different, and are a blast to swing around, especially because they make awesome lightsaber noises. Furthermore, the motion controlled finishers and wrestling moves feel so good to pull off. There's nothing quite like decapitating five guys at once with a slow-mo horizontal slash. There's no real strategy, but it's entertaining as you just zone out and get into the mass murder to the tune of the catchy main theme (do-do-do-do-daa-da-da-da-da-DA). Now, maybe on a harder difficulty it would be less mindless, but I never played on Bitter (Hard). I did however, play on Mild (Normal), and found the vast majority of the game a total pushover, until Rank 2 where the difficulty suddenly spikes, another criticism I have to level towards the game. None of this really bothered me, and if the style had been better implemented I could have mostly dismissed this problem. But the thing is, it wasn't.

Ultimately what you'll find is that you play No More Heroes for the cutscenes and boss battles. Which is sort of sad, considering there aren't that many cutscenes, and they're all short. And the boss battles aren't actually all that interesting. Prior to playing No More Heroes I always heard that it had amazing boss battles. It doesn't. They're novel due to the fact that for the most part you're fighting normal sized humans with ridiculous powers just like yourself, but they aren't really all that amazing. All of them boil down to dodging the opponent's big attacks, so you can get behind them and unleash a combo. And they're not all fun either. There are at least two that were annoying, and one that was incredibly frustrating. Yet it's always satisfying to defeat them, with the ridiculous fatalities. The first boss is killed when his sword clashes with Travis' katana so hard that his arms rip off, leaving him open to get impaled by our "hero".

Despite the complaints you've undoubtedly heard about the overworld, it's not actually so bad. It's not good by any stretch, but it's not especially bad. Yes, the hitboxes on everything are terrible. Yes it's extremely uninteresting, but it doesn't really hinder your progress all that much. Nor do the minigames where you grind for cash to earn the entrance fee for the next assassination mission. I never repeated one once in my entire playthrough. It doesn't take very long at all to earn the required money, and doing the job minigames unlocks assassination gigs, which are action focused, and pay a lot more. Though they're all some variation on "kill as many dudes as possible in the time limit", there's enough of them, and they're different enough, it didn't bother me. I only repeated two of them. Honestly, the grind isn't bad at all, it's just padding. Something to plough through.

In the end, what keeps you going is desire to plough forward. The plot is not anything special, nor is the gameplay. You kill people for no reason other than to kill more people. Maybe it's a coincidence, maybe it's not, but Travis is doing the exact same thing. He kills for no reason than he can. Even around Rank 4, when the story actually picks up quite a bit, Travis never questions the fact that he needs to keep going on, just so he can be number 1. In the exact same way Travis does, you will plough through jobs to get money, to plough through a level, to plough through a boss, to repeat the whole cycle over again. And yet as bad as that sounds, you want to keep going just like Travis. It's eerie to say the least; and one of the most interesting things about the game. The other really interesting thing is the development of Sylvia, who, unlike Travis and the rest of the cast, does not remain static at all.

These, among several other elements and themes, come together in the third act of the game to become highly interesting. The writing gets better, and so does the style, and offbeat sense of dark humour. If the whole game had been like the final four ranks, it would have been much better. It seems that all the good ideas went here, and the rest of the game is sparse. In the final analysis, this right here is the biggest problem with the game; it's too long. All the best ideas were saved for the end, and not shared with other two thirds of the game. And it's a shame. The game ends in the only way it really could, and despite its absolutely unorthodox nature, it's sufficiently satisfying in the context. That said with the sheer amount of curveballs thrown at you during the last half hour, one has to wonder if Suda51 wasn't taunting you. Especially when, after the ending, there's a huge WTF moment, followed by a character responding to your dropped jaw with "I know, too bad there won't be a sequel". Followed by a Back to the Future styled "To Be Continued".

There's a fine line between crazy and genius. I don't know which side of the line Suda51 is on. As a game, No More Heroes is kind of a mess, but as an art piece, it's certainly got something. There is nothing quite like the way it examines the gamer, and the video game. And even if you don't want to look it on that level, there's still nothing quite like No More Heroes out there. It's offbeat, and fascinating to play, despite the pile of design flaws. Something there compels you to see it through to completion against all odds, just like Travis. And you the player, can do nothing but head for the garden of madness, searching for that exit they call paradise.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 02/11/10

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

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