We got a very brief taste of No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle a few months ago with a playable demo at this year's Penny Arcade Expo. At the time, No More Heroes 2 appeared to be a fairly straightforward sequel with some gameplay enhancements. However, we recently had the chance to spend more time with the game from the beginning, and we have to say No More Heroes 2 is shaping up to be much more than a by-the-numbers sequel. Please note that what follows is a veritable minefield of story spoilers. You have been warned.
Our time with the game dropped us in at the opening, which kicks off in flashy cinematic style. The action picks up roughly three years after the first game. Three years after killing his way to the number one ranking in the United Assassin's Association, Travis Touchdown has disappeared from the public eye and left his position as a top killer. The goofy Travis is now an urban legend in Santa Destroy, like some kind of assassination-prone 40-year-old virgin unicorn. However, as we saw in the opener, there are some who know Travis is real, namely the surviving members of the assassins he killed on his way to the top.
The younger brother to one of Travis' kills pops up and surprises the elusive assassin for some good old-fashioned revenge, which serves to bring players up to speed on the story and gameplay. The battle ends poorly for Travis' attacker because the passage of time hasn't dulled Travis' knack for killing. When the fight is over, the mysterious French vixen Sylvia appears--just like she did in the previous game--and assesses Travis' performance. Travis' exchange with Sylvia makes a few things clear: He actively dropped out of the assassin's rat race, doesn't have much in the way of a desire to come back, and, more importantly, is as horny as ever.
Sylvia plays off Travis' libido and makes a convincing play to get him back with some subtle wordplay and not so subtle yoga references (likely a first in a video game). Unfortunately, the sexy banter gets sidetracked by the temporarily reanimated corpse of Travis' recent victim who makes some ominous mention of something horrible that is about to happen. While this is a bit confusing at first, it all falls into place when, shortly thereafter, the cinematic turns its attention to Travis' best--and possibly only--friend, Bishop, who has an unfortunate encounter with a gang in his video store. The end result? A pretty clear idea of what the game's "desperate struggle" subtitle means, a reduction in Travis' friend count, and a personal motivation for Travis to go work out some aggression. When the setup is over, you discover Travis' most recent kill wound up being the last ranked assassin and puts him on the road to the top spot again.
The next level we played put us on the trail of Charlie MacDonald, a football-themed boss complete with his own cheerleading squad of scantily clad ladies. The run up to Charlie is a pretty standard slashfest but did show off one of our favorite new features: Travis randomly turning into a tiger. As you take out enemies, you'll call up an in-game slot machine that will spin and stop in various combinations. If you're lucky, you'll be morphed into a tiger for a short period of time because…well, we're not entirely sure, but does it matter? Tigers make everything slightly better, so we were fine to just roll with it. The transformation obviously opens up a whole new slew of tiger-specific moves, which--while more limited than Travis' human form--are still satisfying because you can up and maul people with impunity.
Once you reach Charlie, the battle considerably ups the levels of crazy set by the original No More Heroes. Rather than having a traditional boss fight on the ground, Charlie--for reasons that aren't clear--takes his squad of ladies and transforms into a giant robot. Not feeling intimidated, Travis is able to match him--with fewer scantily clad ladies contributing--courtesy of a mech provided by former wrestler Doctor Naomi. This turns the fight into a side-scrolling fight between two mechs with special abilities. Does it all make logical sense? Not really, but because this is a No More Heroes game, that's not too of big a deal. All you really have to know is that the other robot has to go down and that Travis' mech has a unique move set that includes standard melee attacks, as well as supermoves.
In addition to the boss fight with Charlie, we had the chance to try out one nice surprise in No More Heroes 2: playing Shinobu as a playable character. The young assassin with a grudge against Travis is on the scene for a bit, and it sounds like you'll play her for roughly two levels that feature their own bosses. While there are some similarities between how Travis and Shinobu handle, she does play quite a bit differently. She moves faster, can jump, and even has a projectile attack that makes for some very different fighting strategies when dealing with enemies.
As far as controls go, No More Heroes 2 uses roughly the same control scheme as the first game, with some new moves tossed in, such as a running slash when dodging. You'll still have to provocatively shake your remote to recharge Travis' beam katana, and you can now dual-wield. You'll also be able to power up when you've filled your harmony meter, which is conveniently shown onscreen as a tiger, and unleash an insane flurry of attacks to murder anything around you almost instantly. If you've played the game, you'll be totally at ease; if you're new, it won't take too long to get into the swing of things.
Outside of the main story elements in the game, there will be ample opportunities to take a break from the desperate struggle in No More Heroes 2, thanks to a plethora of minigames. You'll be able to explore the city of Santa Destroy and take on odd jobs or work out to improve Travis' attributes via minigames. Unlike the original game, which let you physically explore the city in an open-world setting, you'll now navigate to different locations via a world map and warp directly to them.
Travis' apartment will once again serve as a home base for the action, but this time, there are a number of different upgrades. In the years since the original game, Travis' cat, Jeane, has gotten pretty fat, which has paved the way for some hilarious minigames around weight loss. You'll basically have to manage Jeane's overall happiness and weight. If Jeane's happy, she'll be more into the weight-loss minigames and lose weight. If she's not, don't expect things to be very productive. In addition, Travis will be able to play various minigames on his home television, including a hilariously cliched anime shooter that's right out of Japanese arcades.
For players who don't want to be shut in, No More Heroes 2 also offers odd jobs to take on around town, such as coconut gathering from the original game. However, we have to say the real joy for many players will be found in the various 2D minigames you can play. We tried a pipe puzzle game that has Travis lifting pipes in the sewer to create a solid flow between an outtake and intake. The treadmill game forced us to keep Travis balanced on a moving treadmill, which would periodically change direction. If you succeed at the minigames, you can increase Travis' health and stamina attributes, which are key in battle.
The visuals in the game have been refined quite a bit and sport a cleaner look, as well as a bunch of little touches that improve the overall look. The most obvious is Travis, who sports more detail in his clothing and some additional waviness to his hair, which gives him a more animated look. Enemies don't feature as many bells and whistles--although bosses like Charlie obviously do--but they still look sharp and feature some nice animation touches to give them personality. There's also plenty of variety in the dismemberments and assorted death animations we saw.
As before, you can expect several gallons of blood to splash every which way as you slash your way through your assorted foes. The game's camera has also seen quite a bit of improvement. While still not perfect, it definitely seems like there's been some improvement when in battle. Despite being in a work-in-progress state, the game's frame rate moved along at a pretty steady rate, although there were some hiccups when things got crazy onscreen. The game still piles on the crazy effects and filters when the action heats up, which seemed to hit the game's performance in spots. On the 2D front, the minigames were hilarious and had a funky retro look to them we appreciated. We have to say, we were especially taken with the shooter minigame you can access on Travis' TV, which had a pretty faithful arcade-inspired look to it.
In terms of audio, No More Heroes 2 is on track to surpass its predecessor. The top-notch voice acting makes it sound like the voice cast from the original game is back and in fine form. There also seems to be a greater variety in the lines screamed by your foes as they go down, which is good. The game's music is in the same vein as the original game and perfectly suited to match the crazy onscreen shenanigans.
Based on what we saw, No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle is shaping up to be the kind of follow-up you would want for a game like No More Heroes. The gameplay seems to be getting suitably tightened, the quirkiness is in full bloom, feedback on the original game has clearly been incorporated, giant robots have been included, and you can turn into a tiger. Do sequels get any more promising?