In the bizarre California metropolis of Santa Destroy, your trainer encourages you to get naked for your workout, and hired goons bemoan the loss of their spleen when cleaved in two. If you've played any of director SUDA-51's previous games, especially 2005's Killer 7, this kind of irreverent and ironic humor won't come as a shock. What may surprise you, however, is that while No More Heroes brandishes a similarly high-concept story as its love-it-or-hate-it forebear, it features plenty of rewarding, visceral action to complement the intrigue. The eccentricities guarantee that you've never played a game quite like this before--but it's the exciting, blood-spewing combat that will keep you constantly enthralled.
If you need further proof of this game's nuttiness, consider the story. As Travis Touchdown--an action-figure owning, porn-collecting, card-collecting obsessive--you find yourself caught up in the melodrama of a real-life assassination leaderboard. Armed with your trusty beam katana (obviously meant to approximate a Star Wars lightsaber), you slice your way through a dozen killers in your quest to earn the number one rank. Narrowing things down to such a simple description doesn't really do the narrative justice, though, since the absurdity of the premise permeates every aspect of the game--its characters, its references, even its gameplay. The sexy, sophisticated Sylvia taunts Travis with her French accent and feminine curves over and over, only to leave him high and dry; boss characters sing lounge music in baseball fields and attack you with killer shopping carts and prosthetic legs; and you earn side money by mowing lawns and filling gas tanks at the local service station. It's pure insanity, but you won't be able to avert your eyes.
No More Heroes' combat is its shining star, and not enough can be said about its over-the-top, cheerful violence. Armed with your weapon of choice (you can upgrade your katana or purchase new ones, provided you earn enough coinage), you'll take on a decent number of mercenaries on any given mission. You'd think that since you're brandishing a lightsaber, the game would force you to swing the Wii Remote to approximate the experience. Instead, basic combat is on the simple side: You swing your weapon using the A button, and perform hand-to-hand moves using the B button. Remote-waggling is reserved for finishing moves, but it's important to note that every kill is finished with such a move, so there's no shortage of wrist movement here. If you deliver your final blow with your katana, it may be as simple as a flick to the side, while at other times, you can jerk both the Nunchuk and the remote for a theatrical, painful-looking wrestling move. The combination of old-fashioned button-mashing and high-energy yanks and waggles makes for fun, often breathless encounters, and while the same basic movements account for the bulk of the action, it rarely feels repetitive.
Much of this has to do with the exuberance of No More Heroes' brutality. Each enemy spurts seemingly endless showers of blood and coins, so expect to see your screen filled with red streams and golden glitter when you manage a sideswipe through multiple foes at once. It's quite cartoonish, actually: Everything kicks into subtle slow motion when you divide a foe in two, a ring of stars rotates above a stunned enemy's head to the sound of bird chirps, and a small slot machine spins at the bottom of the screen after every finishing move. It's not just for show, though--earn a triple match, and you activate one of your darkside powers. In one case, the entire screen goes gray, and a single button press allows you to attack each foe, one at a time, with a spectacular, stylish thrust. In another, your foes slow to a crawl, allowing you to carve them up with greater ease. These temporary power-ups are awesome to watch and an exhilarating reward for successful combat maneuvers.
There are some subtleties to the combat. When you are locked onto an enemy, you can block attacks and deflect bullets, and use the control pad to dodge. You'll take a higher or lower stance depending on how you hold the remote, may need to stun enemies with a kick before you can damage them, and in some cases, have to defeat them by using alternative means. For example, in several side missions, baseball players clad in Warriors uniforms pitch baseballs at you, and you have to bat them through an entire row to defeat them. You also need to pay attention to how much electricity your katana has, as well as your own health. You can find power-ups to fully recharge your saber, though you can also charge it up by holding the 1 button and shaking the remote up and down (which also results in a pretty lewd-looking act onscreen--and in real life, for that matter). You'll find plenty of health chests scattered about when needed, though apart from boss fights, you'll rarely need them: As fun as the combat is, you won't often find yourself teetering on the verge of death.
The crux of the action is found in No More Heroes' numerous and impressive boss encounters, where you'll use these subtleties to your advantage, though they don't usually present a foreboding challenge until the final few fights. Yet they're still enormously entertaining, thanks to your opponents' melodramatic (and often hysterical) soliloquizing, interesting attacks, and pure wackiness. Holly Summers launches missiles at you from her fake leg, while Stage magician Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii locks you up in the box used for his disappearing act--an attack that kills you instantly if your Nunchuk-flailing skills aren't up to par. Bad karaoke, thinly veiled Star Wars references, and killer hand buzzers are among the many highlights, and just when you think that things couldn't get any stranger--well--you're forced to reevaluate.
When you aren't fighting, you can roam about Santa Destroy on your motorcycle in a free-roaming, Grand Theft Auto-inspired manner. You shouldn't expect the kind of spirited freedom a GTA title provides, though. While there are some traffic and pedestrians, the city is really your key to moving from one mission to the next, and doesn't reward you with any meaningful surprises. That isn't to say there isn't anything to do outside of combat, though. In fact, to stay in top form, you'll need to go out on the town. There, you can make some purely cosmetic purchases, such as some new T-shirts or a spiffy new jacket, though your money is better spent on more impactful upgrades. A trip to the gym, presided over by the creepy Thunder Ryu, will reward you with a few minigames and a stronger body. You can purchase new katanas and upgrades from Doctor Naomi, or videotapes that teach you new wrestling moves from the local rental shop. Once you're done shopping, you can perform more side missions, or head back to your apartment where you can pet your cat, save your game by sitting on the toilet, or try on your new clothes.
The mission structure isn't as fully fleshed out as it could have been. Generally speaking, after each boss fight, you unlock only two new missions, and while you can revisit any mission as many times as you want, many of them are identical, so you may wish for a little more variety--especially when most enemies you face in a mission are the same. Still, there is plenty of diversity to be found. For example, in some missions you may need to slay every enemy without taking a single hit, while others may occur entirely in dark mode, or may allow you to only use wrestling moves. The crazy side jobs that you need to take before unlocking new missions are also nutty enough to keep you fascinated. You'll deliver coconuts that apparently weigh a hundred pounds, wash graffiti off of walls, and scour the beach for hidden mines. They're simple tasks, to be sure, but they use the motion controls well and are just crazy enough to make you wonder what weird job you'll be taking the next time around.
In keeping with the stylish combat and crazy dialogue, No More Heroes' visual design is brimming with strong color choices and benefits from some crisp cel-shading and well-done shadows. Clean textures and exaggerated animations are among the many visual highlights, and some of the kookier boss designs are terrifically insane. There are some graphical issues, however, found mostly in the frame rate, which has a tendency to slow down a bit when you're zooming around on your bike or dicing up a half-dozen foes at once. Nor is the game a technical powerhouse, relying on its powerful art design to carry the load and content to leave its edges jagged. In fact, No More Heroes seems keenly aware of its technical shortcomings: Its minimap and health indicator are pixelated by design, and the menus themselves hearken back to the 8-bit days, as if to embrace the game's focus on style over technical prowess.
The sound design is terrific across the board, however. Not only is the off-kilter soundtrack the perfect complement to the ongoing zaniness, but the sound of combat is loud and quirky, down to the bloodcurdling cries of your delimbed opponents and the tinkling flow of coins into your coffers. The remote's speaker is used quite well here, emanating the prototypical groans of your katana to fantastic effect. The speaker is also used to simulate a call on Travis' cell phone, and done so well you will probably hold the remote up to your ear as if it were an actual receiver. The voice acting is pitch-perfect in most cases, down to Sylvia's lugubrious French sarcasm and Travis' immature bloodthirstiness.
A fairly standard play-through will probably net you around 12 hours of gameplay your first time through, though you could blow through it quicker if your goal is simply to get to the end as quickly as possible. But even with the element of surprise removed, the fantastic combat is more than enough reason to revisit No More Heroes. This time, SUDA-51 has delivered a game that can match its absurd premise with equally stimulating gameplay, making for one of the most unique and satisfying action games in recent memory.