Suda51 is a strange developer. Taken from pure gameplay perspective, it’s tough to tell if he’s ever made a truly “good” video game. The thing is that, when you stand back and look at games he’s involved with, you find that the style and creativity often helps overlook gameplay issues. This applies to the original 2 No More Heroes games, as well as his bizarre FPS Killer7. Thing is, the last game Suda51 actually directed was the original NMH, and since then he was involved with various projects with varying degrees of success (Shadows of the Damned is great, but Killer is Dead is, from what I hear, pretty bad). Either way, he has a distinctly anarchic way of making his games, where pretty much anything goes and reality is but a pipe dream that can bend to his will. So, naturally, I was excited when I saw the trailer for Travis Strikes Again, since it is filled with the same energy and pure style that has come to define the series and Suda51’s output as a whole. Sadly, this is a big disappointment of a game, with little to recommend to anyone beyond people who absolutely must play everything Suda51 puts out.
Let’s get the premise out of the way- since the events of the second game, irascible bastard Travis Touchdown has been living life on the lam, moving from place to place in his trailer and playing video games. One day, though, someone hires Bad Man, father of Bad Girl, one of the assassins Travis killed in the first game, to hunt him down and take him out. When Bad Man shows up at his trailer, the two have it out and are eventually sucked into the Death Drive, an old school game console that sucks people into the games themselves. As it turns out, the duo must fight their way through several “games” on the console in order to stop its creator from doing something really bad or something. The story, such as it is, is pretty flimsy, with the usual non sequiturs popping up throughout the levels (and, sadly, 99% of the speech in this game is shown via text rather than full voice acting). Travis talks with the various bosses about things that don’t really matter before fighting them, and the cast, though filled with strange quirks, feels rather sterile because of the lack of voice acting. You won’t find yourself anywhere near is intrigued with the characters as in other games from Suda51, particularly previous NMH games.
So even though the plot itself feels undercooked, there are some bright spots here and there. Like the previous games, you can perform a few different things outside and between levels that add a little bit of charm to proceedings. From buying new T shirts online to reading about the upcoming “game” (in extremely detailed Nintendo Power- esque magazine pages that are thoroughly awesome), to playing through the text based adventure game Travis Strikes Back, there’s some nice respite from the main game. The latter in particular stands out since it brings back a lot of the crass dialogue and strange sensibilities of previous games in the series in a way that the main game doesn’t. There’s constant 4th wall breaking here, with a lot of nods to game development itself that provides some laughs.
The big problem is that, despite the really fun and interesting premise, this game is, simply put, not very much fun to play. Despite the fact that each level is ostensibly a new game, there’s really not much in the way of variation that sets any of them apart. To begin with, combat is extremely simple, with dedicated buttons for light and heavy attacks, a dodge button, a jump button, and some button combos you can use to pull off special moves. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a simple gameplay system, and for a while, fighting the various enemies throughout each level is cathartic, even though there’s none of the over the top blood fountains and very little of the funny and profane dialogue from previous games. As more and more enemy types get introduced, though, and level gimmicks drag on and on, fatigue sets in very quickly, and before long, I was ready to be done with the game even though I was less than halfway through.
For starters, the camera does combat little in the way of favors. Enemies all have tells for their various attacks, but often times, the top down camera is so zoomed out that it’s nearly impossible to tell when an enemy is going to do what. This is particularly egregious in the second and final levels for different reasons. This leads to frustration as you’re simply trying to make out where Travis (or the playable Bad Man, who is really not much different to Travis) is on screen, but you’re being bombarded by attacks on all sides. At one point, I was stuck in a corner by two of the same enemy type, each of which have a combo that stun locks you for a good ten seconds, eating away your health bar. I went from full health to about a quarter of my health in the span of 30 seconds. The aforementioned special attacks can help relieve some of the stress the enemies put on you in fun ways, like an infinitely satisfying force push or a spin attack. These take time to recharge, so you can’t spam them, but finding a new one leads to a feeling of excitement so you can try it out.
The levels are even more drab than the combat. Each level has a super stylish and fun opening, promising a really creative and insane time, particularly when you hear the back story about each one. For instance, the first level, Electric Thunder Tiger II, is ostensibly about a man trying to survive in a futuristic city. But all you do is run through a construction site, a factory, and some neon lit roads. Then you fight the boss. I can’t even begin to describe what a let down the levels are when considered against the game’s premise. What could have been a really varied and interesting time is instead a dull slog. Environments consist almost entirely of corridors, with little deviation to help set them apart. Sure, each level looks a little different from an aesthetic viewpoint, but even a late game level that recalls one of Suda51’s better games is still an entirely linear set of corridors, dressed up to look like something it’s not. And the few attempts to mix things up just lead to more frustration. In the second level, you’re going through flippable mazes in different neighborhoods to find the next mansion that gets you further in the level. That in itself is an okay puzzle idea, but it isn’t long before a slow moving ghost enemy appears. This enemy can’t be killed, and kills you in one hit. It just adds unneeded pressure to an already half baked idea, leading to immense frustration when, due to the sometimes unresponsive controls, it touches you just a little bit and kills you instantly. Then there’s a racing mini game later on that is basically all about timing your button presses to go faster. In between each race, you fight through tan dojos looking for a new vehicle part to win the next race with. It’s just not fun, simply put.
And really, the fact that levels and combat let down the amazing premise is indicative of the game as a whole. When I heard that Suda51 is returning to the Director’s chair to helm a new No More Heroes spinoff, I was overjoyed. When I heard the premise, I knew it would be different from the rest of the series, but didn’t much care because, as long as it could capture the strange, bizarre, anarchic spirit of the rest of the director’s output, I knew I would enjoy it. And after the admittedly awesome opening scene, the game becomes a simply repetitive and dull slog that goes on for way too long. Now, mind you, Suda51’s other games all have their fair share of problems. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who says the original No More Heroes or Killer7 has air tight and well thought out mechanics, but the thing about those games is that the stories were constantly unpredictable, and the characters and non sequiturs so out of left field that you didn’t mind the super basic gameplay since you were always eager to find out what odd curveball would get thrown at you next. And in the case of something like Killer7 there’s a genuinely uneasy atmosphere to everything that really gets under your skin. Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes lacks the pure, unfiltered creative energy and outlandish story and characters that Suda51 is so well known for, so it will live and die by its gameplay. It’s just unfortunate that combat stops being enjoyable so early on and that the levels have no creativity put into them whatsoever. There are brief glimpses of the game that could have been in the form of the funny visual novel segments that happen between levels and the small touches like the online T shirt shop and magazine pages describing each upcoming game. But it feels like too little when you have to deal with the tedium that pervades the rest of the game. I’m still holding out hope that this is a mark of a return for Suda51 and that this is simply a fluke from not having actually directed a game in about 10 years. But the fact remains that when I bought the in game Hotline Miami shirt for Travis to wear and played through the far too long third level with it, all it did was make me think about what a great game HM is, and how little fun I was having playing TSA: NMH.
+ Rewards loyal fans of Suda51 with cameos, references, and hints that we haven’t seen the last of the auteur director
+ Between level visual novel segments are genuinely funny and entertaining to read through
+ Little touches like in game magazine pages and buying different T shirts do more to evoke the series spirit than you would think
+ Combat starts off pretty enjoyable…
- …but gets old rather quickly thanks to drawn out encounters, a troublesome camera that obscures the details of enemy animations, and frustrating enemy types
- Level design is just uninspired and really lets down the fantastic and off the wall premise
- Almost no voice acting makes the on- paper- delightfully- insane characters feel dull and random
- Actual attempts at shaking things up are either frustrating or otherwise not fun
- Even as a 10 hour game, this still feels extremely padded and drags on for far too long