Pros:Fun combat, wacky characters.
Cons:Awkward camera, weak story.
Travis Touchdown swings his sword, slicing cleanly through his attacker’s neck. Blood gushes like a red geyser as the head hurtles straight up into the air then lands back on the neck before the body can fall. That head lands so neatly, in fact, that it opens its mouth and starts threatening Travis.
In the action game No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, this is how the world works.
The Story: Travis, the Once and Future Champion
In the original No More Heroes, down-on-his-luck Travis entered a competition to become the top-ranked assassin of the United Assassin’s Association. After succeeding, Travis “walked away.” Three years later the brother of a man he killed comes after him. After defeating him at the beginning of Struggle, Travis is visited by the mysterious, provocatively-dressed assassin agent Sylvia, who convinces Travis to fight in the UAA. Does Travis do it for money? For glory? No, he agrees because Sylvia offers sex in many, many positions.
Travis is a type of protagonist often seen in Japanese anime like Trigun and Trinity Blood, the superhuman dork. He shifts easily from cool killing machine to doofus panting after a hot girl to tragic figure caught in a web of violence. Although once the UAA’s number one assassin, he still lives in a rundown motel while many of his opponents live in heavily guarded bunkers.
There’s little plot to the game, outside of a weak revenge motif. Struggle seems to barely remember what happened in the last game; when Travis breaks the fourth wall to insist that players need some back story, Sylvia retorts that “there are people starting from the sequel who don’t care about continuity.” She had better be right, as the game ignores a major plot twist of the original.
The structure is simple. Sylvia calls up Travis to flirt with or insult him, then tells him where the next fight will be. There are also mysterious snippets in which a woman talks about upcoming battles; we don’t see her face, as the game camera seems unable to look away from her cleavage.
Gameplay: Slash and Stab
Travis fights his way through a series of henchmen until he reaches his target, who might be a cosmonaut, a killer machine, a giggly Travis Touchdown groupie or a ghost, each of which has a variety of special deadly attacks and a deeply disturbed personality.
The original game had great fight sequences broken up by tedious sections in which Travis had to raise entry fees for each bout by driving around town in search of chores like mowing lawns. Happily, the entry fees are gone - no reason is given - and Struggle is almost entirely focused on combat.
Battle has changed little from the first game. Travis has a beam katana, a light-saber-like sword that neatly slices through enemies. Players can raise and lower the sword with a tilt of the Wii remote and attack by pressing the A button. They can also attack by running towards an enemy and swinging the remote. Killing puts Travis in a state of ecstasy, and when his ecstasy meter is full he can briefly become fast and invulnerable. Some kills will also result in special powers; in one he actually transforms into a tiger able to kill thugs with one swipe of his paws, which may be why they all start running away screaming.
The game offers a little variety in the fighting. One battle is a typically Japanese giant robot fight. Two battles are played not with Travis but with a girl named Shinobu, who has a ranged attack and the ability – badly implemented – to jump.
The Other Gameplay: Dumb, Ignorable Arcade Games
Outside of combat there are a series of optional mini-games, most of which look like 1980s arcade games, which can be played to raise money to buy better swords and new clothes. These range from mildly entertaining to downright annoying. If you need money, just play the ridiculously easy steak-cooking mini-game.
There are also a couple of arcade games you can play at a virtual gym. Presumably these will make you stronger and faster, but since they were quite difficult (I could not get the hang of the treadmill one at all) and cost money to play, I soon gave up on them.
It doesn’t matter that these games aren’t much fun, what matters is that they’re easily ignored.
Some Wii action games feel dumbed-down for a casual audience, but Struggle is not one of them. Even the easiest mode can be relatively taxing. I started playing on the game’s medium (a.k.a. “mild”) mode and died during the tutorial, forcing me to switch to easy (“sweet), although once I got the hang of the controls I had no problem playing the first hour of the game on mild. Thugs aren’t that tough, but bosses can be grueling. Difficulty doesn’t ramp up smoothly though; some of the later bosses seemed quite easy, others almost impossible.
Conclusion: Just Plain Fun
Struggle is a lot of fun to play, but it’s the game’s crazy, over-the-top, purposefully juvenile sensibility that makes it so entertaining. With stylish graphics, cartoonish gore, low humor (to save game progress Travis goes into the bathroom and squats on the toilet), a ridiculous premise, odd references to ancient arcade games and an obsession with big breasts and near-nudity (when Shinobu saves the game she goes into the bathroom and takes a shower), Struggle is a wild ride, a Kill Bill for gamers that unabashedly flouts its absurdities.
Struggle is not perfect. The camera controls are awkward, although an enemy lock-on system helps. The ending is disappointing, lacking the absurd plot twists of the original. And while one expects sequels to offer more than the original – better combat, more interesting battles, new ideas – Struggle’s most notable achievement is not adding a lot of great stuff but simply cutting out all the first game’s bad parts. No More Heroes 2 is, more than anything else, simply the game No More Heroes would have been if not for some idiotic design choices.
Is that enough? If you’re a fan of hot crazy girl assassins, weird humor and slicing people’s heads off, then hell yeah.