No More Heroes has made a name for itself in video games with it’s own stylized ultraviolence, quick and cheesy dialogue, and the self-aware 4th wall breaking characters who seem just a bit too self-aware for their own world. The latest installment in the franchise, No More Heroes: Travis Strikes Again continues this tradition, but a second player can now come crashing in on the action resulting in a new type of experience.
The game opens on Travis playing video games during what seems to be just another quiet night in his trailer. Travis’ play time is soon cut short as he’s launched into the very game he so adores by Badman, the father of Badgirl who is an assassin killed by Travis in previous games (stay with me). Badman falls into the game with Travis and works as the second playable character and thus, Travis and Badman, controlled by Player 1 and Player 2, set off on their digital adventure to exit the game into which they’ve fallen. Nearing the escape of the game world, Travis discovers that there are other cartridges, each called a ‘Deathball’, that he can find in the real world and use on the rare Death Machine console he owns. Escaping the in-game game, players follow Travis on his world-trotting quest to find all six of the legendary Deathballs which will supposedly grant the holder one wish - to resurrect Badgirl.
Players ‘find’ Deathballs by clicking through dialogue heavy screens that explain Travis’ travels and the going-ons along the way. After recovering each Deathball, players return to the trailer and can use Travis’ Death Machine console to hop into the game where the actual ‘gameplay’ takes place.
The minute-to-minute gameplay is pure hack and smash action. Players can perform light or heavy attacks, jump, dodge, or use one of their selected special moves. These special moves can heal your character, stun enemies, or pick up bad guys and throw them across the room. As you progress through levels, you will find and unlock additional special moves in the form of computer chips that can be applied to Travis or Badman, or switched between the two at any time. Some chips can only be used by one character, while others are team powers requiring both players to have the same chip equipped. These chips are a great touch since they are the only major variation in the minute to minute gameplay and let players have some control over their character.
As you smash your way through the game, either with Travis’ Beam Katana or Badman’s baseball bat, the gameplay quickly becomes a cycle of enter an area, watch a bunch of baddies spawn, kill baddies, find different area, repeat. I hoped that the first Deathball would be a tutorial and the second Deathball might just more of the same to solidify what the first taught me. I hoped that surely the third would offer variation - no. All of the Deathballs have the same gameplay loop. This feels odd as the premise is that these are all different games so variation would make sense. Instead, the only ‘variations’ come from different camera angles from game-to-game, and minor unique touches to work through, like locked doors or a gear-shifting mini game in a racing game. None of this ever makes the overall game feel different though, as you’re fighting the same bad guy character types over and over again,and seeing them top-down as opposed to side-scrolling doesn’t change how the player behaves.
Combat with a partner is the very best way to play Travis Strikes Again, since smashing bad guys is always more fun with a friend and the simple formula here is so bare bones anyone can jump in and have a blast. The game also offers an extremely simple experience point based system for leveling up, but it only results in dealing out more damage and having more health. This experience points system and aforementioned chips take more forethought in co-op than solo play, as experience points earned are shared so either Travis or Badman can level up, but often not both. These systems work well for co-op gameplay, as my partner and I divided up chips based on what powers we wanted to wield and I was able to ensure my partner was leveled up with more health and could deal more damage while I stayed a lower level resulting in a more punishing game for me.
There is a bit of divergence between the fun to be had in single player and co-op. If you’re playing in co-op, the combat and baddie-butt-kicking is the highlight of the game, since you and your partner are just happily whacking away at digital evils while exploring the (often constrained) game together, looking for hidden chips and items that can lead to aesthetic changes. However, the aforementioned dialogue-heavy screens are far more enjoyable in single player, as they can drag on for some time and Player 1 has control over when to click from screen to screen and keep everything moving. These scenes are truly funny and well written, but they have such a jarring change of pace from the rest of the gameplay, promising your co-op partner that you’re going to be playing a hack-and-smash game and then stopping to read a short story can slam the breaks on any fun being had.
The problem of co-op vs. single player is furthered if players want to use the Switch screen rather than a TV. Some of the levels have a truly wide top-down camera angle, resulting in tiny, hard to follow player characters. Besides the camera problem, all of the dialogue in these scenes is written in text rather than voiced. This means that if you and your partner are using the Joycon controllers and trying to share a Switch screen, text sections will feel like sharing a book with someone else, which is no one's idea of a good time.
The text-only readability problem is unfortunate because the writing is really what lands best and cannot be applauded enough for finding its tongue in cheek groove from the first minute. Travis Strikes Again calls out ‘Deadpole’ (Deadpool) for using No More Heroes’ 4th wall breaking humor after No More Heroes did it first, it references games like Shadow of the Damned and Hotline Miami, it pokes at unfinished levels in games, and sees Travis looking for his own emotions as he realizes he is just a killing machine. It’s a truly witty story balanced against gameplay that remains bearable with little variation to make it anything more all the way through.
No More Heroes: Travis Strikes Again shows players the depth (or lack thereof) of it’s gameplay early on and remains steady in what it chooses to do; for better and worse. While the gameplay mechanics are as simple as can be, and are simply better with a friend by your side, the writing stays sharp all the way up to the completely unexpected ending to the story.. The newest entry into the No More Heroes series is over the top, full of hilariously weird dialogue, references other games and critiques game engines, calls out Deadpool (not by name, mind you), and it does all of this while deep down being a love letter to gaming as a whole.
The Co-Op Experience: A second player can join in using a Joy-Con and play as Badman. Players can work together to clear one of the seven games and beat the boss at the end, though only one player will be able to claim the Death Ball and get their wish
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