The original No More Heroes, released for Wii in 2008, was a breath of fresh air. The story of slick loser Travis Touchdown and his ascent through the league of assassins, it's a kind of skew-whiff love letter to otaku culture, the silly fantasies of young men, and video game culture in general. It has a great combat system, the script is hilarious, and even on SD hardware it's a fantastically stylish and beautifully realised world: for my money, this game is developer Grasshopper Manufacture's finest moment.
No More Heroes was also a commercial success, to the extent it was swiftly followed up by a (pretty decent) sequel in 2010 and was subsequently ported to PS3 and 360. Nine years on from the last entry comes Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes, a Switch exclusive that's being billed as a spin-off from the main series, probably because it is such a mechanical departure. The original game's core is an over-the-shoulder third person combat system, and it's great: precise, flashy, exciting, and it works great with the boss fights too. Travis Strikes Again leaves this behind in favour of a top-down and zoomed-out perspective on a much, much simpler combat system, built around special moves and repeated basic combos. And that's the least of its problems.
There's an element to Travis Strikes Again I really don't like, and it's that you'll spend an enormous amount of time grinding through this top-down combat mode while the game insists you're actually doing something else. Essentially the setup is that Travis has a legendary games console, the Death Drive Mk. 2, and you're playing through a variety of different games that he's been inserted into. So the idea is variety! The top-down combat might not be brilliant, but at least there's something different coming up next...
Except there isn't, not really. The games have distinctive themes, like a hotel murder mystery or a map-rotating puzzle layout, but ultimately they all come to rely on sticking Travis in a room full of goons to progress. The unique elements to each 'game' come to feel slight next to the knowledge that, whether you need to acquire some coffee or a gearbox or track down a murderer, the method of doing so is always the same. It's not even that this combat system is especially awful: it's not a patch on the original games, sure, but it's flashy and fun enough as a ten-minute blast. It's that the game uses it so much that you've soon rubbed up against its limits, and then it begins to feel threadbare.
The charm here, such as it is, has to come from the script and framing devices. Some see these as among director Goichi Suda's great strengths, and there are certainly some sparkling lines sprinkled throughout this adventure. But the whole 'game console' concept begins to fall flat when you realise that there isn't much of a game being hidden away here, nevermind half-a-dozen, and the structure is constantly taking up your time with padding.
None of this will be unfamiliar to Suda-51 fans, but the feeling of style over substance here is such that you come to resent the nudge-nudge-wink-wink moments. The 'Travis Strikes Again' game is a visual novel, accessed between game worlds on Travis's bike, and makes jokes about how people bought this expecting an action game and will hate scrolling through all this boring text... and you're thinking 'yeah, good point.'
I found this joke especially interesting, because I remember similar feelings about one of Suda's earlier games, Flower, Sun and Rain. This is a weird hybrid of puzzles and adventure story, with something of the same schtick going on: the game will comment on how boring a certain task is, or make you walk huge distances while characters tut about how that sucks. Flower, Sun and Rain is such an odd game that it just about gets away with this, but at the same time the player can't help but realise that they're the butt of the joke. That's why it's funny.
It's harder to laugh at Travis Strikes Again pulling the same trick, especially when it's so obviously a patchwork of Grasshopper's own past work and prototypes. The genius of the 'games-within-a-game' concept is that it allows you to throw anything into the pot, whether that's half-finished 3D environments suspended over a void or re-used assets from Shadows of the Damned. These are stitched-together by framing text and a persistent 'half-finished' aesthetic, but none of these 'games' feels like it's own little world in the way you might hope.
Needless to say, Travis Strikes Again makes several references to a possible No More Heroes 3. It's what you'd expect but, at the same time, can't help but make you wonder why this exists at all. The top-down take on combat isn't as good as the decade-old system it replaces. The story doesn't have much focus, or much of a point. The individual games aren't nearly distinct enough.
And at the centre of it all is a Travis Touchdown who doesn't really seem to be there. The character's easy charm and great lines are still here, but spread ever-so thinly across a padded product. To make a comeback, after all this time, for this. Travis Strikes Again is a spin-off that feels like a spin-off, and it's sad to see such a great character condemned to a fate he'd despise: a truly mediocre video game.