The work of video game designer Goichi Suda, aka Suda51, has long been a topic of contention, with fans split on almost every one of his titles. The likes of Killer7, Shadows of the Damned and No More Heroes are packed with twisted humor, self-referential introspection and ultra-violence, but critical and fan reception is usually middling. Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes falls right in line with that.
The "third" entry in the No More Heroes series was billed as a side story from its initial announcement. The game trades traditional third-person action for something akin to modern indie titles like Hotline Miami, where a mostly top-down camera provides a bird's-eye view of the action. An occasional "pulled" camera allows players to get closer to, or further from, the action, depending upon the game. That you are trapped inside a deadly virtual-reality game console called the Death Drive Mk II, fighting for your life through six titles, is wrapped around that camera component.
You play as Travis Touchdown, a retired, formerly world-renowned assassin who's haunted by his past when Badman, the father of a previous opponent, comes seeking retribution for the death of his daughter. The two of you get sucked into this game of life or death, literally, and you have to collect new additions to the console, called "Death Balls," and play through them all to survive.
While each Death Ball is introduced as a separate experience, they are, for the most part, top-down action games using a linear progression system and a connected line of upgrades. The gameplay, in that regard, doesn't really change, and quickly grows tiring as you make your way through locked rooms packed with "Bugs," grotesque, skull-headed enemies that you have to eradicate. They definitely fall more in line with designs from the first two No More Heroes titles, and the bosses, a highlight of each game, follow suit. Most of the levels feel like rinse and repeat, with some containing fairly miserable platforming sections and others offering way too much of the same combat. However, there's a hook here that does feel right at home, even if it's not entirely satisfying.
And sure, there are a couple of games that don't follow the exact same format. The fourth title in the Death Drive Mk II's library, Golden Dragon GP, pulls the cool traversal mechanics of the first two games into a Tron-like drag race, with gear-shifting and all. It's not super-deep by any means, but it's a nice reprieve, even if does still have that hack-and-slash gameplay in between races. There's also the Asteroids-inspired Killer Marathon, which does further the idea that more games in a different style would have gone a long way. Similarly, each game is book-ended by "Scenarios" in a retro visual novel, offering a selection of hilarious scenes that don't really overstay their welcome.
Some of the humor feels outdated, but references to fourth wall-breaking mercenary "Deadpole" and a cat that loves to curse are just two highlights of the interludes that push the narrative forward.
That's really where the game succeeds in having Suda51 as both writer and director, because he's in top form when it comes to the game's story. Now, that doesn't mean Travis Strikes Again is a gripping tale of self-realization and regret, or anything like that. But it's weird and wonderful in a twisted kind of way, with over-the-top villains and Travis' own suave, yet lame, attitude complementing each encounter. Suda51 also loves his references, so expect cameos and Easter eggs from his body of work, ranging from subtle nods to characters you actually have to face in the main story.
Travis Strikes Again is also oozing with style, embracing its low-budget environments and gameplay in a front-facing way. The only time this really fails is in the murder-mystery platform Death Ball Coffee & Doughnuts, but it's still endearing, even if the level design mechanically feels lacking and incredibly frustrating. Each game also uses the Nintendo Switch's HD Rumble in subtle fashion throughout, which feels nice.
The game also supports two-player co-op and character switching, so whether you have a friend who wants to play as Badman or you'd like to wield a bat instead of a laser sword, there's something here for you. A number of customization options keep player progression interesting, if not simple. You'll find skill chips through the game's levels to add special abilities to your arsenal, including an ultimate move that feels extremely good to use every time.
You collect coins, level up and use currency to purchase new T-shirts at Travis' campsite. The T-shirts are a wonderful celebration of the past 10 years of indie gaming, though, with Dead Cells, Undertale, Hotline Miami, Minit and more represented in Travis' potential wardrobe.
Overall, Travis Strikes Again is a budget-friendly title that bleeds style and humor, even if it outstays its welcome by the end credits. There's nothing exactly "new" here as far as gameplay goes, but it's a nice reminder at how wonderfully insane Suda51 can get when he has the full reins of story and design. If anything, maybe you'll consider this an appetizer before, if this game's many teases are any indication, No More Heroes 3. One can only hope.
Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes is now available for Nintendo Switch. A review code was provided by the publisher.