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In ‘No More Heroes 3’ fan service beats out punk edge and innovation

(Grasshopper Manufacture)

No More Heroes 3

Available on: Nintendo Switch

Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture | Publisher: Grasshopper Manufacture

Release date: August 27

Under embargo: Numerous plot details, including how the game starts and ends, as well as character appearances throughout the game

One of the criticisms aimed at 2008’s “No More Heroes” was that its open-world map was too empty and repetitive. It was, but that was the point. In a game that mocked gaming conventions, the humdrum downtime between linear missions and boss battles was meant as a running joke at the expense of the player. Back then, I would have said that those complaining about these free-roaming sections didn’t really ‘get’ the game.

There’s some irony, then, to me reviewing “No More Heroes 3” and criticizing it for reverting to the original’s open-world structure. A significant chunk of this new game’s runtime (about 15 hours in my case) is surrendered to the churn of touring its five territories, jumping between low-level combat and minigames. It’s empty and repetitive, and this time I don’t think it’s justified. There’s not enough to ‘get.’

Indeed, in reaching for the past, even with a sense of self-awareness, “No More Heroes 3” feels like it’s playing too safe. The original “No More Heroes” seemed daringly fresh when it arrived; it played on the idiocy of its protagonist, Travis Touchdown, the guilty pleasures of motion controlled ultraviolence, and the comic sparsity of that open world. It was chaotic but coherent, balancing a celebration of geek culture with a bleak reflection on the obsessive gamer mind-set. By contrast, “No More Heroes 3” is a passionate love letter to gaming culture that lacks underlying mischief, opting instead for cozy familiarity.

This starts from the game’s premise, a full circle of sorts. Travis is living in the No More Heroes motel, as he did in the first game. Once more, he gets drawn into a ludicrously contrived assassins’ ranking tournament, where he sets out to prove he’s the number one assassin. This time the stakes are higher: Earth is invaded by an alien overlord named FU and his cohort of intergalactic bad folk. Still, the tournament arrangement is largely the same. To get to the top you have to win 10 boss fights against the Extra-Terrestrial commanders. But competition rules require an ‘entrance fee’ before you can access each of these, so to get the cash you first have to complete jobs and smaller ‘designated’ battles, access to which is dotted around a compact map.

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If you’re new here and that sounds like nonsense, don’t worry, it is. The stories in this series are vehicles for breaks in the fourth wall, bizarre twists and sudden shifts in play style. “No More Heroes 3” excels on that count, throwing in a dizzyingly silly barrage of multimedia interjections, from a Ghibli-style animation sequence that sets the plot rolling, to a playable 80s-style scrolling beat ‘em up, a visual novel side-quest and nods to Akira, Gundam, Zelda and Final Fantasy. And if you ever wanted a crash course on the work of Takashi Miike, you’ve come to the right place. For Japanophile Easter egg hunters, this will likely be a dream come true.

Much of this anarchic texture feels ephemeral, however. There is a theme of sorts, as the scenario riffs on a cultural landscape dominated by superheroes, convoluted cinematic universes and nostalgic fanservice. Perhaps the open world grind this time marks a parallel between work and the unseen lulls of superhero life. Or perhaps reverting to that contentious old structure — which was ditched for 2010’s sequel — mocks a fan base always craving more of the original formula. But “No More Heroes 3” doesn’t dive into any of this with real satirical relish. It’s all too thin to support its rather skeletal progress loop.

Not that the open-world experience is singularly awful. The quiet cel-shaded city streets provide space to roar around on Travis’s beast of a motorbike, and every minimap icon feels like a new discovery, whether it leads to a minor skirmish — some of which are compulsory — or one of numerous minigame jobs. Most of the latter, which range from micro-quests such as unblocking toilets or collecting scorpions to volunteer missions including a racing pursuit game that resembles arcade classic Chase HQ and a turret shooter where you gun down invading alligators, I initially found enjoyable.

But as I graduated to their higher levels, none of these minigames felt refined or deep enough to warrant further attention. And it seems the game’s designers are happy with that. While you have to earn money in these sections to pay for the next boss match, it’s generally possible to gather sufficient funds purely by winning the handful of battles you’re forced to fight anyway. With that, jobs become throwaway filler — the sort of thing you might ignore in a Zelda game because there are so many other things to do — rather than bulking out the core experience.

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That leaves the combat to carry the weight of the open world on its shoulders, and it’s not quite that strong. Again, it’s initially quite satisfying, due to some solid foundations. Travis isn’t exactly Bayonetta, but that’s part of his appeal. He’s a dork aping gaming’s action stars, and “No More Heroes 3” smartly retains his clumsy overkill beam-sword technique. It also gives him a few new tricks beyond the usual light and heavy combos, and wrestling throws on stunned opponents. A jumping attack is useful to close down enemies quickly, while his ‘death glove’ device (from 2019 spinoff “Travis Strikes Again”) bestows recharging specials like a powerful drop kick and a life-draining shower that soaks the battlefield.

Deploying these new tools, alongside perfect dodges that slow down time, is essential, as it’s hard to win by slashing away without earning an opening first. Once you slip through a resilient foe’s defenses, it’s a visceral delight to batter them as they try to regain composure, building toward a crushing suplex. Motion control also still brings extra flair to proceedings, with Joycon flicks for wrestling throws and finishing moves, or concerted shaking to recharge Travis’s weapon. The pro controller may be more comfortable, but doesn’t get the blood pumping.

Battles are sometimes clumsy for the wrong reasons, however. The camera obstinately zooms in close to frame your exchanges, leaving you guessing as to when off-screen hostiles might intervene. Lock-on is cumbersome, forcing you to hold down the left trigger to keep targeting, then indecisively oscillating between aggressors. Add to that some view-filling pyrotechnics from the beam katana, and the action isn’t easily readable; chance often feels as prominent a factor as skill.

But the bigger issue here is the limited range of regular enemy and battle types. Designated matches warp you to a square room with some cover furniture opposite a small group of opponents, while optional defense missions test you against multiple waves of the same. Aside from a few tricky configurations, once I learned to prioritize and isolate threats, I autopiloted through. The only variation is when Travis dons his flying mech suit to confront massive space monsters, but these clashes are quite basic, and also repeat.

By the second half of the game I was mainly just in it for the bosses, and thankfully these do deliver. Some are quite traditional showdowns, with clear attack patterns and moments of vulnerability that shift between escalating phases. One early adversary, Gold Joe, introduces a magnetic charge mechanic that forces you to swiftly step on tiles that repel you away from his attacks. “Gamers like that kind of stuff,” quips Travis. He’s right! Others dissolve into delicious absurdity, with surprise switches and intrusions. Around the midpoint of the game I was unexpectedly challenged to a deadly match of musical chairs. I hope I can speak for everyone when I say we like that kind of stuff even more.

The only misstep in these battles is a difficulty level that flails between Souls-like brutality and comic irrelevance. But any spikes can at least be smoothed out by a surprisingly elegant assist system. Each time you fall, a roulette wheel spins, offering upgrades like extra attack power on your next attempt, or even immediate revival. Fail five times and the spin slows, effectively letting you choose your reward.

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When it’s not stalling on mundane filler, this is a game packed with left-field moments and characters that can’t but raise a smile: a killer robot that trips and stops to rub its knee; a speaking role for Travis’s cat, Jeane; skits in which FU and friends enjoy Earth culture. The main aliens are also individually memorable, whether in design, philosophy or even name — including gems such as Velvet Chair Girl and Sniping Lee. And there’s always irrepressible Travis, the beating heart of the series, facing the planet’s conquerors with his evergreen brand of oblivious curse-laden arrogance.

Not every idea lands — a parody of turn-based JRPG battles toward the end feels overly labored — and it’s hard to escape the sense that writer and co-director Suda51 is being self-indulgent even by his standards. Perhaps there’s such a thing as trying to squeeze too many references and cameos into a script. For all the surprises, the riotous homages, plot twists, characters and style switches, there’s not much to bind them, and not much genuine innovation.

For a love letter to gaming culture, “No More Heroes 3” relies a bit too heavily on its exquisitely eclectic script and presentation.

Jon Bailes is a freelance games critic and social theorist from the UK. He is author of Ideology and the Virtual City (Zero, 2019), and can be found on Twitter @JonBailes3.

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