Review: No More Heroes III
Man, it sure has been a bit of a wait for some fresh and traditional Travis Touchdown action. Over a decade, to be precise. It hasn’t been completely devoid of his presence, what with multiple ports of the original two Wii games as well as a side entry in the form of Travis Strikes Again on the Switch a couple of years ago. Regardless, having Suda and his team at Grasshopper Manufacture delve back into a mainline entry at all is a treat in and of itself. Needless to say, the fact that this is releasing at all is going to have quite a few fans excited for what’s to come from Travis and his beam katana wielding shenanigans.
It’s not uncommon for sequels of any well-known franchise try to try different things to keep the experience fresh, and sometimes you just want to experiment a little bit. It’s a fine line to walk, because you’re straddling the need to keep things interesting but also staying true to what people loved about the game in the first place. That said, Travis is basically Suda’s baby, so one would expect that he’d be putting a lot more of his own personality and effort into this entry.
So let’s get slashy, hop onto our Akira-but-not-really-Akira styled motorcycle, and indulge in our favorite pastime of making a habit of being our favorite version of our otaku badass selves. Developed and published by Grasshopper Manufacture, No More Heroes III releases on Nintendo Switch on August 27, 2021 and is the version of the game played for this review.
The Threat From Outer Space
If you’re anything like me, you have the tendency to sniff out references from stuff from the 80s relatively quickly. The setup for the main story is basically a lampoon on E.T. mixed with a little bit of Dragonball Z for good measure. Our main antagonist, the alien prince FU (pronounced “foo”), befriends a young boy named Damon and forms the kind of bond you’d expect from the movies it references from. Eventually, FU decides to return to his home planet with Damon’s help. Before he leaves, he says he’ll return in 20 years. Naturally, Damon is excited about this and patiently awaits his return after FU’s departure.
Time jumping past the events of No More Heroes and Desperate Struggle, FU makes good on his promise and returns to Earth and quickly reveals that he wasn’t the cute and cuddly alien he appeared to be before his departure. Fully grown up, he returns with a posse of rough and tumble aliens and intends on conquering and destroying the planet. However, FU decides that he would essentially like to set up his own version of the Cell Games with the help of now adult and CEO Damon. Travis gets roped into the Garden of Insanity once again, and it’s time for him to get ready to get wild to climb the Galactic Rankings and take on FU himself. Unsurprisingly, the UAA is brought into the mix and we start to fall into a comfortable pattern consistent with prior games.
While what follows plotwise is consistent with what fans are used to from these games, it feels safe to say that the familiar plot progression might disappoint some fans. Now I’m not saying that what’s seen in cutscenes isn’t entertaining. Nor am I saying that there aren’t some surprises in store along the way, either. FU is a right asshole, and not too far off from the DBZ reference he basically is in general. It’s safe to say that the plot comfortably falls into “video game plot,” but does so in a way that’s still entertaining.
In between the monster of the week style rollout of each of the ranking members and the trademark rude and crude style of delivery that the series is known for, some of the surprises along the way were in fact fun to watch. This series is known for never taking itself too seriously and being a vehicle for Suda to show his love for pop culture and leaning on the fourth wall in the flashiest way possible. Obviously, they weren’t going to rock the boat here in that respect. The best way to describe the story here is that it’s flashy and fun, and I’m fine with that.
Do I enjoy complex plots? Absolutely no arguments there. But when you decide to go light on complexity and go full on fun, you’re going to have to do it in a way that’s fun. People might have lambasted movies of a similar vein for being all flash and light on plot, but you can’t say that it wasn’t entertaining at all. In a way, it shares that energy with No More Heroes III. There’s flash, there’s light plot, plenty of wrestling references, tokusatsu (re: Super Sentai/Kamen Rider/Power Rangers), and as much violence as you can handle. It can be seen as a vehicle for the gameplay, sure. But that’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. It’s perfectly serviceable, and the standard goofy yet violent tone that the series is known for is still here. I respect that kind of consistency, if I’m being frank.
Back to the Grind
With FU doing what he does and roping the UAA into his own little “playing with his food before he eats it” escapade, this largely means that core gameplay is going to be the tried and true loop that this series has pretty much down pat by this point. Travis might not be the same broke asshole from the first game, but he still has to follow the rules like any other UAA-backed tournament. I wasn’t expecting to see any drastic changes here given that series’ hack and slash gameplay is well known by this point.
Combat is generally going to be localized to the Ranking Matches, Designated Matches, and Defense Missions. Elements that have been there since the beginning are still here in III. Sword clashes that lead into death blows with other foes? Yup, that’s still here. Wrestling moves? Also still along for the ride. Using the bread and butter heavy/light attacks with a mix of dodge rolling away from danger sound like a good time for you? Good, that’s here too. I’ve never been the type to pooh pooh gameplay elements that have worked for games in the past so long as they work, and going in between these combat encounters is still solid.
That said, repetition still sets in on occasion and I found myself wanting to step away to clear my mind. This is somewhat alleviated by the four skills you can use on the fly, on top of the tokusatsu-laced Full Armor Mode and its occasional encounters, but most of the time you’ll be hacking and slashing like you have before. I primarily used button controls which work well enough, but motion controls are there for those who would prefer to physically slash their way to the top as well. They’re on par with their Wii counterparts, so it’s fine if that’s how you prefer to play.
The big difference here for some that might have skipped out on Desperate Struggle is how many other open world areas you’re able to explore throughout your task of climbing to the top of the Galactic Rankings. You’re not only traipsing around Santa Destroy, but several other areas as well. You’ll be zooming around on Travis’ bike, sure. But having multiple large areas like this basically necessitates a fast travel system for the sake of brevity. Sure, other large open world games can seamlessly go between area to area without the slightest consideration for fast travel. Here? It’s a nice concession for those on the go for the most part. With the level design trying to accompany the usual breadth and depth that come with open world games, being able to pop into the pause menu and zip to the specific area you need to go to is quite handy.
Series veterans know what they’re getting into here, but being able to watch a ranking match requires you to scrape up enough scratch to pay the entry fee to the UAA. This is where the game tends to fall back on what it knows to get you to that end goal. If you’re not engaging in the combat missions, you’ll be taking on minigames from prior entries here. Cleaning toilets to just be able to unlock a save point, mowing the grass, and other such minigames will feel comforting to some. Others might find it to be lazy. I tend to focus more on the combat side of things, so those minigames are more of a way to add some variety to the grind that this inevitably becomes.
However, you will find yourself needing to acquire a separate currency known as WESN (World’s End Super Nova) to be able to power Travis up. You’ll be able to obtain them through combat, sure. But you’ll also have the chance to rack up this currency through mining it. It’s nothing complicated, just another simplistic minigame. But this sort of grinding is something you’ll have to do in order to get the permanent buffs that you’re looking for. Though if you’re short on that dough, you can grab some temporary buffs to use on the fly by way of the various DonMai Sushi shops littered throughout the game (with some really good beats to go with your ordering experience, might I add). While useful in the heat of things, flipping between each one in those circumstances is a bit unwieldy in some situations.
You can also use the random junk that you obtain in combat to craft enhancements to your Death Glove. Known as Death Glove Chips, these things are basically stat modifiers. Thanks to the plethora of combinations you have at your disposal (depending on what you have on hand, naturally), this is simultaneously a fun thing to use as well as a completionist’s nightmare. Finding the chip you want to craft will require specific parts, naturally. Because of that, you’re gonna be grinding quite a bit. However, it’s not exactly a full on requirement to get things done. Will it make things more interesting? Sure, if you’re into that sort of thing. But really, it’s not anything that’s worth getting into if you’re not feeling it.
Sure, I have my nitpicks. But if you’re looking to exhale a sigh of relief for the gameplay, this is where it’d feel reasonable to do so. Combat works as well as it should, default difficulty isn’t brutal (but it has its moments), and the returning activities are still merely fine to mess around in. Travis Touchdown may be a badass assassin killer, but he’s not someone who’s going to be cut down in five seconds in a ridiculously difficult game either.
No, really. Let it out. It’s perfectly competent.
A Different Kind of Planetary Trip
Let’s be honest here, most people who think of No More Heroes generally start to pivot to the Wii from a graphical angle. Because of that, the first two titles were limited in what they could do in terms of detail and performance and had to have an art style to match that hardware. In a way, No More Heroes III finds itself in a similar situation. The Switch finds itself straddled between two console generations, but still ends up on the short end of the performance stick. It may not be as harsh as what the Wii was once described, but the level of detail here in this game does draw some parallels to its forebears. That said, the art style is unmistakably teeming with the usual flash and flair that weaves its way into much of Suda’s back catalog. Over-the-top blood spray in the midst of what can only be described as the occasional psychedelic haze is in fact trippy, but I can’t say that it’s in focus on the time.
Being able to use the alien-centric plot was definitely an excuse to let the artists just kinda go nuts with what they consider to be a space alien, and it shows in the most Suda way possible. Sometimes they’re blocky, sometimes they’re weird looking robots, and all the ships and such are just so unabashedly ridiculous that I can’t help but love it. Though everything else is basically in service to the hardware. Nothing is extremely detailed, but more often than not this works in the Switch’s favor.
You will notice a marked difference in framerate depending on what environment you’re in. Framerates and cutscenes are more consistent in combat situations, more than likely because there’s less to load there. Performance takes a pretty steep dive when you start venturing out into the open world areas. We know that the Switch can struggle to keep up with certain levels of detail, but here it can get pretty choppy at times in the open world. Now it’s not to the point of absolute unplayablity, mind you, but I will say that it’s absolutely noticeable over the course of general gameplay.
Audio-wise, it’s also in line with what fans come to expect from the series. Dialogue is (usually) over the top and ridiculous (I mean, there’s a talking cat), and I’m fine with that here because it fits the tone. The plot isn’t entirely serious, so a few rude and crude quips here and there isn’t going to bug me all that much. Sometimes some of Travis’ combat lines did get on my nerves on occasion, but it’s not as awful as I may be making it out to be. The cast was having quite a bit of fun here, and that basically oozes out of most every cutscene that comes across your screen. Music is also more on the subtle side when traversing the open world, and a bit more on the punk rock side of things once you start leaning into the combat side of things.
Part of the charm of a No More Heroes game is the level of weirdness that tends to come with the art style and presentation. None of it is ever especially straightforward, and a lot of it can be a bit of a mishmash of pop culture references relevant to Suda’s interests. What Grasshopper usually sticks the landing on is how well it weaves into the gameplay and story. It never seems to rise to the level of awkward delivery ala Ready Player One‘s level of “please pay attention to me because I made this reference” and tends to make more of a “hey this is a reference to a thing I like” that’s delivered in a more organic way. Despite some performance issues in the open world, this is about as competent of a presentation you can get on the hardware it’s on.
Back In The Swing of Things
I hate to continue to rehash the development hell that was Shenmue III, but I feel that the energy surrounding that game feels a bit apropos to mention given that the gap between numbered entries was pretty wide in comparison. What’s important here is whether or not fans were rewarded with a competent entry worthy of the wait they endured to even get to this point.
I can happily say that this was indeed the case with Suda’s latest romp with Travis Touchdown, but not without a stumble or two along the way. Just like its predecessors, this rude and crude romp laced with all the blood and gore you can handle is quite the fun time.
Really, should anyone be surprised that No More Heroes III is a good time? Suda51 and his gang may be known for games that are varying levels of weird, but you can hardly ever say that they’re boring at all. Travis might have been in relative exile for a while, but it feels like he hasn’t missed a beat. It’s time to fire up that beam katana back up, people. Far from a swing and a miss, it’s good to see Travis back in his element. This gets a solid recommend from me.
Review code provided by Grasshopper Manufacture for Switch. Screenshots and feature image taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Grasshopper Manufacture.