When you fire up a game and see that the loading screen proudly proclaims that ‘Punk’s not dead’, you know you’re in for something of an unorthodox experience. The enigmatic Suda 51 and his team at Grasshopper Manufacture are arguably one of the most offbeat development studios currently operating in the industry today; the company’s previous title, Killer 7, managed to divide opinion amongst critics and consumers alike, but then that is often the fate of truly revolutionary pieces of entertainment.
No More Heroes isn’t a direct sequel to Killer 7 but the two games share many stylistic features; the heavily shadowed, cel-shaded visuals and the concept of killing people, for example. The plot centers on likeable loser Travis Touchdown, who, after a chance meeting with a sultry French temptress decides to become the world’s number one assassin. Starting off in lowly eleventh place, Travis must ascend the ranks of the murderous elite by picking them off one by one. Participating in such nefarious activity doesn’t come cheap as a price is charged to arrange each face-off, so in-between fights Travis has to earn cash by performing menial tasks such as collecting coconuts or mowing lawns.
When early shots of the game were released, much attention was given to Travis’ weapon of choice – a rather awesome looking beam sword, which clearly takes a large amount of inspiration from Star Wars. Given the motion-sensing nature of the host hardware, many jumped to the conclusion that No More Heroes would allow you to swing this compelling piece of weaponry around, but sadly that isn’t the case. Control in No More Heroes is actually quite straightforward; hacking and slashing is performed by simply pressing A, stuns and throws are assigned to B and movement is governed by the Nunchuk’s analogue stick.
That’s not to say that Grasshopper has completely ignored the potential of the Wii’s control system; for example, Travis’ sword often requires recharging and this is achieved by frantically shaking the Wiimote from side to side. Also, when throws and grapple moves are activated, the player is called to copy the on-screen command in order to complete the bone-crunching attack. During regular combat the player must thrust the Wiimote in a certain direction to execute finishing moves on hapless enemies.
Some may be disappointed that Grasshopper didn’t go the whole hog and put motion-sensitive swordplay into the game, but in all honesty the system the company has crafted is perfect; the sheer amount of combat with in the game would make your arm ache after only a few minutes play if you had to swing the controller for each sword slash. By saving gesture commands for key moments, Grasshopper has actually managed to keep the appeal of motion-sensitive control intact, and swinging the Wiimote to perform killer moves feels incredibly invigorating.
Which is fortunate, because there’s an awful lot of fighting in No More Heroes. Each encounter with a rival assassin is preceded by several minutes of combat with all manner of underlings and henchmen, most of which look identical to each other. The format of the game doesn’t change a great deal in this respect, and it’s a testament to the robust nature of the battle system that it never gets fatally repetitive. Little embellishments like the slot machine randomizer (which is activated whenever you perform a finishing move on a foe and arbitrarily dishes out time-limited special attack options) help to keep things fresh and interesting during the long trek to the top of the assassin league table.
Graphically No More Heroes is both a positive and negative advert for the capabilities of the Wii. In many scenes it looks glorious and each character is positively dripping with style. Travis himself is a particularly appealing lead, despite his often-crass dialogue. Sadly, there are too many moments when the graphic engine starts to shudder and misfire; large-scale battles are plagued with unfortunate slowdown and all the in-game objects have off-putting jagged edges. Playing this on a HD TV isn’t always a pleasant experience, especially if you’re used to the rather more refined imagery generated by next-gen rivals like the 360 and PS3. As has been reported previously, the PAL version lacks the torrents of blood found in its American counterpart, and falls in line with the similarly gore-free Japanese release. Enemies explode in a shower of dust here, which seems perfectly natural in the gloriously frenzied world of No More Heroes.
In spite of all this, No More Heroes remains an artistic triumph. It’s hard to recall a game that is as well put together; every screen, every transition, every pixel of the display – it’s all be thoroughly well thought out from a design perspective. Hell, it feels like more care and attention has been lavished on the ‘pause’ screen than is granted to the entire interface of many other titles. It’s also one of the most amusing games we’ve played in a while, and is packed with fan-service for anyone who considers themselves to be a videogamer. Random, NES-like beeps accompany the on-screen action and whenever Travis takes out a rival assassin, his progress is shown via an archaic, Space Invaders-style high score table, replete with authentic music. The unique nature of the Wii is also embraced in wholly original ways; for example, when Travis receives a phone call in-game, you have to hold the Wiimote up to your head as you would a regular phone, and the conversation is then piped through the Wiimote’s tiny speaker – a really neat touch.
No More Heroes certainly isn’t perfect; the tasks you’re given in-between missions are dull (calling to mind the same boredom experienced when you had to get a job in Sega’s Shenmue), the Grant Theft Auto-style driving sections border on the pointless (we can only assume they’re intended to be a thinly-veiled dig at the successful franchise) and the general gameplay doesn’t actually change during any of the assassination missions. But regardless of these points, it still entertains in a way that few other games can manage. It’s a chaotic riot packed with gleeful videogame references, over the top dialogue and some seriously awesome-looking combat action.
A far more accessible proposition than Killer 7 ever was, No More Heroes is so wonderfully amusing that it’s easy to forgive its minor shortcomings; Suda 51’s latest epic fully deserves to garner the kind of attention and praise that unfortunately seemed to elude its predecessor.