The mirrors don’t work.
It’s a minor detail and completely inconsequential to gameplay, but when Travis Touchdown meanders into a public restroom to do his deeds and save the game in No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle, he might as well be a vampire. Despite his bloodlust, Travis is not a vampire – he’s just the star of an unrefined game.
Like its predecessor, a lack of polish runs through Grasshopper Manufacture’s latest: the camera can be borderline problematic at times, there is graphical stuttering and slowdown when you wouldn’t expect it, some of the minigames are rough and a few boss battles feel downright imbalanced. For someone who prefers their gaming experiences refined and spit-shined, it’s enough to throw the controller down in frustration.
But Desperate Struggle doesn’t care. Grasshopper waves a giant middle finger to refinement, beats it up, steals its lunch money and cuts off its head while laughing. The game proudly displays roughness as a badge of honour next to Sex Pistols and Guitar Wolf patches on its wrecked leather jacket. It is punk rock in video game form: rough, dirty, crude and idealistic. It’s all about looking cool while slicing fools with beam katanas and cracking skulls with piledrivers. This is a game where you can turn into a tiger and bite the limbs off panicked enemies and cause blood geysers.
Instead of sweating the small stuff, Desperate Struggle is more concerned with killer gameplay and it largely succeeds. This here is a textbook example of amounting to something greater than the sum of its parts.
Despite all the flaws (and in some ways because of them), there’s an unquantifiable vibe sewn into the game’s very core that makes Desperate Struggle a hugely enjoyable and satisfying action game that improves on its predecessor in nearly every way. Not only does it look better (apart from the vampire-mirror thing), it brings along more playable characters, more outlandish bosses, highly entertaining 8-bit side jobs and anything and everything important to the otaku protagonist.
Set three years after Travis reached the top of the United Assassin Association rankings and walked away from it all, Travis has become something of a legend among assassins. His best friend Bishop, owner of the Beef Head video store, is gunned down by thugs of the new number one assassin. Fueled by hatred, revenge and horniness, Travis agrees to rejoin the UAA at the 51st rank and kill his way to the top to take on the one responsible. It’s campy pulp fiction and largely irrelevant (much like the first game) but a fun and well-spun yarn with interesting characters nonetheless.
There were a lot of complaints about the original No More Heroes, and Grasshopper saw fit to address the most egregious of these. Much criticism was aimed at the empty open world, which has now been nixed in favor of a menu system. While this isn’t necessarily the direction that fans of the first game wanted Grasshopper to go, it ultimately proves to be a wise choice in streamlining the experience.
No longer do you have to fiddle with a clunky motorcycle to get to ranked battles or any of the side gigs, nor do you even need to earn enough money to enter the next fight. In this sense it's an almost more open world than before, since you can do whatever you want from the get-go. If you don’t care about anything else, there’s nothing to stop you from jumping in and slicing your way to the top and spending your hard-killed cash on weapons and clothing.
Skipping the side stuff would be foolish, though, because the world has plenty to offer between death blows. In Travis’s motel room you’ll find his fat cat Jeanne, and helping her lose weight is an odd way to spend some time but endearing nonetheless, if a bit shallow, and the television has a watchable “episode” and playable shoot-‘em-up based on his favorite anime, Pure Wite Lover Bizarre Jelly 5. Out in the city of Santa Destroy you can take part in objective-based revenge missions, hit the gym for some flamboyant training or play 8-bit side jobs that rival the fun factor of great NES-era titles (Bug Out, which plays sort of like putting the Ghostbusters in a top-down maze, is a particular standout). It’s evident that Desperate Struggle oozes love for gaming: it’s full of pixel art, chiptunes and is completely self-aware by constantly breaking the fourth wall in a nudge-wink to players that oftentimes is genuinely funny.
The meat of the game is combat and playing as Travis is the same as before: buttons are used for most attacks with motion-based finishers and more powerful strikes. These are simple directional swipes but really lend a sense of physicality to the final blow that is sorely lacking in most beat-‘em-ups. New for the sequel is Classic Controller support if you have an aversion to motion controls, but stripping out the motion nerfs the most satisfying part of combat. To do a finisher you move the joystick in an indicated direction, but that completely misses the extra oomph and urgency that a swing provides. It's way more fulfilling to plow through hordes of enemies the Wii way, who are now a little more varied (large chainsaw-wielding guys and knife fighters the most notable new additions). New weapons, like the dual beam katanas, are fun and over-the-top to wield, lending you a real sense of power in the massacre.
Shinobu and Henry, on the other hand, demand an adjusted approach. Both have ranged attacks and Henry is given a dash manoeuvre while Shinobu can jump. They’re a nice way to throw in some diversity, but the camera isn’t equipped to properly navigate Shinobu’s platforming sections, leading to a lot of frustration in certain parts (although many Wii third-person games suffer similar camera problems). The game was built around Travis’s abilities and seems to flow better when he’s in control.
Addressing another huge problem from the first game is the addition of Deathmatch, which allows you to revisit boss fights outside of the story and save your best times. Beats having to manage save files, and to gain access you need to have finished the 10-hour story once.
While generally a smooth visual experience, the game will occasionally stutter when there’s too much going on and occasionally when there isn’t. It’s odd to watch an in-engine cutscene choke with only two characters and little scenery while performing just fine during heated boss battles. It’s never enough to kill the flow of the action, and once the blood and money starts to whiz around the screen you likely won’t even care about a few skipped frames. The signature cel-shaded aesthetic is utilised even better here with heavier emphasis on shadowing to improve the sense of depth on character models, and the soundtrack holds up well against the stellar original. Enemies are prone to trash talk, and each type is given about three lines that are used ad nauseum and quickly get repetitive.
No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle is undeniably rough around the edges, but the same can be said about Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. Grasshopper’s vision for Travis’s tale goes uncompromised at the expense of refinement, but one could argue that the cracks and fuzz are an intentional part of the overall punk aesthetic (given the developer’s track record, it’d be tough to argue they’re not intentional). This may sound excusing on paper, but after spending a dozen hours in Santa Destroy it's tough to care about the style-over-polish disconnect when the overall package is this dementedly fun. Desperate Struggle is required play for action fans, broken mirrors and all.