Some high highs and infuriating lows make Travis Touchdown's return pleasant, but lukewarm
It is with zero shame that I will start this review talking about how much I love Suda51's work, with No More Heroes at the top of the list. There's an honesty and a sense of playfulness, and some honest-to-God jank that makes each individual title stand out, like seeing the seam in a rubber suit, or the wires keeping a stuntman afloat.
No More Heroes felt like the next natural step after killer7, a series of bonkers boss fights and silly savagery where a total douchebag named Travis Touchdown won a beam katana off eBay and proceeded to take on the world's greatest assassins to impress a beautiful woman. You did motion-control suplexes, and had to suggestively pump the Wiimote to recharge the beam katana's batteries. It was raunchy and ridiculous, and I loved every minute of it... and the sequel... and the PS3 sorta-remake.
So you can bet your ass I was happy to see Travis Touchdown coming back for Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes.
We'd already heard that Travis Strikes Again was not a No More Heroes sequel, but rather a "Travis Touchdown game," with different gameplay and a different focus from the standard No More Heroes formula. It's seven years after the events of No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, and Travis is living in a trailer out in the woods, playing video games and unwinding. A masked man named Badman shows up intending to kill Travis, but their fight turns on the mysterious Death Drive Mk.II video game system, sucking them both into the game system and forcing them to fight for their lives!
Most of Travis Strikes Again is a top-down kill-'em-all actioner like Hotline Miami (which creator Suda51 loves), and you'll see plenty of references to Hotline Miami sprinkled throughout Travis Strikes Again--hell, Travis is playing it in the opening movie! In addition to light and strong attacks, a dodge, and a jump, Travis (or Badman, if you're playing co-op) can equip four "chip" items that can add new attacks like AOE heals, a quick dash, shotgun-like stun skills, and more. There's plenty to mix and match and develop your play style, but it's a little frustrating how skill descriptions aren't particularly helpful, and you can't see a demonstration of those skills before equipping them.
The quest to survive the Death Drive Mk.II plays across six different games, split up by old-school visual novel segments called Travis Strikes Back as you follow Travis' adventures to collect the Death Drive's games. In addition to the top-down action segments I described above, each game does something different--one has a heavy emphasis on platforming, another is a puzzle maze where you hit switches to rotate a map of suburban streets, and a later one features a really cool vector-based drag racing game.
Many of these changeups are fun, at first--there's a really cool period where you're adjusting to a new playstyle and adding that to your steadily-growing mastery of the game's action segments. Then the other shoe drops, and something new gets added that's just not fun. That suburban puzzle maze is really neat--sometimes there will be multiple switches next to each other, and you'll have to figure out the correct order to strike them in while fighting off enemies. This is all awesome until you have to do all that while being chased by a giant blue skull that can instantly kill you.
The rest of the game follows this pattern: you're introduced to something cool, and then a new addition pops up that makes the level's unique gimmick feel like a chore. There's a level that constantly drains health! There's another level that covers up huge portions of the screen while throwing tons of enemies at you!
Even with all that, I could never stay mad at Travis Strikes Again, and kept playing all the way to the end. This is a game where you power up from eating ramen, you save by taking a crap, you spend your money and breaks between levels on graphic tees and reading old video game magazines to learn about new Death Drive games. There are ghosts scattered throughout levels who have weird shower-thought observations about Japanese culture. The samey enemies are fun to fight, you're always encouraged to make the most of the skills you have and few enemies feel like pointless damage sponges. Yes, you still have to suggestively pump your Joycon to recharge Travis' sword. It's all incredibly fun, and yet I still give a very guarded recommendation for Travis Strikes Again.
I'm a big fan of Suda51's games. I realize there's more to the experience of a video game than just the optimum mechanical delivery--when Travis Strikes Again is on, it's on--it's funny and fresh and weird and super fun. But when it's not, it isn't because of a minor annoyance--it's because of frustrating, unfun additions that drag levels out and make you hate ideas you initially loved. Much like its hero, Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes has so much potential, and constantly sabotages itself when it's doing well.
+ Aesthetic is perfectly balanced between oddball and awesome
+ Top-down action game is more complex and rewarding than you'd ever guess
+ It's nice getting to see familiar faces from other Suda51 games
+/- Unlockables are the only thing that'll make you come back--you experience everything on the first playthrough
- Level gimmicks start strong and clever, but for the most part lose their charm