Suda51’s 2007 game No More Heroes was a game that started a unique relationship between Nintendo console owners and a niche M-rated franchise that seemed to be a fool’s errand at first. I think it’s fair to say that Suda51 isn’t afraid to try the things so unlikely that nobody can safely say for sure it’ll work, and smugly shove it in everyone’s face when it finally pays off. And when No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle came out, it certainly established that he was onto something with the now-official franchise.
After I had completed the first game, I was itching to see where the sequel would go. I saw room for improvement, especially on the gameplay side, but I also felt that there was a lot more to explore with Travis Touchdown, a character who felt like a less-corporate, more in-touch and honest representation of geek culture. Compared to popular characters like Deadpool, Travis Touchdown always came off to me as a more personal representation of a particular artist’s experience, and one with whom I began to develop an invested interest. And so, I began re-evaluating the first two installments in preparation for my review of the recently-released Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes, as well as both DLC sets. But now, it’s time I revisit what I liked and didn’t like about the first time Travis, er, struck again.
Before I get into the story, a quick disclaimer: Suda51 is not credited as the writer of Desperate Struggle, only the executive director. While I do reference Suda51 throughout this review, I want to take a quick moment to make clear that I am aware not all of these decisions are actually his own.
The story of Desperate Struggle is that, after having walked away from the ranking matches three years ago, Travis returns to the games after an assassin challenges him to get revenge for having killed his brother. This challenger reveals in his last few moments that he was part of a larger plan to enact vengeance upon Travis. The day after, Travis finds his best friend’s head in a bag, causing him to seek revenge himself against his BFF’s killer, who happens to be the new first-ranked assassin. Thus, Travis returns to the ranking matches to get revenge on no. 1.
The game sort of sets up a theme of revenge with this, but I admittedly found myself slightly indifferent to it. The crazy aesthetic is all there, as is the style and satirical attitude, but somehow this adventure lacks the same level of depth. I think it mostly boils down to the fact that this one lacks the first one’s linear buildup, and this is for two major reasons.
The first reason is the huge leaps in ranking. The game officially starts Travis off at rank 51, but obviously it doesn’t have 50 bosses, so a number of points in the game have you skip ahead for various reasons, such as one boss involving 25 assassins forming into a mech, or other characters helping Travis by fighting assassins for him. I knew from the start that 50 assassin fights was too good to be true, and I remembered that the first game did this once, with a single boss being killed by someone else, but Desperate Struggle pushes this trick much further.
While these scenarios are still hilariously weird and fun on their own, they somewhat undercut the advantage that the first game took from the format. I knew I was gonna be skipped ahead throughout, and the fact that I couldn’t count down the number of bosses left with this one really only let me feel the anticipation in the last few levels once I felt confident the pacing was back to normal. It’s a bit like watching a three-hour movie, only to be periodically informed several times throughout that the cut your watching is actually two and a half hours, then two hours, and finally an hour and fifty minutes…
Like, just admit from the start that it’s not as long as you made it seem at first!
The second reason is that the game feels less like Travis himself is being built up for his own quest, and more like he’s being tossed around with all these crazy characters and twists being thrown at him. From a gameplay perspective, getting to play as other characters is fun, but it makes the journey feel less personal. Travis feels like he plays a slightly more passive role in his own story this time around, which can feel disappointing given how engaging he is compared to most video game protagonists. Yes, Travis himself acknowledges his frustration with other characters butting in on his quest for revenge, but goddammit Suda51, there’s only so much of that artistic, “You didn’t like this? BUT THAT’S THE POINT” cred you can use!
Even as a huge fan of these games, and their arthouse merit, there comes a point where I have to abandon ship on the S.S. Suda51, and that applies to the games bumpy climax. The final boss, Jasper Batt Jr., AKA the killer of Travis’ best friend, is a huge disappointment compared to the plot-twist-revealed Henry from the first game. He seems deliberately annoying and uncool, which I get “IS THE POINT, CAUSE REVENGE ISN’T ACTUALLY SATISFYING”, but… Bah. Bleh. No. C’mon man.
The reason why this doesn’t work is because there’s nothing particularly unique in the character’s “deliberate badness”. It feels like he was intended to be a bit like Syndrome from The Incredibles, where he’s a dweeb archetype subversion, but he lacks any particular turning point where I felt I had to reluctantly bask in some sort of brilliance or power and challenge my dismissive view of him as an annoying runt. Whatever subtle touches would be required to make this work aren’t quite there, making it hard to appreciate it past face-value.
Even in spite of the potentially deliberately obnoxious, and frustrating, fight that follows, which can be seen as reinforcing the intended message of disappointment, it feels like the first time I truly feel like Suda51 had his head up his ass, and I’m sure people more skeptical of the franchise will be far less generous.
The ending does manage push through with some pretty great interactions between Travis and Henry, followed by a pretty kickass credits song, but alas, it’s not quite up to par with its predecessor.
Frankly, the semi-final boss, Alice Twilight, feels more hard-hitting, as she acknowledges that she could’ve been the final opponent if Travis hadn’t reached her before she reached the top. This scene actually captures that “disappointment in revenge” theme more than the actual final fight, particularly because it feels like the actual final fight leaves the more appropriate one overshadowed. Yes, I’m aware that could’ve “been the point all along”, but I really don’t want to see Suda51 go down the level of pretentiousness that makes it so that I myself seem to be having a “desperate struggle” to convince my friends of these games’ deeper meaning.
All that being said, I don’t want to give the impression that the story is shit by any means. Far from it. The characters are all crazy, funny, and entertaining, and Suda51’s creativity certainly hasn’t gone stale; it merely lacks the same level of synchronization as its predecessor. I still adore rewatching the cutscenes on repeat playthroughts, and there are still countless games out there that would kill for a tenth of Desperate Struggle’s personality.
The core game mechanics are mostly the same, so I won’t waste time going over the similarities. What’s different is that the gameplay is substantially smoother. The movement, the animation, the controls, and especially the camera are all much less stiff, making the game feel way more realized. Wider enemy variety and weapon choices make the combat feel far less repetitive, and there’s no longer a limit to how far you can stay locked-on to an enemy with strafing. Overall, it does a far better job living up to the potential of what the first game probably should have been all along.
There are also brief sections of the game where you play as two bosses from the previous game: Shinobu and Henry. Shinobu gets two levels and bosses to herself, while Henry only gets a boss fight, no level. These sections almost feel like a taste-test for a larger character roster for a future installment, particularly since their returns from the previous game establish that not every character is a one-off, and that the No More Heroes universe is larger than just Travis himself. They’re fun while they’re there, but it definitely leaves me wanting more for next time.
The overworld is entirely gone, replaced with a menu that takes you straight to all the levels and shops directly. This is the kind of important move that I respect, where the developers aren’t afraid to admit where they went wrong in the past. I feel like most game companies would’ve insisted, “No, no, we can make this work, we’ll just add more repetitive shit for you to do. That’ll justify us still jumping on board the open-world hype train like all the cool kids!”.
Meanwhile, the odd-job-styled minigames, which are now completely optional, are 8-bit era inspired games that actually do function as, well, games. They’re a mixed bag, with some being less frustrating or having a better pay rate. You’re just about guaranteed to find at least a few that are painless enough to complete if you just really want to get enough money for the upgrades and get out.
Now, for all the improvements the sequel made, it comes at one big trade-off: it’s short as hell.
It is indeed less padded, which means you can go straight into back-to-back boss levels without any of that registration fee crap, but it also means you can potentially beat the game in a single day if you clear your schedule. Personally, I’m such a huge fan of the franchise that I don’t mind short length if it’s a concentrated dose of the good stuff, but I wouldn’t look at someone funny for being hesitant to fork over their money for a game that won’t last long for casual fans.
On top of this, I found the difficulty level to be a bit inconsistent, with one assassin named Chloe Walsh being an absolute pushover with hardly any health and attacks that are way too easy to avoid, while another named Ryuji is an absolute prick who really pushed the limits of my patience. The previously mentioned final boss fight can feel borderline unwinnable on hard mode, and I’ll save you a lot of grief by telling you something the game doesn’t: you can parry certain attacks by pushing the strafe button just before getting hit rather than holding it down like you usually do. If it wasn’t for the utter relentlessness of that final fight, I’d say it’s not even worth knowing, but here it really is a lifesaver.
Desperate Struggle has a notable increase in the level of detail in its character designs, all of whom feel a bit less stiff than the previous installment. If there’s one thing that’ll give this away, it’s the breast jiggle physics that are shamelessly present in almost every female character model.
It’s not my fault for noticing.
Said physics might not be subtle, but this is the franchise where you jerk off a light saber, so if you’ve walked into this one and are upset by the addition of jiggle physics, I’m not sure why you’re still here after the first one.
Overall presentation is improved, and the more flexible camera angles really capture the visuals much better this time around. On my first playthrough, I distinctly remember battling that asshole Ryuji on a cliffside at dawn, and entering a clash sequence. The camera zoomed in, and it just so happened to perfectly frame the moment when the two assassins’ weapons met with the rising sun set right in the middle. I was filled with glee at the spectacle.
Character designs continued to delight me as well, as Desperate Struggle adds even more genres to the mix, like a Kanye West-inspired rapper, or an 80s slasher-inspired demonic serial killer with a giant axe. In terms of presentation, overall everything is just bigger, better, and more fun.
The music of Desperate Struggle adds all the more of what I liked from the first. Again, I’ve listened to the OST of this one on YouTube just like the first, so I’m not gonna pretend it hasn’t already charmed me. This one doubles-down on the usage of lyrical music. While the first one had a song sung before the fight, the sequel actually has an assassin’s song play during the fight, with the lyrics being about Travis himself. The first moment I became excited for what this game’s soundtrack had in store was that moment in the first level when the song It’s Kill or Be Killed kicked in, and from there I just kept rolling with what the game had in store.
Til I rise again,
- More great style, humor, characters, soundtrack, just like the first
- Gameplay much more refined
- Padding and overworld removed; all killer, no filler
- Stumbles on the climax
- Inconsistent difficulty
- Too short; can easily be beaten in a single evening