We don't want to hear any discourse, we just wanna talk about anime and anime-like TV.
When the ending of Travis Strikes Again teased a “true sequel” in the No More Heroes franchise, I was pretty stoked. It’s been around a decade since No More Heroes 2, and while I enjoyed TSA’s conversational tone, I wanted something more bombastic from the franchise again. No More Heroes shaped the sorts of games I enjoyed, the style of humor I had, and many other things when I played it as a teenager, and I wanted to see what a more free, and less obligated Suda51 had to say in a brand new game. The answer, surprisingly, is: Not much! No More Heroes 3 is not a bad game, by any stretch, but it feels like a game focused on all the wrong things.
Travis Touchdown and his gaggle of…maybe friends (or maybe just hangers-on), have risen to the challenge of a powerful alien warlord named FU who wants to conquer Earth. FU’s human compatriot, a shithead executive named Damon Riccitello (who is explicitly based on the ex-EA exec with the same last name), stands by as Sylvia and the Assassin’s Association set up a tournament gauntlet of ten superpowered foes for Travis to kill in order to save Santa Destroy…AND THE WORLD.
This plot is basically it. The stakes don’t really change, and even said group of fellow heroes quickly fall to the wayside just to leave Travis and his cat Jeane (who is revealed to have been a boy this whole time, which makes Travis one of those “all dogs are boys and all cats are girls” people which is very funny to me) to interact with all the Galactic Assassins, also known as the Goddamn Superheroes. Each of the aliens has a fantastic character design, and are memorable visually, but usually come and go without much fanfare. Travis, however, is the major strength of the game, his one-liners and interactions with everyone else staying consistently fun throughout the entire game.
Other than the baseline fun of having Travis around, though, a lot of the script feels unfinished. Characters will pop in and out without any reasoning, such as a wrestler who was introduced in Travis Strikes Again who then just appears in the middle of a boss fight with zero fanfare or explanation. Jokes will get introduced and have no payoff. This feels like the first draft of what the game’s story should be, not the finished product, and this extends to worldbuilding as well. I know No More Heroes has often had off the wall character interactions and introductions, but here said characters too often amount to nothing, flowing into and out of the plot without changing a thing. Travis was changed by the assassins he fought in previous games. Here, they are nothing but stepping stones.
The open world has returned, and while it’s nice to go back around Santa Destroy and run laps as Travis, there’s somehow even less to do in this game than there is in the original. You can do a few jobs to raise money, such as cutting grass and ramming cars off the road, but otherwise it’s just planting trees and smashing rocks just to make a number go up. You don’t even unlock much for doing so, which is a far cry from the upgrades you’d get from collecting the pick-ups in the original.
The other environments you traverse are completely disconnected from everything else. They feel like they could have led into some form of parody or commentary, but instead say nothing. One area is called Call of Battle, which is a very obvious Call of Duty pastiche. There is nothing to this bit beyond the fact that the logo looks like the Call of Duty logo, the area has barracks and ruined buildings around, and it’s heavily brown. Like, really? The “military shooters are all brown” joke? In 2021? It’s a shame, since previous NMH titles made you feel like you got a good grasp of the exact kind of hellhole Santa Destroy is. The open world was kinda empty, sure, but it felt like it was on purpose. People wouldn’t be walking around freely in Santa Destroy; it’s a mess out there, and that was backed up by having you interact with the world, seeing the kinds of people who live and thrive there. Since you’re not actually meeting anyone from, say, Call of Battle, you don’t have any reason to care why it’s like that and who would live there. I also wish the map was a bit better in this game, almost entirely in the sense that there is absolutely no denotation for when you complete something. Oftentimes it just has the marker vanish, but I’d prefer knowing I’ve already done something before stumbling on it a few days later and questioning if I’ve completed it before.
The job minigames return, this time similar to the original game in being 3D instead of based on NES games. They work well enough, and it’s always a treat watching Travis suplex gators or do that weird pose he does while he’s turning the lawnmower. You gain money and upgrade points from this, which are only really used for upgrading your chips and stats when you’re not shoveling dough into the UAA’s hands for ranked match entry. T-shirts, a staple of previous games, are now regulated to aliens that hang out around the maps and bestow them on you for hitting different goals. A lot of the shirts rule, but there are way too many that are just Devolver Digital logos.
Much more exciting is the game’s UI style. Every scene transition, every button interaction has a loud, hilarious visual flair that no other game I can think of could pull off. I loved the logo bumpers as you transition into the text-based sections, and the credits that play at the end of each rank. There’s even bits that are incredibly lame that still got me, like a little Netflix parody between each rank that plays like you’re letting a series autoplay into the next episode on your TV. Suda and co. have been heavily influenced by American pop culture here, and there’s some fun bits to that, but it also leads to a huge problem the game has.
Undercutting everything is some of the worst pop-in I’ve ever seen in a video game. Every time an in-engine cutscene plays, and the camera moves, it takes a good few seconds for everything to load in properly. It looks awful, and it’s especially upsetting when all the character designs are so cool! I want to see everyone as they’re intended, not in a sloppy mess of half-rendered textures before it’s properly loaded. I hate how much this makes the confident art style suffer. This sort of thing happens with Switch games sometimes, but it feels worse here.
The gameplay, on the other hand, is far better than previous NMH titles, with the combat being more engaging than ever before. You have your light and heavy attacks, but new Death Glove abilities let you toss enemies around, dropkick them from afar, cast a slow area of effect spell, or summon a hail of bullets that rain on your foes for a time. I was hoping there would be just a BIT more to the combat, but it’s a huge step up from previous games. It’s not on Platinum levels of quality, but it’s certainly not as simplistic or button-mashy as the older games.
You can also add chips to the Death Glove to slightly change your stats. I wish they did more, but the ones I unlocked through normal play were pretty basic stat changers and not much else. It seems like there could be more substantial ones if you replay boss fights over and over to grind for the parts you need to craft for said chips, but who wants to do more grinding in a No More Heroes game than you already have to do in order to make the money for ranked fight entry? This one’s actually pretty good about getting you the funds you need without having to replay anything, so further grinding would just be a drag.
There are also a few transformations Travis can get, such as a mech suit that lets you shoot missiles at foes, and an upgraded version of said suit that lets you fight in space. The space battles aren’t bad, but aren’t much to write home about. Just some bullet dodging and aiming at weak spots. It is pretty funny to see Travis geeking out in a tokusatsu outfit, but it only adds a bit to the gameplay overall.
NMH3 also carries forward the history of No More Heroes games having absolutely killer soundtracks. This OST leans closer to Travis Strikes Again‘s style of music than the first two games, but pretty much every song is a banger and I’m looking forward to bumping the soundtrack all day. Probably the best song is the song that plays while you’re ordering sushi, which is a hip hop track called “ITADAKIMASU”, which absolutely needs to be in all caps, thank you very much.
From a story perspective, Suda so very much wants to make something like James Gunn did with Guardians of the Galaxy. The shot of the assassins that Travis is friends with near the end of the game, which I won’t spoil mind you, is very telling. He wants to see Travis fight Thanos, which has no real resonance with the attitude the rest of his franchises have set up. Before, it felt like Suda based his games on a style all his own: now it’s basically just James Gunn’s superhero flicks. It feels almost desperate? I’m not sure why Suda so badly wants to be Marvel now, when in the past he was so successful being punk.
On top of this, chasing after that Marvel style of story just made this game feel gutted. None of the bosses matter! Something I loved about the original NMH games was how each boss fight filled in a bit of Santa Destroy’s culture. You got a genuine slice of the insanity that was that city and that universe each time you fought someone, but here the characters are so detached, there isn’t anything to ground you. There are a few spoilery fights that take place alternatively to the aliens, but just three of the ten actually being worthwhile is a shame, especially when two of them are just callbacks to past bosses and the third is an extended plea to play Suda’s other games.
Even with these complaints, No More Heroes 3 still succeeds in enough ways to avoid complete disappointment. Travis can still carry a game’s writing on his back alone, his nerdy drivel turned up to the next level as he talks openly about real life movies and shows for once. This feels similar to how Travis Strikes Again talked about indie games, but it’s more direct and mostly about things other than games. Travis hangs out and chats about Miike movies a lot, which is a step up from anime (At least, in some cases. Can’t forget that Miike did that Jojo movie that nobody seemed to like!), but is still just as dweeby about it as he was about anime. Travis’ passion is palpable, and it’s what makes the vibe of the game feel a bit more of a shame, as you want that same passion to flow throughout, not just in sparks.
I felt a bit empty after finishing No More Heroes 3. I enjoyed a lot of what was put down, but I still felt like what was here wasn’t Suda’s best. I’m sure if I had played Suda’s other stuff I would’ve gotten a few more references here and there. However, even with more context, I still would feel let down by the overall vibe of the game. This didn’t feel as punk as it should; this felt like an attempt to become acknowledged by the same kinds of people that caused Shadows of the Damned to go so poorly. Suda shouldn’t want to be Marvel. He should want to be Suda. Travis Strikes Again was Suda, proud of using his platform to herald a new age of creators. There’s still something here, in fits and bursts, but it feels more like Suda wants recognition from the old guard that he should be giving a middle finger to.