At least we got one -OTY out by now!
Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes is as if you were having a conversation with Suda51 in videogame form. It flows unevenly, it goes on tangents, and sometimes you get a little exhausted. But at the end of the day, you’re transfixed! You want to find out where he’s going with this, and as the credits roll, he’s promised you a few things you can’t wait to try out. When you first finish Travis Strikes Again, you may ask yourself if this was an actual game and not a series of advertisements for both indie games and Grasshopper’s future output. The cynical answer is that it sort of is, but the full answer is that Suda is doing this from a place of love and celebration. If you want to play a game that is equally celebratory of indie games and sighing at the realities of game design, Travis Strikes Again is both of those things and more.
Travis Touchdown had to get away from the constant barrage of assassins trying to take his title of number one. Hiding away in a trailer in the woods, Travis is attacked by Badman, the father of No More Heroes 1’s Bad Girl. During their ensuing tussle, an evil game console Travis owns, the Death Drive Mk. II, activates, sucking the duo into the game world. The delinquent duo team up to gather the six “Death Ball” game cartridges, and after finishing the games, earn a Dragon Ball-esque wish. Entering each Death Ball title transports you into a different game world, but the general conceit is the same: the main gameplay of TSA is industry standard hack-and-slash combat with power-ups sprinkled in.
Initially, the pulled back camera and simplistic enemy design makes it seem like this will have less-polished gameplay than the original series, but that isn’t the case. NMH always had mashy gameplay, but TSA actually surpasses those games by introducing enemy variety. Instead of three or four mook-models you fight throughout the entire game, TSA has around ten different enemies, not counting bosses. These enemies also coordinate well with each other, making combat more challenging and fun than the previous entries. Larger, most heavy enemies will often be paired with quicker, weaker foes that forces you to split your attention. Enemy encounters often take place in designated battle rooms, and often the size (or lack thereof) of the arena plays into the fighters you’ll face. Some of the hardest fights I had were in tiny rooms with big enemies, or large rooms with quick, darting baddies that could hide behind objects. Travis (or Badman, depending on who you play as) can perform quick weak attacks and slow powerful ones, as well as jump and do a spot dodge. Additionally, you can equip the aforementioned power-ups to your character, giving you special abilities such as projectiles, healing, and barriers. All of these additions make TSA feel refreshing compared to the Wii titles, and on par with the indie games the title so often makes reference to.
This comparison is what makes Travis Strikes Again so intriguing. Suda51 has been making games with far grander scopes over the years, only occasionally dipping his toes in smaller releases (Y’all remember Black Knight Sword? Diabolical Pitch? No? Yeah me neither.) This time around it feels like Suda wanted to limit himself on purpose. There is an immense love of (mostly) Western indie games flowing throughout TSA. Travis and Badman can wear logos from Undertale and Hotline Miami on their shirts. Travis explicitly name-drops Devolver Digital multiple times. The Unreal logo is an item drop. It might feel a little manipulative, but after a while, you start to realize that Suda isn’t celebrating these things to kiss ass. It’s a sign of respect, a nod from one artist to another. Suda obviously loves these games, and he’s glad that the Unreal engine and publishers like Devolver can assist smaller devs in their quest to create great games. There’s a genuine joy throughout Travis Strikes Again, as Suda proclaims that these developers have wonderful ideas, and he hopes they get the same chances he gets when he’s able to experiment and get a sizable budget on something like killer7 or Shadows of the Damned.
In between action levels, Travis must collect the next Death Ball, which leads to visual novel segments with Travis traveling the world in search of people associated with the Death Drive’s developer, Dr. Juvenile. The writing in these segments is snappy and often fun, with occasional eye-rolls, but it wouldn’t be a Suda game without that, right? Constant references are woven in, from nods to Suda’s past work to characters muttering “Tranquilo” like New Japan wrestler Tetsuya Naito. All of Suda’s heart and soul was poured into these segments, and you can tell he misses writing more text-heavy games like The Silver Case. There are also multiple scenes of Suda bemoaning the current games industry, condemning the viciousness of development and venting frustration on how good ideas are often lost in the shuffle just to make a deadline or meet a sales projection. It’s here that Suda instead chooses to celebrate the little guy. His love for indie games is especially reflected on Travis himself in TSA, as our favorite otaku barely mentions anime at all, instead focusing his obsession on Namco’s MAPPY or drooling over how cool Hotline Miami is. Travis does occasionally say “moe moe kyun kyun” in the most horrifying voice I’ve ever heard, so I guess you can take the anime away from a man, but you can’t take it out of his soul.
Presentation-wise, Travis Strikes Again falters a little. I don’t think I’ve seen texture pop-in this bad on a game Nintendo had their hands in publishing ever, and the enemy design, as said before, is quite dull for the most part. Some of the levels are downright bland to look at, including rooms of pure nothing or bland streets with no decoration. There are times where you forget what the theme of the game you entered is because of how boring the level design is. The first level, “Electric Thunder Tiger II”, shifts between craggy cliffs and city streets with almost no rhyme or reason, culminating in a colosseum fight, for some reason? Occasionally there is some solid artwork, but it’s less often than I’d hope. There’s only so long the suburbia of “Life is Destroy” can last before I roll my eyes out of my head. The bosses are the opposite, however, retaining the charm and punk rock attitude you’d expect from No More Heroes. The team actually brought in UK artist Boneface for the boss designs, and their work is a definite highlight of the game. I was quite disappointed to find out that neither Masafumi Takada nor Jun Fukuda, composers of the previous two No More Heroes games, were returning to produce the soundtrack for this game, but the tunes serve their purpose and it doesn’t distract or annoy.
Travis Strikes Again is Suda proclaiming to the world what he loves, what he wants to work on, and who he wants to support. I don’t think I’ve ever played a video game that was basically a friendly note from a developer letting you know what’s up, but I loved experiencing it. Suda51 set a whole level of his game in a suburban neighborhood and had the boss be a serial killer just so he could make him do Yoshikage Kira’s poses during the boss fight, and that’s the kind of dorky obsession I come to Suda’s games for. When someone is genuine about their love of something, if it’s music, movies, games, or anything, that passion can be catchy and heartwarming. Travis Strikes Again oozes with Suda’s enthusiasm, and that love is infectious. Nobody else in the industry would pour this much of their tastes into a full release game, so even with its faults, Travis Strikes Again feels nothing less than special.