How do you create a follow-up to the sheer insanity that was No More Heroes? The mere idea of a sequel seems to go against the very nature of developer Suda 51/Grasshopper Manufacture's gaming ode to stereotypical young male fantasy. No More Heroes took its videogame setting quite literally as players took control of Travis Touchdown and his quest to become fictional city Santa Destroy's number one assassin. And although built on staple gameplay concepts, it felt like a breath of fresh air with plenty of over-the-top violence, light saber-like weaponry, retro visual cues, toilet humour, and countless references and riffs covering the entire teenage-obsessed entertainment spectrum. With everything from comic books, anime and samurai movies, to the open-world gameplay of GTA, the mini-game obsession of casual gaming, and the all encompassing allure of getting your name on a vintage arcade high-score screen, catered for. Yes, No More Heroes was a gaming experience unlike any other and in the end, was all the better for it.
Being a sequel to a game that lived the motto 'expect the unexpected', No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle retains the insanity of its predecessor but also brings with it some unwanted baggage associated with being a sequel, and that is, an air of familiarity. Early on in the game one of the bosses that Travis Touchdown faces is a famous football player (of the American variety) who has a loyal army of buxom, blonde cheerleaders at his disposal. After a brief and suitably profanity-filled introduction the football player and his cheer squad join together, somehow manage to leave the Earth's atmosphere, and transform into a large hulking anime-inspired robot - known as the Santa Death Parade. Now Travis, who's no stranger to showmanship, is quickly given a giant robot of his own, via his DD-sized tech and gadget friend Naomi, to engage in a little giant robo fighting in Santa Destroy's bustling downtown district. Unexpected, yes, but also strangely familiar in its disregard for logic and unrelenting strive for awesome absurdity.
And once this battle is over, and the Santa Death Parade is a thing of the past, players will no doubt be wondering if this giant robot will now become part of Travis' arsenal, alongside his trusty laser sword - aka the beam katana. And with a clear case of the game talking directly to the player, we're told that the giant robot fight was a one-time deal, for no particular reason, and it's back to slicing and dicing for our pal Travis (and us the player) from here on out.
So Desperate Struggle certainly keeps the manic style and presentation of the original game, but some fairly notable changes were made in favour of giving it a more natural flow. The biggest change would be the complete removal of the open-world structure that had Travis ride around in his ridiculously oversized motorbike between assassination missions, working odd jobs, and shopping at clothing stores. One might say, detrimentally, that it now plays a lot more like your standard videogame, and less like the crazy mish mash of ideas, thoughts, and sometimes weird gameplay tangents of the original (anyone remember those random baseball Wii-mote events?). But one aspect of the original, the throwback to classic 80s gaming and pixel art styling, takes a much welcome front seat here.
In the original game, the odd jobs players took to earn money generally devolved into pretty boring and somewhat clumsy mini-games, whereas the odd jobs in Desperate Struggle take an inspired turn in taking the form of little 8-bit gems of pure old school gameplay. This means that a boring job as a trash remover takes the form of little pixel-sized Travis orbiting Earth, collecting space debris and avoiding asteroids, in a great Jetpac-inspired mini-game. This also means that a job as a pizza delivery boy takes the form of a Mach Rider-clone, as you dodge traffic and pick up speed boosts in order to deliver each pizza on-time. And in a brilliant turn, a job as a chef utilises its old school 8-bit style perfectly, by featuring customer satisfaction and complaints through speech samples that sound like they've been lifted directly from an NES game.
Developers Suda 51 and Grasshopper Manufacture are no strangers to stylistic design and artistic expression taking the forefront in their productions, and going as far back as Killer 7 on the GameCube, one could be equally impressed at the stylistic and artistic choices made as well as being completely baffled with the control scheme and lack of coherent gameplay. With that in mind though, No More Heroes shared an equally rough around the edges feel; its gameplay, in particular the combat mechanics, were some of the developers' most refined efforts yet. And in Desperate Struggle, these are improved yet again, with fast and fluid action that works just as well with either the Wii-mote or Classic Controller.
In an obvious move, with the open-world sections a thing of the past and side-missions and odd jobs taking a page out of the emulator scene handbook, the action is ramped up considerably with quite a few more boss encounters and countless more action-heavy sections to hack through. This makes the game's focus on being a brawler first and foremost, which is a definite improvement.
But in keeping with the developer's history of varying success in terms of gameplay mechanics, when players take control of secondary character Shinobu, the female Katana-wielding warrior who just so happens to be smitten with Travis, the game introduces jump mechanics and a few platformer-inspired locations to fight in. To put it mildly, jumping from platform to platform in Desperate Struggle feels as natural as some of the very early 3D rendered games of the mid-nineties, that being wildly inaccurate and imprecise movement with characters turning at sharp angles mid-flight, like digital control-pad relics of a long forgotten past. And yes, that's putting it mildly. But with a game like No More Heroes, which takes pleasure in winking at the player at regular intervals, which even goes as far as taking cheap shots at the gameplay found in similar action games, one can't help but feel that although terrible, having the player spend several minutes performing what should be an easy jump or two with archaic controls, is completely intentional.
But above all, No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle is an immensely entertaining game, and one that although has obvious shortcomings, isn't afraid to relish in them. It's pure videogame insanity at its finest, and a no-brainer for the many people who loved the original. Any game that features dual-wielding laser swords as not only a cool way to carve your way through hordes of enemies but also as a sly reference to the "more is better" approach of sequels, is definitely worth a look.