No More Heroes
System: Wii :: Rating: Mature :: Players: 1
Genre: Action :: Released: 22 January 2008
By Damien Wilkens
19 March 2008 — I've always been one of the biggest supporters of video games as an art form. What the Jack Thompsons and Roger Eberts of the world will never understand is that despite its deviation from the traditional art aesthetic that society has grown used to, video games are able to engage us on a level that other works can't dare to imagine. They throw us into a world that is completely ours to nurture or destroy, all without affecting the real world around us. Unfortunately, just as with other works of art, gaming has recently fallen into the traps of dogmatic allegiance, a sort of hero worship that puts several creators, companies and even certain franchises up on a level beyond criticism. Anyone that offers resistance is deemed either desperate for attention or someone that simply doesn't "get it." When Shakespeare is pointed out for his blatant melodrama, it's dismissed; when Spielberg is accused of commercialism, many film experts scoff; and when Suda 51 is called to task for poor game design, gamers around the world unite in a loud proclamation of "Punk's Not Dead!"
Make no mistake, No More Heroes is a piece of art — that can barely be disputed. The real question is whether or not it is, in actuality, a good game.
You play as Travis Touchdown, an otaku (RE: geek) with seemingly no direction in his life — until he takes up the mantle of an assassin. Recruited under the UAA (US Assassin's Association), Travis then embarks on a mission to become the best assassin in the country by killing those who are ranked above him. Knowing the abundance of symbolism throughout the game, Travis is very clearly supposed to be a caricature of the hardcore gamer: he's messy, perverted and fights with a beam katana (RE: lightsaber). He's also rather simple-minded, as the question of why the best assassins in the country are all located in the same two square miles is never asked.
This perhaps leads to the biggest problem with No More Heroes; despite constantly patting itself on the back for breaking the fourth wall, the game only appears to be self-aware when it wants to be. It laughs at some of the more annoying nuances in gaming while embracing them within its own gameplay mechanics.
That's not to say it's a completely dreadful experience, in fact, there are a few things the game does right. Combat, for instance, is surprisingly intuitive given the Wii's limitations. Basic slashes are done with the A button, while holding the remote upright or slanted downward changes between a high or low stance. You can also guard break, which is invaluable later on. And you can finish enemies off with a flashy wrestling move, or a slash of the Wiimote, which results in a dismemberment that causes your relatively slender enemies to spill enough blood for a gang of people. Over time you learn more attacks, which serve to make the combat a bit less repetitive, but inconsistent AI can make later battles a chore; some enemies will almost literally run into your sword, while others in the same pack are unwavering in their ability to block and counter everything you throw at them. The wrestling moves become very useful in these areas, as they offer the quickest method of dispatching foes, but their execution is random, as the game automatically chooses what move you use. It would have been nice to be given the choice, but it's a minor gripe in light of what the rest of the game has to offer.
The boss battles with the top assassins supply the same mixed bag, though not so much with the AI as with their presentation. As expected from anyone that has played Killer 7, the characters each have their own distinctive personalities and looks, but some of them appear to be weird simply for the sake of being so. Some of the earlier bosses are actually quite interesting, as you'll encounter a soft-spoken gunslinger in a baseball stadium, as well as a disingenuous costumed superhero that cheats at every opportunity. But later on you'll run into a female assassin who is very blatantly a Grindhouse rip-off, along with the expectedly bratty Gothic Lolita with a temper. The battles themselves parallel this inconsistency, as some border on the level of Metal Gear Solid 3 in their design, while others are simply a case of strafing then counterattacking — ad nauseam.
The sound design is another area that's surprisingly excellent, as the voice acting is almost always at a high standard. Though the music, specifically the one abrasive chord that plays whenever you leave an area, becomes grating after a while. One rather clever feature employs the Wiimote speaker in a manner never before imagined. UAA boss Silvia will call Travis on his cell phone before every boss battle, and you must put the Wiimote up to your ear to hear her appropriately distorted message.
It's perhaps all of the things that No More Heroes does right that serve to make all of its flaws the more frustrating. Had the entirety of the game consisted just of the combat leading to the boss battles, it would have made for a shorter, but much more enjoyable experience. Instead, it falls into the very same traps of those games that it's making fun of, forcing the player to engage in asinine side quests for no reason other than to lengthen the game. After Travis defeats an assassin and moves up in rank, the game quite literally stops being fun for the next 30 to 60 minutes. The UAA requires that Travis pay for the right to usurp every assassin ranked above him, and the methods in which you acquire money are always chores. At first, the only jobs available to Travis are mowing lawns and collecting coconuts. If that doesn't sound out of place enough for you, the game eventually allows you to unlock even "better" jobs like trash removal and pumping gas. Once you realize the latter earns you more money at a faster rate, you're given no reason to try any of the other tasks, even the more interesting combat-based assassin missions.
The city itself is a comedy of errors: not only is your motorcycle unwieldy, the city of Santa Destroy contrasts the distinct style of the rest of the game by being utterly featureless and boring. The pedestrians are oblivious, as you can pass right through them without consequence. You can ram another vehicle at full speed, simply coming to a stop, but gently bumping a curb causes you to eject from your bike like a lawn dart. Pop-up is embarrassingly apparent, and the only function the city seems to serve is to be an unbelievably slow-paced level select. The only points of interest are pointed out on your HUD, begging the question as to why simply pointing at areas to travel to on an overhead map wasn't used. If they wanted to lengthen the game, there is no reason they couldn't have explored the idea of other wannabe assassins trying to knock Travis from his perch. As it stands, Travis is assumed to be the only person to care about climbing up the ranks, and no one tries to take his spot until the very end. Had every increase in rank been followed by a mission in which Travis had to "defend his title," as it were, the game would have still ended up around the same length — only without the annoying breaks in action.
The amount of time that is wasted is absurd. First you must leave your motel, drive your motorcycle to the job office to view the available part-time jobs, then drive to the job, play for roughly three minutes, then drive back to the job office to do it all over again. There is no quick retry feature, and the jobs available are so mind-numbingly boring that it makes you want to stop playing, despite your interest in the story. After acquiring enough money, you must then drive to the ATM, drive to your motel, watch a cutscene, then drive to the next ranking battle. What should only take a few minutes is needlessly extended. And it's even longer if you wish to buy upgrades for your attacks or defense, which is not only a requirement for the "good" ending, but trying to fight the last two bosses with your default blade — even if you do everything perfectly — will take more than an hour to finish.
Only in the gaming world could a game that punishes you for wanting to beat it be considered a success. Every time these flaws are pointed out, the inevitable response is that the game, at its most base level, is a parody — that these moments of intense boredom are simply making fun of contrived gaming conventions. When you reach the last ranked assassin, and are treated to a 20-minute long cutscene before the battle, it may very well be a parody of the overly epic and melodramatic third acts of the past, but the fact is that it's still a 20-minute long cutscene! It's not even an important scene in the grand scheme of things, as the story takes one last turn to the nonsensical while giving the player that knowing wink that's supposed to excuse it of any real critique. I'm sure that having a top assassin mow a lawn for an hour is the catalyst for some deep social commentary, and I can think of at least one Japanese game developer that finds it hilarious, but that doesn't make it fun.
No More Heroes most definitely has something to say. It's telling us that the gaming audience is willing to accept mediocrity for the sake of "innovation," and that visual and stylistic splendor is more important to us than engaging gameplay.
Is it a work of art? Undoubtedly. It's just too bad it forgot to be a great game in the process.
No More Heroes gets a 6 out of 10.