No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle had one of the best guerrilla marketing campaigns that I’ve ever seen. At PAX ’09, the bathrooms were supplied with NMH2 toilet paper. A desperate struggle indeed. For those who never played the first game, you saved your game by having protagonist, Travis Touchdown, defecate into a toilet. While I doubt this ad campaign was created by anyone on the actual development team, it serves as a brilliant encapsulation of the off-kilter humor of a game that manages to to be both juvenile and high-brow at the same time.
Being a Suda 51-developed title, the plot of No More Heroes 2 doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. This would be a criticism if making sense was its goal. The narrative follows Travis’ return to the Southern California city of Santa Destroy after a three year hiatus, the details of which aren’t explained. Though he was once the world’s #1 ranked assassin, his disappearance has knocked him down to #51, being dubbed “the Crownless King.” Also, his best friend Bishop has been murdered, sending Travis out for revenge. Returning femme fatale Sylvia Crystel tells him that his target is the #1 assassin in the United Assassin’s Association, forcing Travis to play ball to get what he wants. The awesome character designs and snappy one-liners make the story entertaining moment to moment, as the narrative elements act as a sharp satire of all things pop-culture.
NMH2, like any good sequel, fixes a lot of its predecessors problems. It also loses a bit of the original’s charm by playing things safe, taking one step back for every few steps forward. One of the most criticized elements of the first No More Heroes was its barren open world. NMH2 “fixes” this by nixing the open-world completely, replacing it with an interactive map of Santa Destroy. I don’t think that the inclusion of an open world was the original’s problem. My real issue was that you’d have to drive back and forth to restart missions after a failure, and that you’d have to grind for cash before entering the next ranked match. Both of these problems have been addressed here, but getting rid of the open world entirely feels like overkill. I miss riding around on Travis’ bike, as it built up suspense for the wild new environments that were around the next corner.
Speaking of foreshadowing, the buildup for all of the bosses (some of which are truly stunning) has been completely eradicated. In the first game, we were always given a brief description, a name, and a tantalizing silhouette for that level’s baddie, lending a sense of weight to each of the 10 assassins. In NMH2, they come and go so quickly that they fail to leave a lasting impression. Lack of fanfare aside, there are some really clever boss designs on display here. No two are even remotely alike, and figuring out each one’s pattern, what moves and weapons work best on them, and when to strike recalls the best moments of last year’s Punch-Out!!
Combat retains the same strengths and weaknesses that the original had, still being fun, frantic, and absolutely gorgeous. One of the new power-ups allows Travis to move in super-fast motion while the screen turns blue and his katana resembles lightning. It’s such a feast for the senses that it inspired exclamations like, “Yes! This is why videogames were made!” from me during play. New additions to the sword play include an incredibly powerful long-range beam katana that is slow to wield but packs a mean punch, and a pair of smaller beam katanas that Travis can dual-wield for some lightning-fast bloody mayhem. Both are worthy additions and add a good dose of strategy to the mix, and are needed to take on the new enemy types that litter the landscape.
The combat also features some of the best uses of motion control that I’ve ever seen, which is mostly confined to finishing maneuvers. The game pauses during these moments, requiring little finesse so that you can’t really mess them up. Unfortunately, the auto-targeting system is still as shoddy as ever, with Travis automatically blocking attacks from whoever he’s targeting instead of focusing on the gun-packing enemies that pose the greatest threat. If multiple enemies have guns, you’re almost guaranteed to take some cheap shots every now and again, though a skilled player should be able to circumvent this most of the time.
Since you no longer have to pay to enter ranking matches, the pacing of No More Heroes 2 is vastly improved, at least until the game begins to wind down. Three of the four final missions lazily spam combat rooms ad infinitum. While the brawling is fun in short doses, these extended segments show that the central gameplay mechanics don’t hold up over long periods.
I’d be remiss not to mention the two new playable characters, Shinobu and Henry. Henry’s role is little more than a cameo, though his dashing and shooting abilities make him a lot of fun to control. Shinobu has a much greater role, bringing with her a jump and some mighty aerial combos. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that her jumping controls and the game’s schizophrenic camera make the platforming a highly frustrating experience. Neither characters are as fun to control as Travis, but they don’t outstay their welcome and add some variety to the mix.
One aspect of NMH2 that’s definitely better than its predecessor is the optional side jobs, as almost all of them look like 8-bit NES games. Most of them are winners, especially “Getting Trashed,” which tasks you with collecting litter that was sent out to space before it falls back to Earth. These jobs grant you extra cash to buy new weapons, level up your health, and work out at the gym to increase your strength, amounting to a fairly significant chunk of play time (about 1/3rd of mine). They’re nothing special on their own, but are highly addictive and charming diversions that augment the rest of the game nicely.
Ultimately, No More Heroes 2 is a solid follow-up to the first game, and is greater than the sum of its parts. Under heavy scrutiny, things like the combat, controls, pacing, and mini-games aren’t that great, but the personality that eeks through the entire package makes it worth it. People being sliced in half, giant robots, pervy animes, and a restaurant owner looking for a new lead cook after his old one “got Mad Cow Disease and butchered the entire kitchen” are just a small sampling of the quirky beauty that resides within. Desperate Struggle is better paced than its predecessor, more varied, has a larger cast of even better bosses, and the humor and style that made the first game stand out so much is back in full force. While No More Heroes 2 may lack that sense of wonder that you got from the first time you stepped foot in the twisted, retro world of Santa Destroy, this is a small price to pay for one of the most garishly charming games to come out in a long time.