No More Heroes arrived on the Wii to little fanfare, and was quickly catapulted to cult classic status. Surprisingly, a sequel was given a green light, and Suda 51 and the rest of Grasshopper Manufacture set off to create No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle. Follow-ups are never easy, particularly when the first game is held in such high regard. Thankfully, No More Heroes 2 improves upon the first's formula, and even though it doesn't quite live up to the original, it comes pretty close.
No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle picks up three years after the conclusion of the first game, and Travis has returned to Santa Destroy to find it overrun by corporations and assassins. Travis is no longer number one, and has seemingly given up the assassination business. That is, until he kills Skelter Helter, the brother of Helter Skelter, one of the assassins from the first game, atop a building, and Sylvia informs him that he's just killed the man ranked #51 on the United Assassin Association leaderboards. Travis is tired of the game, and is wary of attempting to usurp the number one assassin until his good friend Bishop is murdered by a group of men hired by the person sitting atop the assassin throne. The only way he can get revenge is by rising up through the ranks once more, and that's about as deep as the plot for No More Heroes 2 gets. What the game lacks in strong narrative direction, it more than makes up for with its absolutely insane characters, bizarre situations, and constant breaks of the fourth wall. There are a few great philosophical moments between Travis and several of his opponents, but for the most part the game is light on development, and heavy on the action.
There's often so much insanity that you'll forget there isn't much plot development until you reach the extremely unsatisfying conclusion. Of course, Suda 51’s games involve much more subtext and symbolism than they do easy-to-follow plot points. This game is no exception, and is full of “Did he do that on purpose?” and “I wonder what he’s trying to say here” elements. No More Heroes 2 skews the current state of gaming affairs, poking fun at the overt violence of games like Grand Theft Auto, which he also did in the first game, but this time around Suda is more introspective and biting with his satire. NMH2 also takes a rose-tinted look back at the 8-bit era, questioning whether or not the advances developers and manufacturers have made truly mean games are better today. Ultimately, how you interpret the game correlates to just how much you gain from its structure. In the end, compared to the first game, the complete lack of a compelling and satisfying ending leaves the gameplay experience feeling hollow and unchanged, and a bit disappointing. But that might be a statement Suda’s trying to make about sequels in and of itself.
The first No More Heroes took place in a sandbox-style version of Santa Destroy, where Travis needed to use his motorcycle to get around town. The controls were cumbersome, and the world itself felt very unrealized. This sequel does away with the open world, and instead relies on a map with a series of locations you can use quick travel to get to. It's a more focused effort to put the real emphasis on the combat rather than senseless wandering, and makes the game much more enjoyable as a result. Desperate Struggle's controls have been tightened, and the HUD has been cleaned up as well. Combat is still fairly simple and intuitive, though the only variation comes in the form of different wrestling moves Travis can learn. Despite the game touting new types of beam katanas, they all work exactly the same, save for their speed and strength. As a result, there’s hardly an incentive for spending money on katana upgrades, and thus not really a need to run about town completing side jobs. Hacking opponents to bits is still a lot of fun, but anyone expecting loads of variation from level to level is going to be sorely disappointed. If you played the first game, you’ll notice some slight differences, but overall, the gameplay experience is largely unchanged, and some people may not feel there are enough improvements to make this sequel stand out. Travis' special powers are even more ridiculous than they were last time, and when the slots hit the right bars, you'll even see Travis turn into a tiger to tear apart his enemies. The special abilities come in handy quite often, particularly later in the game when Travis is constantly overwhelmed and outnumbered.
Boss fights are still the highlight of the game. Even though there are a handful of frustratingly difficult ones, not to mention a few exceedingly boring ones, for the most part, Desperate Struggle's boss fights serve as the perfect reminder of why people enjoy games made by Suda 51 so much. It's a good thing too, because the lead-up grind battles against any given foe's minions grow extremely tiresome by the end, and seem to be in place solely to make the game last longer. Sadly though, for whatever reason, many of the other assassins lack the depth of the villains from the first title. With only a few fleshed-out foes the entire game, those moments are a bit more engaging, but other battles lack motivation and character, leaving you to wonder whether the writers ran out of time or just wanted cool looking characters with little to no backstory. There are sections of the game intended to break up the monotony where you'll get to play as Shinobu and Henry, but they're so brief they could barely be considered a palette cleanser. Shinobu's sections are also maddeningly aggravating thanks to the poor platforming controls. What’s more, Shinobu’s segments are among the best written portions of the game, which makes it that much more disappointing when they’re jaw-clenchingly frustrating.
The first game's side jobs also return, but this time around, all, save for one, are retro-styled as 8-bit video games. They're fun, yet challenging ways to earn money for clothes and weapons, but if you don't enjoy them, unlike the first game, you are in no way required to play them. Revenge missions replace the optional assassination missions from the first game, and again, are an easy way to make money, but finishing them is in no way required to complete No More Heroes 2. If you so desire you can also hit the gym to get stronger or earn more stamina, which will help make later confrontations easier, but the exercise mini-games aren't terribly fun, which is likely intentional on Suda's part. Completing the game also opens up Deathmatch mode, which is fairly self-explanatory, and Boss Rush, where you can take on way tougher versions of all the game’s assassins. Desperate Struggle offers enough improvement over its predecessor to make a difference, and those of you frustrated with the original's meandering will be pleasantly surprised when playing this sequel.
No More Heroes 2's graphics are much improved over the original. The character models, shading, and animations are all much better looking, and prove that the Wii can do some great things when a developer knows how to use the hardware. The game's voice acting is top-notch, though there are still plenty of times where Travis will repeat the same line ad nauseum. Enemies repeat plenty of times throughout the game, but there are enough types that you won't notice until about halfway through. Though the game's soundtrack is pretty great, compared to the first game, there are not as many memorable tunes. In fact, the most remarkable song is the track that plays after Travis defeats an enemy to move up in the ranking, and it's an 8-bit midi.
It's tough for a Suda 51 game to come without a load of hype, and it's even tougher for that game to live up to said hype. No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle doesn't quite reach the same standard the first game did, but it's still a lot of fun to play. It's not without its problems, and the head-scratching, but in a bad way, ending may burn some fans hoping for answers to the series' questions. That said, games like this don’t come around too often, and I had a great time playing it. I'm anxiously awaiting news on what Suda does next, and after finishing this game you will be too.