No More Heroes is one of those series that transcends the normal considerations of “gameplay” and “story.” It’s all about the attitude, the tone, the fever-dream world. You don’t play No More Heroes games for the hack-and-slash combat or the graphics; you play them to spend time with Travis Touchdown and vacation in the Garden of Madness.
No More Heroes III—the first mainline entry in the series since 2010’s No More Heroes II: Desperate Struggle—doesn’t just buck expectations of what a “normal” hack-and-slash action game should be. It also does some things that might surprise (for better or worse) longtime fans of the series, and I’m (as the kids would say) here for it.
Set in and around Santa Destroy, No More Heroes III once again sees Travis Touchdown climbing the ranks as a “passing assassin,” but this time he isn’t necessarily fighting other human assassins. Instead, an alien named Prince Jess-Baptiste VI (or, as he’s colloquially known, Prince FU) has returned to Earth (and to his human friend, Damon) after visiting it as a young prince to basically conquer and destroy it—even as he refers to himself and his underlings as Galactic Superheroes. Now it’s up to Travis and a few other familiar faces to take down FU and his nine cohorts to rise in the Galactic Superhero Rankings and save the planet.
At the risk of taking Travis Touchdown’s journey too seriously, what’s fun about No More Heroes III’s story is that it allows the “creepy otaku” and bloodthirsty assassin to have a goal that’s slightly outside himself. Obviously, the story still gives him a leaderboard to climb and people to kill, but there’s more on the line than just his pride, ego, and a chance to get down and dirty with Sylvia. Maybe it’s a product of Travis nearly reaching middle age and having kids, or maybe it’s Suda51 reacting to the times and realizing that he has more to say with this character beyond making him a total psychopath with the style sense of a 1950s greaser.
Travis wants to save Earth, of course, but he also has a vulnerability when it comes to the other people in his life. There’s Badman (with whom he developed a friendship in Travis Strikes Again), Bad Girl (or “Charlotte” as he calls her, to her chagrin), Shinobu, and of course his cat, Jeane, who has a more pronounced role in this game. Giving Travis something and someone to care about other than himself made me feel more invested as a player, but Suda51 doesn’t go completely overboard in making Travis a softie. He’s still as hot-headed and bloodthirsty as ever, and Robin Atkin Downes gives it everything he’s got in bringing Travis to life, fully diving into every line with gusto and a lack of self-consciousness, no matter how cheesy or ridiculous the situation. It’s truly one of my favorite performances I’ve ever heard in a video game, and it’s a great reminder as to why Travis is still a beloved character.
In the same way that Downes throws everything at the wall in bringing Travis to life, Suda51 and the game’s entire design team do the same for how they choose to tell the story. No More Heroes might have dabbled in structural experimentation before, but No More Heroes III takes it to a new level. As much as Travis Strikes Again might have felt like a spinoff, the freedom that the semi-sequel seemingly offered Suda51 has seeped its way into No More Heroes III, too.
Sure, the game has traditional, in-engine cutscenes, but we also have the green-on-black visual novel presentation that we saw with “Travis Strikes Back” (the text-based story bits in Travis Strikes Again). Then there’s the beautifully animated opening that shows how FU and Damon met in a hilarious parody of E.T. On top of all that, there are brief respites of Travis and Bruno (returning from Travis Strikes Again) discussing the filmography of Takashi Miike in a public access-style talk show. This is all wrapped up in a Netflix-style, serialized drama package, complete with a “next episode begins in…” countdown at the end of every chapter. In any other series, this might feel like tonal whiplash, bouncing from one medium to the next, but in No More Heroes—which has always been as much about the influence media has on us as it is about badass assassins—it feels like the creators have fully wrapped their head around their own material. Form doesn’t follow function in No More Heroes III; form is function.
This meta approach to storytelling is also present when it comes to actually playing the game. Ever since the series escaped the Wii and found itself on different platforms, players haven’t needed to waggle their controller to get their hits in, but it’s still refreshing to see a mainline No More Heroes game take a more straightforward approach to combat, with light and heavy attacks as opposed to “low” and “high” attacks. No More Heroes III combines the best bits of the first two games with the more streamlined approach of Travis Strikes Again, complete with a handful of Death Glove special abilities, to create a combat system that is both accessible and satisfying. Fighting aliens instead of human bodyguards makes combat feel fresher, too, since the enemies all have different visual styles and attack patterns. New features like a more readable perfect dodge mechanic and a (gasp) fully controllable camera make combat feel slightly more modern while still retaining the idiosyncratic charms of the first two games.
But there’s more to No More Heroes III’s gameplay than its basic combat situations. Hell, most of the time combat doesn’t even feel like a central concern. Part of the time you’ll simply be driving around Santa Destroy and other small open-world settings like Neo Brazil, Thunderdome, and what seems to be a World War II–themed town called “Call of Battle” on Travis’ Tron-style motorcycle, the Demzamtiger, looking for your next fight. In these worlds, you’ll find minigames like shooting giant alligators with a tank, picking up litter and suplexing normal-sized gators, and mowing lawns in “Volunteer Missions” (which, ironically, pay you).
Even combat situations themselves can vary from standard hack-and-slash fights to mech battles that seem taken out of Daemon X Machina (a game that’s literally referenced in No More Heroes III). At a certain point in the game, you’ll square off in a turn-based JRPG scenario, while in another you’ll face your opponent in a 2D arena, playing a Smash Bros. parody. Some players who aren’t used to the series’ fourth-wall-breaking nature, or who just want a more straightforward escalation of core mechanics, might start to lose their patience with No More Heroes III’s constant switch-ups, but players who are willing to take the ride and accept that “form is function” will never get bored.
The only place where No More Heroes III gets in its own way is in how you get from one part of the story to the next. The open-world driving segments might be a staple of the series, but they could have done with a bit more modernization. In order to enter combat, you have to find designated combat areas on the map, which will teleport you into space to fight a small group of FU’s alien henchthings. It’s especially annoying when you’re exploring the open world and stuff like invisible walls stop you from jumping over shin-high barriers. Compared to other open-world environments, it feels dated. It’s the only place where that usual Suda51 charm falls flat.
No More Heroes III could have functioned neatly as the final chapter in the Travis Touchdown saga, and as fun as the game is, there is definitely the sense that it’s a formula that’s been taken as far as it can go. But I’m not certain that Suda51 is done with Santa Destroy and its inhabitants, or if he’s even willing to let them go. Either way, fans of the series should be satisfied with this latest chapter. No More Heroes III is as fresh and frisky as its predecessors—and, believe it or not, a little more mature, too. It might be a little rough around the edges, but it wouldn’t be a Suda51 game if everything was clean and straightforward. We’re talking about the Garden of Madness, after all. Embracing insanity is the entire point.
No More Heroes III brings back gaming’s favorite passing assassin in a bombastic way, with the kind of inventive, fourth wall-breaking presentation one might expect. It’s flashier, bolder, and even funnier than its predecessors, and the gameplay feels just slightly modernized without sacrificing any of the series’ charm. The pacing might seem a bit halted in some places, and it could have worked best as a capstone to the series, but it’s clear that creator Suda51 and the rest of the designers are just as passionate about the Garden of Madness as ever.
M - Mature
|No More Heroes III is available on Nintendo Switch. Primary version played was for Switch. Product was provided by Grasshopper Manufacture for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|