No More Heroes 2: The Mish-Mash of Improvements and Experiments
No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle is an odd sequel to an already odd game. The original game was one that was simultaneously charming and gruesome, humorous and unflinching, but also one with quirks both deliberate and unintentional. Enjoying it was a matter of coming to terms with that and, like with most Grasshopper Manufacture games, being able to appreciate it on its own terms. Desperate Struggle is therefore a game with opportunities a plenty to improve upon an interesting foundation and on a mechanical front, it usually accomplishes that mission well. But in other areas, there are still caveats to put up with, both old and new, and while none break Desperate Struggle on their own, they are persistent enough to force an air of caution about purchasing it. No More Heroes' second series of massacres still makes for a fun game, but nevertheless is one with blemishes to boot.
As a sequel, Desperate Struggles' gameplay changes range from minor improvements to fairly drastic overhauls and, for the most part, Suda 51 and company were right in determining which parts needed the most attention and which could largely remain intact. On the lower end of the alteration spectrum is the combat, which sees the fewest real changes. The system already in place in the original, after all, was one of the things that helped define it and to that end, such is also the case with Desperate Struggle. You're still positioning the Wii remote for high and low attacks, still hitting the A button a lot for actual strikes, and still only using motion controls for finishing blows and wrestling moves. Slot machine bonuses still show up after every kill, but pay out less frequently and you're still ultimately going from point A to B to C until you reach one of the game's distinctive boss battles that never fail to spice up how you're made to fight. The main changes to the combat come in the form of multiple equippable katanas that you can switch on the fly to account for different situations, as well as more enemy types and improved enemy AI that does a better job at flanking and avoiding you, as well as knowing when to still attack when Travis is on the ground. Beyond that, the fighting is overall the same in pacing and structure as in the original No More Heroes and it by and large retains the systems that make it recognizable as such. It's therefore still a very fun way of battling on the Wii, since its visceral nature never really takes a break, but it's also one who novelty has acquired some wear and tear now that the ideas behind it aren't all that fresh by the series' own standards. Desperate Struggle is bound to be a very familiar game to those who have prior experience with the first game.
The more major alterations, however, come predominantly in the form of revamped navigation and money-making. Santa Destroy is no longer traversed on foot or by Travis' motorcycle in a quasi-sandbox environment, but rather through a modest menu that let's you instantly travel to points of interests on the map, such as missions for ranking advancement, equipment and clothing purchases, and jobs. Aside from loading times, Desperate Struggle thusly lacks the imposed downtime that some players found contentious, as you can move from one activity to the next without being made to take a breather. As for the work Travis can take up to make an income, instead of polygonal minigames like those used in the original game, all but one of them now play, look, and sound like NES games. The tasks they have you do vary wildly, ranging from picking up falling garbage in space to cooking meat to bug eradication and more. Some take a little while to get a feel for them, meaning that you won't necessarily rake in a lot of money immediately, but they are rewarding once you master them and also have a nice charm for being so adamantly 8-bit. The money you accrue this time, however, does not go towards paying for the next boss fight, though; unlike the original No More Heroes, Desperate Struggle makes every fight free, letting you use your money instead for optional purchases and status upgrades, the latter of which also involves more 8-bit gameplay, albeit of a more difficult variety compared to the part-time work.
With the good often comes the bad, though, and unfortunately for Desperate Struggle, it, too, has its share of issues. One of the most glaring ones of all is how the improvements actually have a habit of backfiring in obtuse ways. On paper, the things that either now work well or have continued to do so since the first game should make Desperate Struggle the superior game over its prequel. Taken on their own, this might be true, but when examined together, Desperate Struggle's gameplay loses a lot of cohesion that the original game had. Things that should fit well just don't do so quite as much as you would expect. While the previous game might have had its own fair share of issues, the experience it created nonetheless had a sort of consistency that went a long way to define it. Most everything in that game had some sort of context behind it and a reason for why they worked the way in which they did, so while you might not have always liked what it was trying to do, at least its intentions were always clear and you had the motivation to move forward.
The components that make up Desperate Struggle's gameplay by and large lack that sort of unity, leaving you to figure out why exactly you should take advantage of some of the features in the first place. Combat is a particularly vivid example, where you have more swords to choose from this time around instead of just constantly upgrading one sword or replacing it with a better one entirely like in the first No More Heroes game. Each sword is supposed to be used for different situations and the swing mechanics change between accordingly them to accommodate that. It's a seemingly good way to bring strategy into a game without making it unnecessarily cerebral. The problem is that when the end goal is always to just keep slashing your way to the boss and every sword is ultimately just as effective as the others with the right timing and damage considerations, there's little reason to actually explore the different swords. This especially apparent at times since the game never actually throws any enemies at you that explicitly force you to change swords.
Such is the sort of problem that permeates much of the game, extending to plenty of areas outside of combat, too. The lack of context for most of the features goes a long way to negate the improvements, since the streamlined mentality of the game gives just as much justification to explore the new features as it does to outright ignore them. The working minigames are another major example of this problem. You can and probably will try to take up some of the side jobs, but without needing to use them to actually pay to advance the game, now that you can just advance to the next level at any time, it's very possible to lose the willpower to actually do the jobs very quickly once you run out of entirely optional things you want to buy. It's a sort of tone about the game that never ceases to linger, either, leaving a bitter aftertaste for the goodwill that the game does legitimately draw up, too.
There are more concrete issues that further hamper the experience in Desperate Struggle, though. The storyline, as mentioned earlier, is convoluted and often times incoherent, and the disjointed structure it often employs by sifting through different points in time back and forth certainly don't help. While this anarchy is not entirely unsurprising, given that it's a product of Suda 51's mind, it still makes the story hard to follow and character motivations eventually become downright incomprehensible. This is especially true of the bosses who, unlike the previous game's bunch, seem to lack much in the way of any real characterization outside of the unique attacks they cycle through during the actual fighting. The way they try to present themselves before and after their fights just doesn't always do a good job at eliciting anything other than apathy. Some of them still manage to be memorable, but by and large, they're typically more easily forgettable and the storyline overall struggles to hold your attention. By the end of the game, the feeling that you're taking Travis from one place to another without any real understanding of the proceedings is more common than it ought to be.
Desperate Struggle also implements a camera that, for the majority of the time, cannot be controlled manually outside of Ocarina of Time-style re-centering. This isn't usually a problem in the moments leading up to boss fights, but once those showdowns commence, the crazy nature of the antics at hand can be too much for the camera to handle and can get it stuck in bad spots. Usually it isn't debilitating, but when considering that the previous game actually had manual camera control that worked well despite its d-pad trappings, it feels as though the development team was trying to address an issue that never really was present in the first place.
Additionally, the game also has a few levels that require sometimes liberal amounts platforming. These segments are often nothing short of just being utterly broken. Desperate Struggle runs on an engine that blatantly isn't designed for that sort of gameplay and it shows; platform collision is highly spotty and tends to nastily push you to the ground when it shouldn't right when you're trying to reconnect with solid ground. Couple this with a camera that really could use manual control for those sorts of situations and you have an entire facet of the game that really should have been scrapped before release. Bringing variety into any action game bound to otherwise have lots of repetition is appreciated, but only when it's done correctly, and the platforming is hardly one of them. Thankfully they only take up a small fraction of the game, but the fact that they still take up any time in the game in the first place is still irksome.
Although the gameplay may not always be up to snuff, the technical elements that make up Desperate Struggle are usually well-done. The graphics are once again done in a cel-shaded style similar to the first game, although the texture quality has been upped and the game as a whole has a grittier look to accompany its darker tone. Frame rate problems do crop up, but they're most frequent during cutscenes and when they actually do show up in the gameplay, they don't last nearly long enough to substantially derail the gameplay. This can usually be attributed to the game's vast amount of particle effects such as blood spray, which are otherwise well-crafted. The sound design is respectable, as well, and the voice actors also turn in good work, even if the regular enemies' phrases do get repetitive over time. The music is probably Desperate Struggles' strongest suit technologically, since it typically compliments the action really well. From the MIDI-sounding tunes that emphasize the simplicity of Travis' side jobs to the themes for the actual bosses themselves that compliment the respective situations, Desperate Struggle is often a great game musically and makes for very enjoyable listening. A good soundtrack for a game knows how to compliment the action on the screen well and this one doesn't have a hard time at all in accomplishing that.
I won't say that No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle is a bad game because I still think that it isn't. The combat is still really fun and knows just how to use the Wii's motion controls to make a really visceral experience. The game as a whole is darker, but it still has a lot of the trademark humor and even manages to be touching in a few spots. Mechanically, the game definitely has noticeable improvements over the original one and, when taken on their own, certainly work better in execution. To be honest, that alone is probably enough to compel people to purchase the game, as they should if they want to. But I still have my reservations about the game as a whole. Improvements to a game's core only make the whole product better if they're cohesively implemented, which is where Desperate Struggle falters a lot. When just one aspect of the game is doing its thing on its own, everything goes smoothly and the experience is really great, but when made to work as a cog in a larger machine, it doesn't integrate as well with the rest of the game as one might expect. Such is really the overarching characteristic of Desperate Struggle. It's a game that has good intentions and genuinely tries to improve the formula set forth in the first No More Heroes game, but comes away with a handful of both accomplishments and drawbacks. If you can get still behind that, it's a fun game worth the purchase price, but if you can't, don't try to betray your cynicism. It's more likely than not steering you in the right direction.