Bucketlog January: No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle

Welcome to the Bucketlog! It's going to be 2019's year-long blog series, focusing on games I've been meaning to play since forever. I've put together a list derived from a mix of systems, genres, and vintages because it's starting to look like 2019 might be the first "lean" year for games in a spell (though time will tell whether that pans out to be true) and I figured this would be a fine opportunity to finally tick off a few items I've had on my various backlog lists/spreadsheets for longer than I'd care to admit.

Not much more to the feature than that, but as with the two previous long-term series - 2017's The Top Shelf and 2018's The SNES Classic Mk. II - I'm going to try focusing my reviews around their contemporary value, rather than pointlessly dither too much about how much more impactful they would've been had I played them back when they were first released. Oh, and I'm only updating it once per month; there's a few major RPGs on this bucket list that will require more than a single week, and I want to dedicate more of this year towards one-off blogs and shorter series rather than getting stuck in a routine again.

January: No More Heroes 2 (Wii)February: Steins;Gate (PS3)March: Okage: Shadow King (PS2)
April: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies (3DS)May: Banjo-Tooie (N64)June: Mother 3 (GBA)
July: Beyond Oasis (MD)August: Two Worlds II (X360)September: Kaeru no tame ni Kane wa Naru (GB)
October: Arc the Lad (PS1)November: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES)December: Tokyo Mirage Sessions: ♯FE (Wii U)

January

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Our first game is a fairly topical one, by design. With the recent release of reboot Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes for Switch, it prompted another reminder that - despite featuring it on "Lists of Shame" as far back as 2013 (and also represented 2010's biggest gap on this "Mind the Gaps" edition of the Saturday Summaries) - I never completed the sequel to one of Goichi "Suda51" Suda's more accessible works. No More Heroes 2 is structured more or less identically like the first No More Heroes, though some clear mechanical enhancements were integrated to alleviate some of the annoyances of the original.

It's strange to think; Suda51 comes off as this rebellious odd duck of a game director that you'd imagine would not brook any kind of external direction or feedback for his bombastic flights of fancy. Rather, I think his background in the highly iterative Fire Pro Wrestling franchise probably instilled in him early on the importance of building on a brand and doing things smarter and better the next time around. I mean, you wouldn't get far in this industry without a little humility and a sense that there are always improvements to be made. I will also say that this improvement really only applies to the greater framework of No More Heroes 2: as for the colorful rival assassins and the ensuing boss fights against them that are the focal point of the series, I might argue this group of eccentric killers are a little weaker this time around.

My main issue with the bosses this time is that they feel a little more throwaway and underdeveloped. There's very little lore in the game, not that Suda's ever one to waste time with too much backstory - he infamously fast-forwarded through the tragic history of one major character in the first game - but there's very little sense of who you're fighting beyond a brief clip of Sylvia talking tangentially about them and maybe a small amount of pre-fight preamble before the main event. The overarching theme for these challengers in particular is that they look up to Travis as an undefeated master assassin and relish the opportunity of fighting him, not only because he was the UAA's (the shadowy United Assassins Association, who sets up every fight and then nonchalantly disposes of the bodies afterwards) #1 at some point in the past but because he was the only champion to walk away from that world of euphoric bloodshed and eternal ranked battles. You get the sense with some of these challengers that they've been killing for so long they've mostly forgotten the reasons why - like I said, there's no real backstory for any of them, beyond the few that have links to the assassins from the previous game (or, in the cases of New Destroyman and Letz Shake, somehow survived being bisected the first time).

But everything outside of those fights has been improved immeasurably. Along with the new streamlined city traversal, Travis makes money via side jobs that are rendered as a series of enjoyable enough NES games with some vague resemblance to that console's actual library, in much the same style as the Retro Game Challenge DS compilations. "Lay the Pipe", for instance, is a Pipe Dream-esque puzzle game with the added complication that Travis takes up screen real-estate and must be able to maneuver around the pipes he's picking up and placing. Increasing health and damage output also involves completing a couple of these NES bootlegs, and get so absurdly hard in their later stages that it's easier to beat the game without the boosts they provide than continually hitting your head against them. There's a set of mini-games where you exercise Jeane, your now-overweight cat, which is both very cute and eventually provides one of the most useful techniques in the game as a reward.

Even the combat's been improved. Travis can pick up a few extra beam swords that, unlike the incrementally better swords of the original game you had to keep buying to keep up with increased enemy health, act as alternatives with different strengths and weaknesses that might be preferable to the default depending on the type of resistance you're meeting or your own playstyle. The first alternative you buy, the Camellia III, is a sword that prioritizes speed over power, and the following Peony has a slow swing but gets more powerful the higher your ecstasy gauge is. Speaking of which, the ecstasy gauge has been retooled so you can burn it for a uptick of speed and damage or wait for a fortunate spin of the reels which, as before, appear after killing an enemy with a maximized ecstasy gauge and on a lucky spin can either slow down time, create a shockwave that kills anything nearby, or turn Travis into an invincible tiger. As with most character action games, you do better the better you do: a maximized ecstasy gauge is the surest means of quickly killing bosses and random grunts, but will drain every time you get hit and is hard to maintain if you're taking a lot of abuse. Fortunately, there's other ways to take down enemies fast: stunning them with a low-stance combo and then finishing them off with one of Travis's wrestling moves, for instance. The combat isn't always fair and the camera makes a challenging task downright Sisyphean at times, but there's enough complexity to buoy you through the fights against armies of grunts and the bosses alike.

I had no real interest in really challenging myself and repeating fights over and over, since I've never been great at character action games in the first place, so I switched the difficulty down to Sweet (i.e. Easy) and had a ball meeting all the new assassins and the distinctive manner of how each of their duels were framed. Unfortunately, most of the bosses that employed a divergent gameplay system didn't really land for me - one involved a mech battle that trapped you on a 2D plane, making it hard to avoid incoming attacks, while another involved boosting an opponent off a cliff on a slow-turning bike that was like one of those Mario Party mini-games with the atlaspheres but way worse somehow - but the regular fights were mostly fine, barring a few towards the end that either annoyingly kept their distance (like the gothic sniper Margaret Moonlight) or kept repeating nigh-unavoidable attacks (the endless teleporting of Jasper Batt Jr., the game's chief antagonist). The game still has everything you could want from a Suda product - overblown dialogue, mostly about dicks; stylish filters and presentations; a very punk rock attitude - and even I was blown away to meet filmmaker Takeshi Miike, playing a fictional version of himself who was acquaintances with Travis's dead bestie Bishop and drops by to leave the best beam swords in the game by his grave for Travis to use. I also appreciated the chance to play as fan favorites Shinobu Jacobs and Sir Henry Cooldown, even if they didn't have much over Travis besides a weak long-distance attack, and a few throwaway frills like a shoot 'em up based on Travis's favorite magical girl anime Pure White Lover Bizarre Jelly 5.

Verdict (i.e. was I happy to circle back around to this game so many years after the fact?): I didn't always see eye-to-eye with the character action gameplay, especially in the few ways it's become dated since 2010, and it misses as often as it hits when it comes to its "experiments". However, I came for the industrial-strength Suda51 weirdness and I think I can walk away happy that it delivered on that front at least. It's probably going to be either The Silver Case or Killer is Dead for my next Suda51 fix.

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