We never had Suda51 down as the kind of creator to really take criticism to heart. He’s too much of an auteur for that, we thought, too dedicated to his own vision. Yet here we have a sequel to No More Heroes, which addresses so many criticisms of the first game that it nearly becomes something else entirely. Nearly, but not quite, of course, because Grasshopper’s unbridled individualism is still here in spades.
Kicking off three years after the last game, Desperate Struggle sees Travis Touchdown wander back into a Santa Destroy that has undergone many changes since he rose to the top of the assassin league only to throw it all away. A ruthless capitalist has moved into town, erecting skyscrapers everywhere, populating the streets with tacky fast food restaurants and transforming assassination into a corporately sponsored sport. Much has changed but Grasshopper won’t bore you with the details, its characters openly admitting that they’d much rather get on with the game instead.
All you really need to know as a player is that this premise is actually just a thinly veiled excuse to radically overhaul the entire structure of Travis’ adventure. The city itself, easily the most criticised of the first game’s features, is now little more than a menu from which to select missions. There’s no more riding around those dull and lifeless grey streets, and no real reason to do so, either. Where the first game required you to travel around town, taking on fights and odd jobs before you could pay your way through the UAA rankings, Desperate Struggle allows you to jump straight into a main story mission if you so wish.
Money can still be a valuable resource for Travis, however. If you need to upgrade his Beam Katana, buy him some new clothes or upgrade his skills at the gym, then you’re going to have to take on a few jobs. These too have been completely overhauled: somewhat monotonous in the first game, the jobs are now anything but. Styled like old-school Famicom games, they deliver instant arcade satisfaction and enable you to walk away between levels if you decide you’ve had enough. With seven such jobs available, some do fall flat, but others are absolute genius and – in a couple of cases – are even worthy of their own standalone game.
This dramatically streamlined structure makes No More Heroes 2 a quicker paced and much more linear game than before, and draws almost all attention towards its combat. Thankfully, this is the one area of the game that Grasshopper has actually expanded upon. In No More Heroes, the meat of Travis’s abilities basically boiled down to the use of Dark Step – a precisely timed dodge that slowed down time long enough to wail on the enemy – but that now feels a little run-of-the-mill a few months after Bayonetta’s Witch Time. Dark Step remains this time but is now complemented by Ecstasy Mode – a hyper-fast combo that can be unleashed once Travis has strung together a number of consecutive hits without taking damage, to fill up the Tiger Meter in the bottom right corner of the screen. Good enough to take down about four or five enemies in one unbroken combo, Ecstasy Mode is best used in conjunction with Dark Step, the latter affording Travis the best way to power up his Tiger Meter, the former rewarding the player for the not inconsiderable feat of skill involved in pulling off a few Dark Steps without taking damage.
Since Travis is now more capable than ever, Grasshopper has also improved the abilities of those he fights. Standard enemies are no longer the mass of identikit thugs that line up to have their arses handed back to them, but now come in a variety of different forms. Each type has its own characteristics – including attack pattern, size, speed and weaponry – that force the player to switch strategies on the fly, as they move between adversaries and learn to prioritises between the biggest threats and easiest kills. There’s no right or wrong way to approach such crowds, which only makes the learning process as much an exercise in variety as it is one of finding your own style.