Tend to the Garden of Madness.
No More Heroes starts off with a bang, as Travis Touchdown glazes over the past few days of his life and then drives his motorcycle right into the estate of the #10 assassin in the world. Travis has just one goal in life: to become the top-ranked assassin, which will in turn get him laid by the beautiful and possibly psychotic Sylvia. This is an in-your-face action game with buckets of blood, more swearing than a typical R-rated film, and a garish blend of Japanese and American cultural references. There's nothing else quite like it on the Wii or any other system, and for older, core Nintendo gamers, No More Heroes is a rare treat.
Not many games are so upfront about their structure and length. The best comparison is Shadow of the Colossus, a game that prides itself on a total lack of filler content between boss battles. No More Heroes does have normal enemies leading up to the ranked assassin fights, but they are good preparation for the big battles. These enemies are contained in short action levels, though the natures of these levels vary dramatically. One of the great thrills in this game is experiencing a new ranked mission, because the boss battles are so unpredictable and always interesting. Between these missions, there is a significant amount of filler content. The strange and somewhat funny part is that the game gleefully acknowledges that this content is filler and nothing but. Travis needs to pay fees to enter each ranked fight, and most of the required money is earned by completing odd jobs and small-time assassinations. The odd jobs play out like mini-games, and although they aren't much fun and don't pay well, they do unlock unranked assassinations. These events are also short, but they are entertaining and tend to pay big bucks.
Whether it's in small-time fights or ranked assassin missions, most of the game is spent fighting. The combat is simple and repetitive, yet very addictive. Travis fights with an upgradeable beam sword that looks and sounds very cool, and it slices through bad guys with exaggerated blood sprays as your reward. The game cleverly avoids motion fatigue by using standard button presses for regular attacks and reserving simple gestures for killing blows and wrestling moves. The combination of control styles and the pacing between the two is strangely satisfying. Motion control is utilized in one more, very subtle way: Travis changes his stance depending on how you hold the Wii Remote, so you can quickly switch between high and low attacks in the midst of a combo. Doing so looks cool, adds variety to the moves, and helps you break stalemates with the occasional blocking enemy. There are three main swords in the game, and they are all quite different and viable, so you can choose the one that best suits your style.
One combat feature that seems awesome but never goes anywhere is the Dark Side mode, wherein Travis may randomly gain a super power for several seconds after a flashy kill. There are several abilities, all pretty cool and potentially very useful, even though you can't control when they will be activated. One ability lets you shoot energy balls for instant kills, while another makes Travis super fast to catch enemies off-guard. Unfortunately, I found that the Dark Side feature just disappeared halfway through the game, right about the time it could have been strategically useful on the more difficult enemies. Even later in the game, normal enemies rarely pose much of a threat, and they always go down in just a few hits. The ranked bosses are starkly different – they have huge life bars and often do massive damage with their combos. They are pattern based, though, so it's usually easy to predict their next moves and take advantage of attack opportunities if you pay attention and remain patient.
Suda 51, the writer, director, and game designer of No More Heroes, has populated his game with many funny and mysterious characters. The eccentric ranked assassins are prone to giving speeches before and after you hack them to bits, and they all wear outlandish costumes and take on hilarious names like "Letz Shake". Travis himself is a snarky guy with plenty of idiosyncrasies, and it's never really clear why he has chosen this career path. There is an underlying story somewhat deeper than "kill people to get laid", but it develops very slowly and is often confusing because characters are introduced and then suddenly removed. With all of these crazy assassins running around, you'll probably wish that you could learn more about them before Travis starts lopping off their extremities. At times, Travis develops deep bonds with other characters for seemingly no reason, and the lengthy end sequence is packed with abrupt story revelations that feel totally out of context. In short, the game's story is a complete mess, packed with bizarre cultural references, unfulfilled promises of character development, and plotting that makes Akira seem reasonable. The fact that it pokes fun at itself and frequently breaks the fourth wall doesn't make up for the fact that the story goes nowhere. Still, it's a fascinating and subversively funny train wreck.
No More Heroes takes place in the fictional city of Santa Destroy, which sounds satirical but really isn't. The city is large but mostly empty, and there are big chunks of real estate that you will never have a reason to visit, much less explore. The emptiness is most pronounced at the beginning of the game, when you may wonder why the city was included at all. After you go up a few ranks, some interesting new locations are activated, and you can start to earn more money to upgrade Travis's equipment and stats. Unfortunately, the tools for getting around Santa Destroy cannot be upgraded. The mini-map, a deliberately pixilated facsimile of the one from Grand Theft Auto, is hard to read and doesn't line up properly with your actual location or direction. The main mode of transportation is a motorcycle, and for traveling any significant distance, it's the only real choice. You will learn to hate the motorcycle before long, as it controls like a wheeled albatross and gets caught on everything, thanks to some terrible collision detection. Some of these flaws carry over into the otherwise solid combat engine. For instance, the targeting system is crude at best, and it is broken by any obstruction whatsoever–even low-lying debris between you and the enemy. The camera flips around spastically in tight spaces, and you'll frequently need to reset its position even in large areas.
There is one aspect of the game that pushes the Wii farther than any other game has attempted. No More Heroes is, unquestionably, the best example of how the Wii Remote's speaker can be used to enhance a game. Of course, the beam katana makes all kinds of convincing lightsaber-esque sounds come out of the Remote's speaker, but even better is its use during phone calls from Sylvia before every ranked battle. The Remote rings like a mobile phone, and then our hero's would-be girlfriend begins teasing and taunting Travis (and you) directly from the Wii Remote. The sound still occasionally clips beyond the tiny speaker's range, but the quality and quantity of recorded voice coming out of the Remote is very impressive. Sure, it's a gimmick, but it draws you into the story and will have you holding the speaker up to your ear like a real phone. Knowing that the speaker can be used to this extent opens a floodgate of potential ideas for this obscure controller feature.
No More Heroes is the weird result of a Japanese man obsessed with American culture who has created an American hero obsessed with Japanese culture. It's a reflection of a reflection, and both mirrors are distorted and covered with graffiti. In terms of gameplay, it's a relatively standard brawler with some attempts to stretch that formula. The unique style and primal action combine for a compelling experience that is definitely worth a look from any Wii owner in need of another "real" game. It's a hearty chunk of game that lasts 10-15 hours, depending on the severity of your OCD tendencies, and a "New Game +" feature provides some additional replay content for obsessed fans. Despite some technical deficiencies and disappointing story development, No More Heroes is a stylistic tour de force and, underneath the pretense, a fun and satisfying action game.