No More Heroes III is the kind of wildly creative adventure you don’t experience often in today’s gaming landscape. And yet, it’s exactly what you should expect from a studio whose relatively long motto begins with “Punk’s not dead.”
Unlike the traditional action game, No More Heroes III features considerable variety when it comes to storytelling. Narrative elements are distinguished by their style of presentation, which can range from traditional in-game cutscenes to pre-rendered anime videos and more. These distinct stylistic choices grant each element its own identity and the utilisation of a mixture of these within any given episode ensures the game remains engaging throughout, despite chapters beginning and ending in similar ways.
While keeping details light, the plot mostly revolves around the alien Prince FU’s conquest of Earth and the efforts of Travis Touchdown to ascend the galactic rankings to challenge FU and put an end to his tyranny. The story is presented like a television series, complete with chapters featuring cold opens, intros and anime-style outros to emphasise the episodic style. It’s a smart choice as the more rigid structure of the episodes contrasts with the copious amounts of chaos that ensues within them, maintaining a relatively nice balance.
Unsurprisingly, one of the highlights of the story is Travis himself. Ironically, by not explicitly evolving or redeeming him, writer/director Suda51 has made a choice that is to the benefit of both the character and the world. In this reality, as the title suggests, there are no good guys and Travis remains a hilarious unheroic otaku driven by violent ambition and revenge. There are a handful of moments here where he struggles emotionally with the realities of his work and while fleeting, they are pivotal to his character, as it’s some of the only tangible vulnerability he experiences in a narrative that, with these rare exceptions, depicts him as a remorseless killer. With these moments and the in-game reality of Travis fighting off an alien invasion in mind, this is arguably the most sympathetic portrayal of the character yet and his added desire to protect Santa Destroy and his close friends makes for strong motivation behind the forthcoming bloodshed. It’s impressively nuanced characterisation and reflects reality in that even the exceptionally flawed are capable of possessing sympathetic and redeemable qualities. Robin Atkin Downes returns to voice Travis and does a fantastic job yet again, bringing the right amount of punch to the dramatic moments and, of course, fantastic comedic timing.
No More Heroes III features an array of villains as a result of the return of the franchise’s pivotal ranking mechanic, allowing Travis access to a whole range of colourful (sometimes literally) bosses to topple on his way to the top spot. Thanks to an incredible effort from the development team, I can confidently say that every boss fight is fantastic. There are also surprises related to certain encounters and, crucially, the game doesn’t short-change the player by executing these twists. For example, there is a particularly ingenious boss fight towards the end of the game with an initial swerve so clever, the developers could have saved time and money by not further expanding on it and the vast majority of the player base would have turned a blind eye due to the brilliance of its unconventional execution. However, they still opted to expand the fight with an entirely new section which was executed just as well, elevating that boss to one of my favourites in recent memory.
The primary antagonist, Prince FU, has some hilarious lines and is established early on as the franchise’s most powerful foe yet. The key to the character is his immaturity: though his power is immeasurable, his personality resembles that of a bratty teenager, which makes for some fun interactions when he’s around the other characters. Due to his clear lack of mental growth in adolescence and his complete lack of empathy for the human species, FU has an air of unpredictability to him and there is a fascinating parallel there with the mishandling of power by influential people in real life, who themselves are not quite aware of the impact of their detrimental actions.
No More Heroes III is set in a shared universe with Suda51’s other work and I anticipate there will be a debate about the game’s approachability for new players in this regard. For what it’s worth, I feel that the game would benefit from the player having experienced at least the first two entries in this franchise, but it’s not a total necessity. For the most part, the fan service is executed well, especially the payoffs to subplots set in motion in the first two games. There is also the elephant that is Travis Strikes Again, the spinoff title released in 2019. It’s markedly different from a gameplay standpoint and will not appeal to everyone; however, those who have played it will be rewarded as it plays an integral role in shedding light on Travis’ personal life heading into this game.
Red, Blue and Green
If you are looking forward to purchasing No More Heroes III, prepare to be blown away by the Joy-Cons. As somebody who hasn’t played the Switch launch title 1-2-Switch, this was the first time I truly understood their appeal. Everything from the HD Rumble on individual blows to swinging the Joy-Cons to land throws and killer slashes feels superb and legitimately added to the excitement of moment-to-moment gameplay.
The feel of the game in general is extremely strong. The Beam Katana feels incredible to wield, and Travis’ use of throws, bonuses from the Slash Reel, and the new ability to perfect dodge and punish enemies ensures there is enough variety to keep the combat engaging. The enemies are well designed and while some are re-used in multiple designated matches throughout the course of the game, the individual aliens are distinguished enough to not be monotonous to fight on multiple occasions. They vary in their approach to battle: some are aggressive, agile, and challenge Travis with melee attacks head on, while others are slower but unleash devastating ranged attacks from a distance.
The greatest addition to the gameplay is the Death Glove. Returning from the spinoff Travis Strikes Again and remodelled to resemble the Switch’s Joy-Cons, the Glove allows Travis to unleash four different yet equally useful special attacks. I found Death Slow to be the most useful as it slows down both the enemy’s movement and projectiles, and I frequently used it on quicker enemies and attacks that are harder to dodge. I also recommend using the Death Choke to perform crowd control if you find yourself overrun by enemies which can happen on rare occasions during late-game designated matches. While these moves operate on a cooldown, their effectiveness cannot be understated, especially in boss fights.
Progression here is altered slightly from No More Heroes 2 and shares some similarities to the first game. In order to raise his ranking, Travis will have to complete the designated matches in the open world, where upon reaching the spot for the match, he is transported away to fight a group of enemies. The areas where these matches take place are smartly designed and contain objects like large containers that can be used to avoid projectiles and put space between the player and enemies. After completing the required designated matches, Travis has to pay a fee to access the ranked match.
The fees increase incrementally as the game goes on, but rewards for completing matches also increase. Every combat encounter is graded so ensuring you achieve a superior grade is important as it secures you a higher payout and reduces the amount you will have to retrieve through other avenues such as defence missions, selling materials to Beef Head or my favourite way of making money, Volunteer Missions.
Volunteer Missions are similar in spirit to the side jobs from the first game and involve Travis helping out the community by completing a variety of tasks ranging from chasing down and destroying vehicles with his motorcycle to just straight up mowing the lawn. They are unique minigames and feature multiple stages with varying difficulties. They’re an ambitious addition, as there are quite a few of them and they often experiment with different mechanics from the regular action combat. My favourite of these is the Coast Guard missions that involve using a tank to shoot giant alligators emerging from the ocean, in order to stop them from reaching the beach. It’s about as fun as it sounds, although it must be said that due to the first-person perspective, it can get terrifying if the alligators get too close.
Unfortunately, the open world is where No More Heroes III struggles. There is the immediate downgrade with the framerate drop from 60FPS in combat to below 30FPS in the open world. As a sidenote, there are also occasional framerate drops in regular gameplay, usually when there are a lot of particle effects on screen or when striking enemies after executing a perfect dodge.
The combat sections don’t exactly feature cutting edge visuals but are passable and elevated by the stylised art style, however, in the open world the presentation falls apart. While on the motorcycle, there is pop-in galore, even on the road immediately in front of the player. It’s noticeably blurry, empty, and for reasons I cannot explain, vehicles disappear after they collide with Travis in any way. Thankfully, there is no actual combat in the open world and the song that plays whilst riding the motorcycle is great, much like the rest of the phenomenal soundtrack.
Summary: Technical struggles in the open world aside, No More Heroes III proves its worth as a brutally satisfying and subversive action game with magnificent boss fights and hilarity in spades.
Title: No More Heroes III
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Grasshopper Manufacture
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release date: 27 August 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.