Although Goichi Suda has had his name on most of developer Grasshopper Manufacture’s output, Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes is billed as his return to the director’s chair for the first time since the original No More Heroes. Travis Strikes Again is smaller in scope than most recent Grasshopper titles, but it’s a confident return to the wilder side that made the studio famous, in both its rough edges and its willingness to venture into strange places.
Travis Touchdown is looking for the six mysterious Death Balls, a collection of game cartridges for an obscenely rare and deadly console called the Death Drive Mark II. The Death Balls are said to grant one wish to whoever collects and beats them all, and Bad Man, whose daughter Travis killed in the first No More Heroes, hopes to revive her. As Travis and Bad Man team up to descend into the world of each Death Drive game, they find the games corrupted by bugs and taken over by Juvenile, an eccentric game developer with a sordid history. The plot functions more as a vehicle for cool moments than anything else, but those moments are pulled off with aplomb.
While the setup implies each game will be vastly different, they all use the same hack-and-slash combat as their base. Fights move quickly, with a mix of crowd-controlling fodder enemies and zeroing in on stronger enemies that require a little more finesse to take down. Early encounters are a bit mindless as you learn how to maneuver and execute different attacks, but later encounters required me to think more critically about how I approached them.
You also find a number of equippable skills that let you tailor Travis or Bad Man to your liking, adding an interesting layer to combat. While I wound up with a couple of staples, I regularly came up with combos I thought were unbeatable (like dropping a time-slowing field to set up a guided laser that took a few seconds to fire), only to swap them out after facing a boss or fight that kept me on my toes. It’s not as intricate or engaging as other action games, but each level introduces just enough twists to keep things fun, even as the enemy and combat encounters taper off near the end.
You can also play the entire game in co-op to make things easier, but unfortunately my partner and I kept finding ourselves offscreen since the view doesn’t zoom out to keep up with the action.
What makes Travis Strikes Again shine, however, is how it brims with style, and how it uses its combat as a jumping off point for some cool aesthetic touches and setpieces. In one game, you fight through waves of enemies in order to get parts for a motorcycle, which you then use to compete in drift races with vector-graphics. Another pays homage to the original Resident Evil, with a mansion foyer acting as a central hub. And without spoiling too much, things only get weirder and more referential from there.
Between levels, you learn how Travis acquires each new Death Ball by reading through a retro visual novel, which has its own share of references and surprises. You can also explore Travis’ trailer, reading blog entries about the different kinds of ramen you eat throughout the game, buying and wearing different T-shirts (most of which feature logos for various indie games like Undertale, Hyper Light Drifter, and Hotline Miami), and reading short magazine spreads with fun write-ups of every game and a few cheat codes, both real and fake. Although these segments are relatively minor, they made for a great distraction and doubled as a change of pace from the combat.
Travis Strikes Again finds a good balance between fun, approachable action and reveling in Suda51 and Grasshopper’s signature style. It’s not the most intricate action game out there, but the simple combat works well as a vessel for several one-off moments that elevate it above its simple premise. It’s more of a prelude than a main event, but both on its own and as sign of things to come, Travis Strikes again is a promising return to form.