Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes for the Switch is one of those games I wish I could lie to you about.
I desperately want to tell you that this incredible ride by Grasshopper Manufacture — that is filled with game-centric metaphors that speak to my soul — is above reproach. That if I do have some constructive criticism, it would just be a nitpick.
The reality is that Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes is a gorgeous, wonderful creature full of heart and soul. But it’s also awkwardly tedious in the one place it shouldn’t be. And that makes me want to just stay in bed, pull the covers over my head, and pretend I never played it — so I don’t have to write this.
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But I did play it, so I am writing about it. And you’re here, so you may as well read it. Let’s get to it!
What You’ll Like
Games within games
The structure of Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes is constructed with an impending crisis surrounding a rare gaming console known as the Death Drive MK II. The Death Drive MK II is a system like Polybius, a cursed gaming artifact discussed in hushed tones among the hardest of the hardcore game enthusiasts. And it is so rare that most consider the machine an urban legend.
The console’s rarity isn’t caused by mundane circumstances, such as lack of interest or lack of funding. The Death Drive MK II is a dangerous piece of gaming technology, for reasons I won’t be spoiling here.
The Death Drive MK II’s medium of choice isn’t cartridges or compact discs, but balls. Death Balls. Only seven Death Balls are known to exist, each containing one of seven exclusive prototype games.
Inside each Death Ball is a virtual world where Travis’ many adversaries exist as end-of-game boss battles. Some are simply game characters that are doomed to a terrible isolated fate by their creators, others are the essence of the developer themselves. All require Travis’ release via sweet, cool, digital death.
These worlds within the Death Ball are actually a combination of two games. The unique Death Ball game itself, and the core action gameplay of Travis Strikes Again. In some Death Ball games, the separation between the two play modes is clear. Such as one Death Ball that contains a racing game whose vehicle must be upgraded with parts, which can be located in the action game mode used to explore the Death Ball’s interior.
Other Death Balls cleverly unify the two games together a bit more, by either slightly altering the camera angle and art direction of the action game setting or by adding its own twist on how Travis proceeds from one action game set piece to another. One Death Ball in particular is a play off of the PlayStation 1 era of survival horror/adventure titles, where Travis must explore a mysterious mansion whose rooms lead to different stages in the core action game. Another Death Ball is a mystery puzzle game, where Travis must track down a serial killer in a suburban neighborhood, which leads him to various locations that happen to be stages in the core action game.
Death Balls themselves are collected through yet another game outside the Death Drive MK II, via an old school visual novel adventure titled … well … Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes. It’s a “game” in as much as some visual novels were back in the days, in that interaction is reduced to pressing the A button to move the adventure along.
The entire structure is games within games within games, with the unifying element being the core action game that carries itself throughout. This all sounds convoluted, and coming from someone trying to explain it, trust me, it is. But it’s also clever, and plays into something else Travis Strikes Again does extremely well … .
Perfect Ebb and Flow
The Death Ball structure of Travis Strikes Again keeps the entire experience interesting. The highs are contained within the core action game set pieces, while the cool downs are handled inside these games-within-games worlds that are just unique enough to keep my brain engaged but not over, or under, whelmed.
If it wasn’t for some flaws in other parts of the game, I could’ve easily gone through the entirety of Travis Strikes Back in one sitting without noticing. Not because Travis Strikes Again is too easy, or because it’s too short, but because it manages its engagement with just the right dosage, of the right kind of stimulation, at the right time.
Travis Strikes Again has an uncanny awareness of when things are beginning to grind. The visual novel section knows when to wrap shit up and get me into a Death Ball. The unique Death Ball game is just present enough to compliment the core action game segments its leading me to, without becoming a nuisance.
There are two things you can usually expect from a Grasshopper Manufacture title: fantastic art direction and a lot of metaphors. In the case of Travis Strikes Again, it feels like everything has a purpose beyond utility. No element feels placed for the sake of practicality.
With that said, Travis Strikes Again doesn’t feel egotistical, either. Projects like this can come off as self-absorbed and condescending, but throughout Travis Strikes Again I felt a sincerity to everything (I think) was being expressed.
The almost stalker-ish admiration for Hotline Miami, the ribbing of triple-A fads throughout the decades, the love for the indie spirit, poking fun at the tropes of older games, underlining the stereotypes of western otaku culture, our general obsession with retro, even the jabbing at critics and the press — Travis Strikes Again is full of soul, with expression that can only be executed in the game medium.
I adore how Travis Strikes Again is full of purposeful craftsmanship that is wonderful to experience, which makes the next half of this review so heart-breaking to write.
What You Won’t Like
A Fatal Identification Crisis
For all the reasons above, I want Travis Strikes Again to come out of the other end of this without any blemishes. And if it did call for some constructive criticism, it would be for something small.
Unfortunately, Travis Strikes Again drags because of an identity crisis in the main action game mode that ties everything together, which amazingly does not have anything to do with the influence of any of the various Death Balls.
You see, Travis has four basic attacks: light attack, hard attack, jump light attack, and jump hard attack. None of these attacks really chain together. You can, technically, say they combo in some situations, but it’s really generous to say so, and is very much out of their nature to do so.
That alone, by itself, is fine! That’s a perfectly functional and adequate set of abilities to build an entertaining action game around.
The types of enemies Travis encounters, however, are not designed to compliment what Travis can do. It isn’t very far into the game when low level adversaries begin having abilities and behaviors that would fit a game with a more beat-em up style of design. Something where Travis can lock-onto enemies, combo attacks, block, parry, etc.
The health of these enemies, outside of the lowest of the low fodder, is just too much for a move set that does so little. For enemies with sophisticated blocking and striking behaviors, the encounters become tedious stab n’ run exercises.
Travis also has a suite of special moves that do help, such as sticky bombs, a beam from an orbital satellite, and an electronic blast from a power glove-esque weapon (just to name a few). These specials can be mixed and matched for added strategy during battle, which is a great way to try and break things up.
But these special abilities are tied to their own individual gauges that refill at a crawl. Most of these specials also aren’t powerful enough to kill many of the mid-level enemies Travis is going to run into. A lot of Travis Strikes Again was spent using a group of specials, then running around in circles poking enemies waiting for the gauges to refill.
What’s happening here is a marriage between two different play philosophies, Travis’ abilities vs. the mid-level enemies’ abilities, that don’t quite gel together well enough to keep things interesting.
Rough pacing towards the end
The pacing in this case does not refer to the flow of the narrative, or the overall structure of Travis Strikes Again as a game. That stuff is laid out masterfully. I’m talking about play pacing, whose difficulty and intensity suddenly spikes in the last stage.
The problem isn’t as simple as Travis Strikes Again getting difficult in the last stage, which is actually how most games should work (duh!). There’s something going on where the difficulty and the anatomy of enemy waves being thrown at Travis seems to have skipped a couple of major beats when we reach the final Death Ball. Like we’re missing a crucial transition in-between that would’ve made the ramp up to this point so much smoother.
It’s at this sudden spike where the previous issue with Travis Strikes Back’s core gameplay design couldn’t keep from flopping out, and instead of looking forward to a grand finale, it just left me wanting to get the whole thing over with.
The outer layer of Travis Strikes Again is an amazingly experimental and superbly executed dive into the complicated personal relationship that Grasshopper Manufacture, if not Goichi Suda himself, has with the games medium.
But at the middle of this whirlwind of visual style and game culture nudging n’ winking, is a core action game that is fatally uncommitted to its own image of itself. Travis’ basic abilities are designed to mash through waves of Hotline Miami-esque enemies as if they’re blood filled balloons bursting at the touch, but the in-game enemies are designed like dump trucks to be confronted as if this were an exercise in blocks, parries, and combos. The protagonists and antagonists struggle to dance with each other at a fundamental gameplay level.
In a game where everything is a metaphor, I don’t understand what the point was with designing the central gameplay element in this way. It feels so disconnected compared to everything else. The artist/developer in me wants to believe that it’s symbolic, and I’m refusing to (or I am too dumb to) “get it”. Everything else inside me is saying that I am just trying to make up an excuse for a crucial misfire of an otherwise wonderfully wild ride.
Stephen was provided with a digital copy of Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes for review purposes. It did not come in Death Ball format.