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Travis Strikes Again might not be the direct sequel No More Heroes fans have waited nearly a decade for, but it's just as over-the-top and utterly insane as we've come to expect from gaming's punk rock auteur, Suda51.
Grasshopper Manufacture (Shadows of the Damned, Lollipop Chainsaw) decided to take a totally unexpected route with Travis Strikes Again, offering a bizarre (and budget-priced) homage to the world of gaming rather than a straight follow-up to the original No More Heroes series. In other words, don't go in expecting to run around an open city map, doing odd jobs to make money and competing against a cast of rival assassins in order to become known as the best in the world. The flavor of those previous games is absolutely in the mix, but Travis Strikes Again is a totally different experience.
So if you're looking for more of the same, you're probably going to be disappointed. But if you're open to letting Suda and Co. bombard you with some of the most street-rat crazy gaming moments we've seen in the past decade, then you might find Travis Strikes Again to be a totally unexpected treat.
While TSA is mostly removed from the original series, the game at least acknowledges their existence. The story, such that it is, picks up several years following the events of 2010's Desperate Struggle, with foul-mouthed hero Travis Touchdown living in a trailer in the woods and doing his best to avoid the real world. The problem is that Touchdown killed an assassin by the name of Bad Girl and her father, Badman, is now seeking revenge.
In the midst of their tussle, Travis and Badman get sucked into a legendary game console known as the Death Drive Mk-II. Fans of Suda51's work will recognize that as the console brand featured in the free-to-play Souls-like, Let it Die, and that's only the first of about a billion references this game makes to various branches of pop culture.
Inside the machine, this duo of badasses learns that if they are able to collect and beat the console's six games (called Death Balls), they'll be granted a single wish. And yes, that's a straight-up nod to Dragon Ball. I told you, this game is positively overflowing with fourth wall breaking and self-aware moments, making it just as much a love letter to otaku culture as it is an entry within it. From Zelda to Street Fighter, Gundam to Sega, Naruto and beyond, Suda has no qualms using Travis Strikes Again as a Boy Scout sash to be covered in badges representing all of his favorite things.
I don't want to get too deep into the particulars of the individual Death Balls, as finding out what comes next is a big motivator in this dozen-hour campaign. But the hook is that each game is a play on a particular genre, with the Death Balls covering everything from platforming adventures and RPGs to racers, puzzle games and more. Each of these games typically alternates its unique mechanics with sections featuring Travis or Badman (or both, if you're playing co-op) beating the hell out of bugs that have invaded the game's code.
The mechanics in the unique Death Ball sections are enough to get the job done but nothing here is too remarkable. The hack and slash combat is a similarly straightforward affair, boasting a couple of attacks, some special moves and a set of "Skill Chip" abilities you can collect and mix to your heart's content. Do you want to chuck a bomb at your enemies or zap them with electricity? Would you prefer to set up a temporary wall to control the flow of traffic or call down an orbital assault? Maybe you'd rather turbo-charge your regular abilities or get life-stealing attacks for a limited amount of time. There are enough Skill Chips to make experimenting rewarding and just enough variety in the enemy types to keep encounters decently fresh. The mid-bosses and final encounters are especially entertaining, making some of the less exciting gameplay moments worth the occasional grind.
When you're not busy playing through the Death Balls, you'll spend your time exploring Travis Strikes Back, a visual novel with old-school graphics and a story that's just as off the wall as the rest of the game. Who made the Death Drive Mk-II? Where are its legendary games being kept? Could the machine be part of a super-secret government plot? Travis Strikes Back answers all of those questions and more, with each new chapter rewarding our hero with a new game to play.
On top of all of that, each Death Ball boasts a batch of collectibles, including ramen shops to visit, wild advice being offered by a digital grandpa and a couple currencies that let you buy a large number of shirts for Travis and Badman to wear. Even better, those shirts boast logos from dozens of indie games, including everything from Dead Cells and Hollow Knight to Reigns, The Messenger and beyond.
While I wouldn't go so far as to say Travis Strikes Again is a case of style over substance, the thing I appreciate most about this latest trip into the world of No More Heroes is how utterly dedicated it is to its unique brand of offbeat storytelling and humor. There is an edgy vibe dripping from every square inch of this game, which has become a hallmark of Suda's projects. While the combat can become repetitive and some of the mechanics in the individual Death Balls didn't quite land for me, I was able to overlook most of the game's shortcomings due to how much fun I was having simply learning what sort of crazy curveball TSA would throw at me next.
I'm a big fan of Grasshopper Manufacture and was happy to have the team continuously slap me in the face with its distinctive mix of swagger and absurdity. If you find yourself paddling a similar boat, then Travis Strikes Again is absolutely worth getting sucked into. And while I won't spoil anything here, there are a few surprises and a couple damn-near announcements that will likely have Suda diehards squealing with delight.
A hell of a lot of spaghetti gets thrown against the wall in Travis Strikes Again and, for me, much of it stuck.
This review based on a Nintendo Switch download of the game provided by the publisher.