Here’s a conundrum: What do you do if you’re a celebrated game developer in love with the vibrant, independent state of the modern indie games movement, but who just can’t seem to find a way to tap into its freewheeling, play-focused vibe? If you’re Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes co-director Suda51, the answer is simple: Churn out a generic hack-and-slash experience trading on nostalgia for an increasingly musty IP, fill it with Hotline Miami references, and then give players the option to wear a bunch of in-game T-shirts advertising a whole slate of significantly better games. The No More Heroes series (and its auteur-aspirant mastermind) have always struggled with placing style over substance; Travis Strikes Again threatens to divide by zero by heaping loads of quirky ideas and games-industry references upon hour after hour of generic, poorly designed monster fighting that is so slight, it’s barely there at all.
Centered as they are on Travis Touchdown—a nerdy, pathetic otaku who is, nevertheless, somehow also an amazing, sexy, badass assassin—the No More Heroes games have always lived in the space between mocking their players and quietly slipping them some wish-fulfillment “epic-ness.” Travis Strikes Again is no different, seeing Travis (and new character Bad Man, seeking vengeance for a daughter players brutally murdered back in the first game) getting sucked into Travis’ experimental Death Drive gaming console, fighting their way through each of its six available titles. (And if that premise sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s also kind of the central conceit of Grasshopper Manufacture’s 2016 free-to-play game Let It Die, albeit with a different iteration of the fictional Death Drive console.)
Don’t get your hopes up, though. While “sucked into classic video games” sounds like the setup for some sort of Retro Games Challenge-esque trip through the hobby’s history, the actual reality is a lot more lackluster. Whether it’s a Mega Man-esque platformer, a vector-graphics racing game, or some sort of riff on PlayStation-era mech titles, each of the Death Drive’s “Death Balls” serves one basic purpose: acting as a backdrop for fighting the same handful of generic enemies, over and over again, until you either win, lose, or finally accept that Grasshopper’s immense creativity is never going to make the leap from the game’s dialogue and gags into its actual design.
The first two No More Heroes games managed to leaven their sillier excesses by relying on a series of kinetic, challenging boss battles against colorfully memorable characters. Travis Strikes Again, on the other hand, never rises above the depths of an extremely basic Gauntlet-style beat-’em-up, as Travis mows his way through literally thousands of placeholder “bugs,” who show up looking like the glitchier, less threatening cousins of the Heaven Smiles from Killer 7. Even on the rare occasions when it mixes things up—as in the aforementioned racing game, which features a basic but surprisingly fun riff on drag racing—the game feels perversely driven to make you work for your joy, gating each mandatory car upgrade behind a randomized dungeon built out of obvious placeholder assets.
To demonstrate just how much of a disappointment this all is, let’s break down the total variety there is to be found in Travis Strikes Again’s basic bug-fighting action, i.e., the stuff you’ll be doing for roughly 90 percent of your time with the game. Walk into a room, invisible walls go up, bugs warp in. Some bugs go down in a single hit. Some bugs take longer to kill. Some fire projectiles. Some have shields! They all look almost exactly the same, they all infest every level—despite the ostensible differences in setting—and they’re all so goddamn boring that you’ll find yourself longing for the next cutscene or snippet of winking, faux-philosophical dialogue to come break up the sameness as soon as it possibly can.
Travis and Bad Man, your protagonists, aren’t much better. Viewed from a squint-inducing top-down perspective, each man has a heavy attack, a light attack, a dodge roll, and a special room-clearing move that builds up slowly as they fight. Use their weapon too much, and you’ll have to find a gap in the chaos to recharge it; luckily, the game occasionally offers up new skills, cooldown-based abilities that help get the hordes off your back. Kill enough baddies and you can level up, which means you hit harder and have a little more health, and there’s a rudimentary scoring system loosely based around not taking damage yourself. There’s co-op. And that’s it. Even the bosses, which are pitched as the protagonists of the various games Travis dives into, offer nothing new. They just knock you down more often, extending the fight and transforming tedium into frustration, the two modes the game mostly operates in. At least Suda and his team managed to put the series’ traditional leering sexism aside for their first venture onto the Switch, although there are presumably no promises when the actual No More Heroes 3 arrives at some as-yet-unannounced future date.
Weirdly, Travis Strikes Again is at its best in those moments where players have the least control. Between levels, you can dick around in Travis’ trailer, buying T-shirts based on indie darlings like Undertale and Papers, Please, and browsing various backstory-filling faxes and über-detailed ramen reviews. The best bits come in an interstitial visual novel that shows how Travis gets the Death Balls themselves; funny, self-aware, and styled with gorgeous retro-pixelated graphics, it’s the one part of the game that feels like the product of someone authentically giving a shit, an expression of the anarchic spirit that made Grasshopper’s early games feel like a refreshing breath of post-modern air in a frequently too-serious medium. They’ll play great in the games’ inevitable Let’s Play and Twitch streams, which is good, because then you have one fewer reason to subject yourself to playing Travis Strikes Again itself.