Suda51’s eccentric charm is here, but the repetitive hack and slash gameplay brings it down.
I felt a rush of excitement every time I booted up a new game in the Death Drive Mk II. The fictitious game console essentially acts as the level select in Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes, and I was always curious to see what developer Grasshopper Manufacture had cooked up next. But after watching each of its seven games’ charmingly nonsensical opening cutscenes, the ensuing action rarely surprised and too frequently turned tedious.There are moments where renowned designer Suda51’s brilliant touch is on display, but this cobbled together collection of disjointed parts never quite hits its stride.
In typical Suda51 fashion, Travis Strikes Again has an off the wall story. Taking place years after the events of the first game, Travis has moved to a camper in the woods to spend his days playing the Death Drive Mk II, an elusive and dangerous system with a dark backstory. Travis’ retirement gets interrupted by the father of Bad Girl, one of the assassins Travis killed in the original, before both are absorbed into the Death Drive itself.
Each time you enter the Death Drive, it’s advertised as jumping into an entirely new game. And while their themes have nothing to do with one another and the worlds don’t look alike, the vast gameplay similarities between them make this more of a gimmick than anything else. Instead of being distinct experiences, they wind up feeling like different levels of one incomplete whole.
The frequently zoomed out camera angles make the already dry levels look even more uninteresting.
Like previous No More Heroes games, Travis Strikes Again has a fixed camera angle that changes position depending on the scenario but shifts it to a top-down or side-scrolling perspective, depending on the game you are in. This locked angle feels weird in 2019, but it actually works pretty well. As each level is influenced by early 3D-era games, the environments and characters lack detail. It might look slightly better than No More Heroes 2, but that came out nine years ago. The frequently zoomed out camera angles make the already dry levels look even more uninteresting.
Your health and other UI necessities are relegated to the sides of the screen, which has large bars cropping the play area down into a 4:3 format. My guess is that Grasshopper wanted to mimic the old CRT TV look the Death Drive system would have used. It’s a jarring choice at first, but I got used to it quickly and eventually forgot the bars were even there.
Enter the Game World
The first game world you enter, Electric Thunder Tiger II, is a PS1-style platformer with an over the head camera angle that’s light on platforming elements and heavy on hack and slash action. It started out novel, but it wasn’t long before I learned the loop of each world. You enter a new area, forcefields go up to block your path, and literal video game bugs that look like strange variations of regular bugs spawn from beneath the ground in waves. This happens a lot. In every level. Over and over again.
Travis’ trusty Beam Katana has light, heavy, and charge attacks, but combat is mostly mindless hack and slash action, as the AI is neither smart nor particularly imposing. Raising the difficulty level makes the bugs harder to takedown, but it doesn’t make them any more intelligent. The Beam Katana has lost some of its luster in its move from the Wii to Switch. Where the Wiimote (and Move controller in the PS3 port) allowed for location-based attacks with motion controls, the button controls make combat less interesting and more formulaic. Recharging the Beam Katana is still done via motion controls by shaking the Joy-Con, Pro controller, or the console itself if playing in handheld mode. Thankfully, this requires only a very light shake due to the Joy-Con’s sensitive rumble feature. You can dodge roll when you need to get to safety or avoid enemy attacks, but I rarely felt the need to other than to recharge my weapon.
combat is mostly mindless hack and slash action, as the AI is neither smart nor particularly imposing.
Outside of hacking and slashing, skill chips are scattered throughout each game, with 24 in total, that can be assigned to the four face buttons. These spice up the gameplay, adding timed bombs, electric bursts, and a sweet ability that lets you fling a poor bug into other enemies like a bowling ball. My favorite was the V2 chip, which turns Travis into a spinning force of destruction, allowing you to chop through large groups of bugs in rapid succession. You also gain experience throughout, which can be manually used to increase Travis’ (or Bad Man’s) level to boost his health and attack. I often forgot to apply the experience points regularly, though it never made much of a difference.
Even with the different skills, the combat gets stale fairly quickly. I must have slaughtered thousands of generic bug-things in the 11 hours it took me to beat Travis Strikes Again. And the drab environments –from unimaginative buildings to simplistic woodlands to winding paths that don’t look like anything but walls and plain floors – fail to make familiar encounters feel fresh again. Even when the perspective changes to a sidescroller, like in Coffee and Doughnuts (a game about collecting coffee and doughnuts), the core concept remains the same.
Some of the games you play in the Death Drive Mk II feature different mechanics, but they are more window dressing than anything else. In Life is Destroy, you play from a top-down perspective in a suburban neighborhood. Hitting markers with your Beam Katana turns segments of the street in order to let you reach your destination. That puzzle mechanic is neat, and as the second game in the bunch I thought it might lead to more diversity of mechanics. But the brunt of your time in Life is Destroy is spent clearing out houses from the same bug enemies you saw in Electric Thunder Tiger II.
Longtime Suda51 fans will especially be excited to see that one of the game worlds, which connects to a previous game and has more interesting features and a better story arc than the others.
I felt similar tinges of disappointment when playing Golden Dragon GP and Killer Marathon. The former has several arcade drag racing sequences with rudimentary visuals that are actually pretty fun. But to carry onto the next race, you have to hack your way through a boring series of labyrinth floors. Killer Marathon, meanwhile, lasts less than ten minutes as a vector graphics space shooter (like Asteroids) and ends up feeling like a throwaway idea.
Boss fights are equally underwhelming. Each of the games has a mid-boss and a final boss. The mid-boss is always a large creature called the Sheepman, just a different color, and the final bosses often just feel like giant versions of regular enemies due to their propensity to be dumb. Since all of these games were created by the same fictitious designer, the similarities between them aren’t too surprising. But once you’ve slashed your way through one of the seven game worlds — which last 1-2 hours each, with the exception of Killer Marathon — you’ve basically played them all.
Without spoiling anything, longtime Suda51 fans will be excited to see that one of the worlds connects to a previous Grasshopper Manufacture title. It still follows the same formula as the other Death Drive titles, but it does have more interesting features and a better story arc than the others.
All of the games can either be played solo or in local co-op with a friend controlling Bad Man. You can also switch freely between each character at any time, though each has the same basic moves and abilities (save for a few character-specific skills). Co-op is a welcome addition, even if it doesn’t make the fights any less repetitive.
When the Action Dies Down
In between each Death Drive game, Travis has to hop on his motorcycle at camp to go find the next one. In a welcome change of pace, these sequences play out as chapters of a visual novel also called Travis Strikes Back. Using classic green visuals and text against a black background like old school PC adventure games, these brief, five to ten minute breaks from the action hold most of Suda51’s brand of humor and storytelling. I enjoyed the self-deprecating writing, even if it’s a bit disappointing that these sequences lack voice acting outside of a few specific cutscenes, instead confining dialogue to text boxes with annoying gibberish sounds.
As a fan of Suda51’s self-referential and fourth wall breaking writing, the visual novel has the goods. In one exchange, there’s a discussion about how no one who bought an action game would be happy with the visual novel. Well, I’m happy this was included because it’s the best source of quirky, Suda51 style writing in the whole package. In one chapter narrated by Travis, he comes across a horse while searching for Dracula and names it Epona, of course.
At camp, you can also purchase new t-shirts to wear inside the games. Grasshopper Manufacture partnered with a bunch of studios to include apparel with logos from great indies such as Dead Cells, Hyper Light Drifter, Golf Story, and Hollow Knight. While this could’ve been a cool cosmetic feature, it’s really hard to actually see the shirts while playing due to the camera frequently being so far away. Travis’ and Bad Man’s jackets further obscure the designs.