Superheroes from space descend on Santa Destroy in No More Heroes III, the long-awaited sequel to the action game series from Grasshopper Manufacture and its founder, Goichi "Suda51" Suda. Again, the game puts the players in control of Travis Touchdown, the otaku assassin who twice climbed to the top of the United Assassins Association rankings. He's stepping onto a bigger stage in No More Heroes III, fighting to claim the top spot in the Intergalactic Superhero Rankings against a league of deadly alien warriors. Led by Lord FU, these so-called superheroes have allied with the CEO of a massive company specializing in gentrification using alien technology that's recently taken an interest in opening a Santa Destroy-based theme park.
Fans expecting to see Suda51 apply his satirical stylings to the modern superhero craze won't be disappointed as that vision is also filtered through his affection for sentai henshin heroes, incorporated transformation, and mech-sized space battles. The story plays out as a weekly TV show being binged on a faux Netflix streaming service, complete with opening and end credits and next episode countdown bumper. However, No More Heroes III is too introspective and personal to be labeled a simple genre sendup.
Death looms over No More Heroes III from the start in some obvious ways and others that are more subtle. In No More Heroes, Travis was a caricature and stand-in for gamers in general, but the character was evolving even by No More Heroes 2. By 2019's Travis Strikes Again spinoff, Travis had become more of a representation of Suda himself, now in his fifties. Travis is on the cusp of his 40s and wears the weight of that age on him throughout the game. "Kill the past" is an excellent mantra for a young punk looking to make their mark, but it has to ring differently when, by simple math and averages, you likely have more history behind you than future in front of you. That's something with which No More Heroes III attempts to reckon.
As players catch up with Travis, they find he's returned to the same hotel room he occupied in the first two No More Heroes games. He's expanded -- his home now includes the room below it and the subbasement below that -- but it's noticeably empty as Travis lives estranged from Sylvia and their children to keep his family protected. When players control Travis for the first time, he's looking disheveled in a T-shirt and boxer shorts, unshaven, and with his hair a flat mess. Though he gets back into form quickly, his appearance at the start is noticeably closer to what an actual person who, as Travis claims, plays 10 hours of video games a day might look like and a far cry from the cocksure killer of his first appearance.
No More Heroes III sheds much of its predecessors' weathered, grindhouse punk vibe in favor of something more digital-chic. Grasshopper uses the Unreal Engine to produce saturated lighting, allowing the wild energy of Travis's katana swings to linger in the air (while sometimes throwing an awkward, plastic-like gloss on the characters). Combined with the aliens' rainbow-colored blood, it creates a visual blend of neon psychedelia. The soundtrack has more heavy beats and electronic elements than guitars riffs, and the UI and victory screens use pixellated fonts and symbols. It's different, sure, but still feels perfectly in line with No More Heroes' established tone as the giant post-fight "KILL" screen gets in players' faces about their fondness for wanton violence.
As much as the game is about stylishly killing aliens with a knockoff lightsaber, No More Heroes III is also about Travis wrestling with his age, how much he's changed over the years, and realizing how much he has to live for and fight to protect. When Lord FU threatens Santa Destroy, Travis quickly steps up and defends his city, an ironic turn for the "No More Hero" that doesn't go unremarked. Early on in the story, Travis practically looks into the camera and tells players that the ones claiming to be heroes usually aren't. As Travis continues to work his way through the rankings, this idea plays out in how he's contrasted against FU, who gets a surprising amount of attention for a No More Heroes villain. The game presents FU as a spoiled, rich bro with no sense of loyalty or responsibility. He claims that the other top-ranked superheroes are his friends but continues to send them to their deaths with barely any sense of remorse. At the same time, Travis, almost despite himself, assembles a ragtag group of allies that stands in opposition to the unholy alliance of faux superheroes and corporate power.
The superhero influence is most apparent in Travis' new abilities. He wields the glove-like controller of the Death Drive Mk. II, the phantom game console introduced in Travis Strikes Again, like an Infinity Gauntlet. The four abilities unlocked by inserting four different chips into the controller each grant Travis power over time or space and even the one thing Thanos didn't have: a killer dropkick.
That Travis here faces aliens instead of earthly assassins means that Suda and his team are freer to create inventive enemies to throw at players. No longer limited to guns, chainsaws, and beam katanas, these enemies can project forcefields, deploy energy mines, and protrude parasites in combat versus Travis. It's only a shame that the game runs out of new alien types to introduce by the halfway mark, leaving the back half to assemble different numbers and combinations of what players have already faced.
The new abilities and enemies create the most advanced and involved combat of the No More Heroes series. It's still fast-paced, but compared to the nonstop hack-and-slash of previous games, it requires more thought to carefully and effectively use Travis's new capabilities and take tactical advantage of the terrain into account to earn a long enough respite to recharge the beam katana. Playing on the game's medium Bitter difficulty, it is possible to upgrade the Death Drive's skills to the point where players can keep most enemies off-balance indefinitely. However, even in New Game+ mode, the harder Spicy difficulty provides a much stiffer challenge for seasoned series veterans, and an even more difficult mode unlocks after that.
The open world of the first No More Heroes is back, and it's much less (ironically?) empty this time. Exploring the city is how players acquire collectibles and cash for entry fees via side job minigames. It's also how they earn their way into boss fights. Breaking from the previous structure, players don't have to work their way through a level full of katana-fodder before facing their next ranked challenge. Instead, they search out three trial matches on the map that pit Travis against a group of handpicked enemies.
It's almost surprising how much this changes the flow of the game. While the enemies preceding boss fights in previous installments might not have posed the greatest challenge, they did help amp up the adrenaline for the boss fight to follow. You don't get that in No More Heroes III, as each combat instead feels like an individual set piece. Which structure is better will be a matter of taste, but taking the games holistically, the warmup bloodbath of previous installments felt appropriate for their Tarantino-esque subject matter. The "set piece" approach of No More Heroes III feels better suited to the superhero-themed game.
Ultimately, No More Heroes III is an impressive series evolution that doesn't lose touch with its roots. It's the most polished No More Heroes game to date, both in aesthetic and gameplay. While it loses some steam in its back half, without spoiling anything, Suda51 has enough surprises and unexpected twists in store to keep even the most ardent No More Heroes fan on their toes. Perhaps most impressive is the understated internal struggle of its hero. Suda51 and Grasshopper have once again created a layered experience that's enjoyable on the most kinetic and visceral level with plenty of hidden emotional depth, conveyed with an unmatched and unduplicated artistic personality. After a decade-long wait, No More Heroes III delivers on the promises of a superheroic return to Santa Destroy.
Rating: 4 out of 5
No More Heroes III is on sale now for Nintendo Switch. The publisher provided a digital code for this review, and it was reviewed on a base model Nintendo Switch.