I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started playing No More Heroes. I was astonished by Suda 51’s previous game, Killer 7, but I didn’t really expect more of the same: for one thing, my brain isn’t imaginative enough to contemplate what more of Killer 7 would be like, and also the reviews had made it clear that it was a fairly different beast from its predecessor.

And reading more about the game didn’t help. From a mainstream source I get the impression that it’s a brawler mixed with a bad GTA clone; I was fairly sure that the review was missing something important, but just what? Moving on to territory where I feel more comfortable these days, I’m happy to learn that, as a devoted gamer, I’ll enjoy it, but how exactly? All comers agree that it’s over-the-top violent, in a way that’s intended to be funny; I’m not really sure how I feel about that these days.

Eventually, I got around to playing the game. And, at the beginning, I still wasn’t sure what to think. The brawling gameplay was pleasant enough, I guess, but a bit repetitive. I quite liked the floating icons made out of 3-D pixels; the lack of antialiasing in the overworld made my eyes hurt, though.

So I was rather surprised to find myself quite enjoying myself at the end of my next play session in the game; I was even more surprised to think about it a bit and realize that my dominant emotion was simple delight, that the adjective that I would use to describe the game at that point was “charming”. The aforementioned 3-D pixel icons; the lawnmowing task to earn money; the cat in your apartment (and its fondness for pounce toys, belly rubs, and ceiling fans); Travis’s accent (just where is that accent from, anyways?); the dojo master (hmm, maybe “charming” isn’t quite the mot juste there); Blueberry Cheese Brownies; Sylvia (the gameplay mechanic for the calls, her accent, her predictions of your impending doom); the rank up screens (the rank up music, ah the rank up music!); the Easter Island heads. In fact, even the over-the-top violence turned out to register on the charming scale: something about one of the missions where you had to kill 100 people, each of whom saw fit to complain about their spleen rather than, say, the fountain of blood coming out of their neck where their head used to be attached, just made me smile.

And I was even more surprised to find myself rather addicted to the gameplay by the end of my next session, and (as I dug into that feeling a bit more) to realize that I felt it was one of the best paced games I’d played in ages. I’ve played game after game that takes a game mechanic and runs it into the ground: I’ll be happy if I never see a JRPG overworld again, and even very good games can be prone to excessively long levels.

Not so with No More Heroes. The gameplay goes in regular cycles: fighting a sequence of enemies to reach the boss; fighting a boss; exploring what new there is to do in town; doing a non-combat job; doing the newly opened combat jobs; repeating a previous job or two if you don’t have enough money. (Further punctuated by cut scenes involving Sylvia and/or the boss.) That sounds like it might be repetitive, especially done nine and a half times over, but it’s not: each individual part is reasonably pleasant (and frequently surprisingly charming, see above), and (more important) each part only lasts 5-15 minutes, meaning that you have a change of pace before it starts feeling like a grind.

And there were enough variations on that structure as the game progressed to keep it fresh. In your first couple of iterations, you’re just getting to know the game and the city, seeing the new shops that open up. While doing that, I’d happened to run across the Lovikov balls, but didn’t know what they were for; but then you learn, and in fact learn that they affect game play, so I spent a bit more time on my next city break looking for them. And on the city break after that I decided to really hunt for them, and noticed them on my map (I’m a slow learner); if I’m remembering correctly, the balls kept me amused through three bouts through the city, including starting to get frustrated by not being able to tell them apart from money on my map, discovering how to locate the money without stabbing at random into the ground, still not finding the last ball, and then correctly hypothesizing how to find the last one and succeeding at doing so. (And also finding some amount of money and T-shirts from dumpsters: note that the map tells you how to find the visible useful collectible and the invisible (largely) useless collectible, while not telling you how to find the visible useless collectibles, which is the correct gameplay choice.)

And, as that was ending and I was starting to have my fill of the city, the game again reacted accordingly: it changed up other aspects of the missions (e.g. the boss that you didn’t have to fight, the random old arcade game sequence thrown in one of the approaches), and the pre-boss sequences got shorter and shorter. (Especially the last two.) It was similarly sympathetic to pacing in the job fights: while it would occasionally ask you to kill 100 enemies, it would never do so without having those enemies be especially underpowered. And, while I rarely found the main game challenging, I expect it would have been if I’d played at a harder difficulty, and there were the optional single-death missions for those who wanted to hone their craft. I was also expecting the pre-ranking-battle money earning to be a grind, but it wasn’t: I did a fair amount of shopping (buying all the non-clothing items except for the last sword, and some amount of clothing), and I don’t think I ever spent as much as 10 minutes just earning money to advance after having finished all of the new jobs that had opened up.

And then I came to the last two boss fights; at first, I thought that both of them were a drag, and they (combined with the bad ending) were a downer. So: a pity for the game to end on such a note. Now, though, I’m not so sure: while poking around the web doing some reading in hopes of finding enlightenment, I ran across this Cruise Elroy post, and there’s definitely more coming to the surface towards the end of the game (but present throughout) than I’d been paying attention to.

Until I’ve figured that out, though, I’m happy enough to stop with my earlier assesment: No More Heroes is charming and exquisitely paced. And if I were prone to losing faith in this medium, this game would point out in no uncertain terms how wrong that would be.

Some interesting links I ran across while preparing for this (and thanks to Matthew Gallant for his suggestions of reading material); I wish I could have taken more account of them:

Post Revisions: