TGS 07: No More Heroes Impressions

"I am 120% sure you are about to die," she said over the phone. Sweat began to slide down my forehead. It's never a good omen when a game actively taunts you. Even the hired Japanese cheerleader next to me had exchanged her patronizing smile for a look of doubt, and I wasn't about to disagree with her private assessment.

The follow-up to Killer7--designer Goichi Suda and his studio Grasshopper Manufacture's last effort--No More Heroes bears little resemblance to that stylish shooter, outside of its cel-shaded graphics. Even in that regard, No More Heroes is a departure, featuring the palette of a full box of crayons compared to Killer7's stark coloring. This new game is all about being loud and kicking ass, rock and roll style. It's a lot like Clover Studio's PS2 beat-em-up God Hand, but with the beating being administered with the help of a bright blue lightsaber.

Okay, it's not really a lightsaber--just like Death Knights aren't really Ringwraiths, Nuprin isn't Advil, and the Sixaxis has nothing to do with the Wii Remote. Instead of a gift from Obi-wan, No More Heroes protagonist Travis Touchdown actually wins his "beam katana"--a sort of fluorescent light-bulb on a stick--from an online auction. And rather than cherishing his score like a closeted virgin, he breaks it out of the package and immediately goes to town, becoming a hitman for hire in the fictional city of Santa Destroy, California. Players must take out ten competing assassins in the UAA hitman association, on the way to taking the title of baddest bad-guy in town.

The fighting takes place from a free-roaming 3D third-person perspective. Players can run around and lock onto enemies at will, swinging their sword with the "A" button and kicking with the "B" button. Yes, there are no real motion controls in play for the majority of attacks--not even simple flailing mechanics a la Zelda. This is mainly an old-school button masher, albeit with a few important twists.

For instance, holding the remote at different elevations and positions does change the angle of your attacks, and a flick of the nunchuk does initiate a sweeping sword swing. Most notably, after having built up a combo meter with your various swings, the game pauses, displaying a large arrow pointing in one of four directions. A simple twitch of the Wii Remote in the corresponding direction triggers an elaborate finishing move. Sometimes these arrows will be doubled up, requiring you to use both the nunchuk and the Wii Remote in a combined gesture, resulting in a suplex or other throw-based slam. These combo-gestures are satisfying at first, but they do throw a wrench in the flow of the gameplay, and could become repetitive after a while. They may add more of a punch if they become harder to pull off at higher difficulties.

While this isn't the one-to-one lightsaber game that Wii players have been clamoring for, it does feature a few moves inherent to the Star Wars saga. For one, gunshots and other long-range attacks are automatically blocked by the beam katana. Travis can also battle other beam-wielding enemies, occasionally locking swords and requiring a few rapid button presses to break the stalemate. In an interesting effect--which is actually more at home in a movie like Akira--the beam katanas are rendered only every few frames, unevenly streaking across the screen like a monitor with a bad refresh rate.

Suda has said in the past that his main influence for No More Heroes is El Topo, the cult classic Spanish film by director Alejandro Jodorowsky. However, it appears that in the time since Suda stated his intentions to match El Topo's level of surrealistic violence--perhaps somewhere in the middle of Manhunt 2's recent censorship debacle--he had a change of heart. When enemies were killed in this demonstration of No More Heroes, they simply dissolved into coins. It was a startling concession after witnessing the uncompromising brutality of Ninja Gaiden 2.

As it turns out, apparently the game will only be censored in this way for the Japanese markets. For the US release, the title will be oozing with blood as promised.

Still, even lacking the gore, No More Heroes offered up enough thugs and varied mechanics to keep my attention. On my way to a boss fight, I encountered an interesting sequence where Travis spoke on a cell phone. Much like a multiplayer mode in Ubisoft's Red Steel, the Wii Remote speaker is used for the incoming voice, turning the remote into the on-screen phone. This is the point that I was threatened with death--and stepping into the abandoned warehouse in front of me, I soon knew why.

Inside was some sort of supervillain boss, complete with dark cape and laser-shooting eyeballs. Defeating the villain--who had a penchant for yelling goofy dialogue, such as the destined-to-be-lampooned "Destroooyyy Beeeaaammm!"--was a matter of determining his patterns, with a lot of running in circles to dodge his special attacks. After quickly defeating the enemy, my handler seemed genuinely surprised. Whether this was a compliment or a sarcastic slam, I will never know.

The full version of No More Heroes will reportedly feature an open-world design, allowing players to travel to and fro from zone to zone on a motorcycle. And even though the combat in No More Heroes isn't revolutionary, at the end of the day, when I finally grabbed that annoying bastard of a boss and broke his back with a suplex, I can't say I didn't enjoy it. If you like action games with a distinct sense of style, Suda's latest is one to watch.

No More Heroes hits US stores next February on the Wii.