So: the Fringe this year was good – blindingly good, in fact – and, coupled with an appropriate Festival, ensured that I got zero gaming done (apart from the odd brain-awakening game of Sudoku on the iPhone) for over four weeks. And, unlike last year, I didn’t miss gaming at all – mainly because I was too busy either filling my mind with arty stuff (120 shows all up), or my gullet with alcohol (equal parts Asahi and house reds), or talking to many culturally far-flung people, or all of the above. It was easily one of the greatest months of my life…
…which could explain why, when I returned to my Other Hobby after a month, I was so utterly disappointed by what I found before me.
I’d received my NTSC copy of No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle from Play-Asia mere days into my self-imposed gaming exile and, while tempted, I managed to leave it in the shrink-wrap until last Tuesday. Somewhat rested and dragging my sleep patterns back into off-season normalcy, I fired up the Wii and began Travis Touchdown’s second outing.
And, from the opening sequence, there’s something that rubs me the wrong way about NMH2. Maybe it’s the more detailed textures on the character models that ruin the semi-cel-shading; maybe it’s the immersion-breakers. Hey, the original game revelled in the knowledge that it was a game, but the sequel flaunts it like a drunken D-cup bridesmaid on a hen’s night, with fourth-wall-breaking references a-plenty in the opening hours.
Whilst I can understand the majority of complaints about the clunky overworld in the original game, its absence in the sequel makes the whole experience feel empty and disconnected. There used to be a real sense of purpose – no matter how monotonous – about having to ride to the High School to take on Shinobu, or to the baseball stadium to meet Bad Girl; now, their counterparts are just a menu item, something trivial on a list to cross off once beaten. There’s also no character to any of the new bosses; they’re essentially anonymous until you get the garish “DEAD” message and discover their name for the first time.
In fact, there’s so much that appears to be changed for no reason – the aforementioned texture tweaks (resulting in a muddy look), the lower camera angles, and the slightly faster – but seemingly less fluid – combat are all steps backwards, in my book. Even the ability to play as both Henry and Shinobu is handled clumsily, with the latter introducing a precision jumping mechanic to a game that really shouldn’t have one. The real-time weapon change is nice, though (but I thought you needed the power of the Playstation 3 for that? ;)
And then there’s the gamebreakers – getting stuck in endless knockdown loops. Changing katanas leaves you immobile and invincible for longer-than-a-moment – but not when that instakill satellite beam is being used. The penultimate boss battle seems to have not been playtested at all, and is plagued by incredibly crap timing; once you’re knocked down, it’s only by the grace of god that you can actually get up again before your health is depleted. And in a late bit of dialogue, the subtitles used “your” instead of “you’re”. Really? Quality control is that lax?
Eventually, after 11 hours (which included a fair bit of whoring, foolishly expecting extra weapons to appear in the lab run by the now-completely-ridiculous Naomi), I finally beat the lacklustre final boss. And, just like much of the action preceding it, the ending is disappointingly perfunctory; there’s no surprise denouement, no sting in the tail, nothing clever.
Now, I accept that I may not have been in the best mental state to play this game; I always suffer a bit of a depression when the constant mind-stretching delight of the Fringe wraps every year, felt more acutely this year on account of the personal connections I made over the period that I’m desperate to not lose. And it’s through this haze of malaise that I viewed NMH2.
Remember that I love the original game; it was my Game of the Year in 2008. And I recognise that I only began to truly love it on about the third playthrough.
And at all times – even on the first playthrough – I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed belting through NMH2.
Where the original was original and witty, astute and brash, and with solid gameplay to match, the sequel seems to rely on the tone alone, rather than the mechanics. In making the NMH2 a more mainstream production – decision described by most reviewers as “fixing all the bad bits of the original” – Grasshopper have callously ignored all the things that made the original great, making change after pointless change, leaving behind an almost completely soulless experience.
Yes, I’ll give it another couple of playthroughs – my OCD demands that much – but I can’t see NMH2 growing on me the same way the original did. Here’s hoping it does… but it has a very, very deep dark pit to climb out of first.