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No More Heroes III: Aetherial Review

No More Heroes III makes the argument for understanding games as patchwork, mixed-medium affairs. From top to tail, No More Heroes III builds on its predecessors whilst shedding some of the unnecessary chaff and framing it in a slightly new context. If No More Heroes III were isolated down to any of its individual components, it would probably fail miserably. Taking the game as a whole, however, it can be difficult to not be persuaded by its charms, even if it does often miss its chance to hit the bar set by other modern action games. No More Heroes III routinely proves that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts and does so by flippantly shoving aside the expectations of modern video games. In the nicest possible way, No More Heroes III feels like a medium-budget PS2 game. Your expectations for the title and your experience with the series will probably play a large factor in how much you’re going to be able to stomach some of the game’s weaker components. My experience of the game was one that, whilst enjoyable, also made me think about video games as an artistic medium as a whole, and how they rely on several distinct components enhancing each other. By contrast No More Heroes III is also a game that rebelliously pushes what it believes to be the most important aspects of its game to the forefront whilst completely ignoring some ephemeral elements and modern game design traditions. What results is an experience that some might consider uneven, but if you’re willing to embrace its rough edges both literally and figuratively, there’s a surprising, rewarding experience tucked away within.

The most noticeably disappointing thing about No More Heroes III is that a few minor tweaks might have made it immediately more palatable. The game is led by a strong aesthetic underpinning, continuing the series legacy of strong character designs, quirky transitions and minimalist pixel heads up displays. It’s shocking, then, that the game’s environments have suffered so much by comparison. Details pop-in as you traverse the overworld, and most of the textures are ugly or lacking detail. This is something that stands out because the game is otherwise artistically pretty sound - many of the 2D elements and character models look superb, and the additional work that has gone into making the game’s many transitions, openings, endings, credits and mixed-media cutscenes. It’s a shame then that the environments are particularly a let down from both a design and implementation perspective.

It’s undeniably technically flawed in these areas, and perhaps lazy in some others. The NPCs that wander around the overworld are all noticeably recolours of each-other, with dull, polygonal models that do nothing when you bump into them. The cars in this game look incredibly silly. They also disappear when you bump into them. You’ll probably do a lot of bumping into things because the bike handles worse than the bike in the first game, somehow, and the framerate is constantly taking a dive in the open world sections. When taken together, this often results in the game feeling generally a bit obtuse in its open world sections.

However, No More Heroes III demonstrates pretty quickly that it doesn’t care for your expectations in this area, or indeed any area, for that matter. The first few hours of this game are amongst the ‘wildest’ I’ve experienced in any video game, and the style that leaks from the very pores of No More Heroes III is often enough to cover up it's uglier spots. If you’ve ever had an affection for Travis Touchdown in the previous No More Heroes games, this one is likely to endear you with its charms. Travis is older, more geared up and maybe just a little bit wiser, but he’s still the same 4th-wall breaking ‘gamer’ loser that you’ve come to know and love. If you’re interested in seeing the end of his story, then this isn’t exactly that, but it is almost that. No More Heroes III pays tribute to almost every Suda51 game that has come before it, including some of the more obscure ones. To this end the game feels like a grand celebration of what Suda51 does well.

There are a lot of welcome surprises in No More Heroes III, and this is what helped me to keep going with it. Although the joke of certain promised fights never coming to fruition started getting a bit old by the end, I was at least always interested in which random character might pop up next to spice things up, or which different game genre might be secretly spliced in at the last minute. As well as character and gameplay surprises, I would be remiss to not mention the sheer quantity of pop cultural references, as this forms another pillar of the game’s torrent of surprising material. Suda51 is clearly an enjoyer of the Rocky franchise, Takeshi Miike’s filmography and the genre of tokusatsu amongst other things. What’s nice about No More Heroes III’s approach to referential material is that there is a sincerity to it all. Suda51 unapologetically donates a not insignificant amount of screen time to paying off sequential strings of references to these things, a few of which made me laugh out loud.

The ephemera of No More Heroes III is also somewhat engaging. When I say ephemera, I mean basically everything that isn’t the ‘designated matches’ or the marquee boss fights. I found myself particularly fond of the trash collection mini-game, and even more fond of interacting with Jeanne, Travis’ rotund cat who you can pat and play fetch with. Beyond those things, there’s a fully-featured retro game in the form of ‘Deathman’ ( a colourful side scrolling beat em’ up that plays into the story) and a lot of collectables in the form of trading cards, capsule toys and graphic T Shirts. I made a sort of comfy ritual of changing Travis’ shirt at the start and end of each chapter.

It’s all this and more that makes No More Heroes III such a memorable experience. What other video games in 2021 have anime openings and endings for each major chapter? What other games are putting first-person horror sections in their 3rd person action games? The opportunities are there - perhaps now more than ever - for video games to ‘dare to be stupid’, and No More Heroes III might be one of the few brave enough to not just get stupid, but to get downright belligerent. No More Heroes III kicks conventional modern game design to the floor, and suplexes it once more for good measure.

In doing so, it also manages to go back to its roots. This game feels very close to the first game in terms of structure. It moves away quietly from the streamlining measures of No More Heroes 2 and falls more in line with the game’s standard practice of grinding to reach the next boss fight. I generally prefer this to the second game’s approach, but I also didn’t feel the ‘grind’ of it as much as I did with the first game, as selling items made for quick cash and all of the designated matches and job minigames are short and snappy.

The strongest part of the package is the game’s combat system. Using the beam katana to dish out rapid strikes and activating dodge rolls at the very last second isn’t exactly up to the standard of character action, but it is a strong offering regardless. The natural pace of fights can sometimes slow to a crawl when you’re sent to the ground, but when you get into a flow state with it, it’s pretty fantastic. Hits have a satisfying weight to them, and the new abilities Travis has access to add a much needed dynamism to the whole affair.

The second strongest part is the aesthetic flair in the elements that aren’t the game’s 3D models or environments. The UI design is awesome, and I genuinely believe that the minimalist method by which the game displays the various healing and buffing sushi items is a masterclass in displaying information without cluttering a screen.

There is a lot to criticise about No More Heroes III, but the elements that are worth criticising aren’t where the game chooses to place its focus. You could probably talk for at least several minutes about the ways in which this game looks and performs bad for a 2021 video game, but you’d be absolutely wasting your time. Travis Touchdown doesn’t care. His talking cat Jeanne doesn’t care. You probably shouldn’t care either.

With all that being said, if you do care, there isn’t necessarily a defence for it. But for the people who don’t mind ignoring this game’s more dated components, there’s a tremendous amount to enjoy within it. It’s a game that surprises like no other has this year and one that ultimately left me with a lot of questions. I mean that in a good way, because I like thinking about games after I’m done with them. I have a feeling I’m going to be thinking about No More Heroes III for a long, long time, at least.

No More Heroes III gets a Skeletal Rating of a Broken Fibula - It’s essential, even if it does show the signs of /rocking a bit too hard/. If you can engage with No More Heroes III on it’s own punk rock terms, you’re bound to have a good time.


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