After a Switch-exclusive release earlier this year, cult assassin Travis Touchdown lands in style on PS4 and PC to take out the bad guys in Travis Strikes Again. Suda 51’s lysergic spinoff to No More Heroes beams you out of Touchdown’s old haunt Santa Destroy into the Death Drive MK II, a phantom console loaded with nightmare versions of games from his childhood.
With graphics that shift from the low-budget suburbs of “Life is Destroy” to Tron-inspired colour vectors and trashy TV adverts, Travis Strikes Again is a lo-fi odyssey of subculture tributes and video feedback. But for all its hyperactive changes of style, this is a simple action game that repeats the same hack and slash sequences in every scenario. Can we still find substance in its subversive style and does is leave a trace in our consciousness as so many of Suda’s previous games have?
“Electric Thunder Tiger II”, the first of the Death Drive’s six worlds, provides an introduction to the fighting and many of the game’s recurring images, from Touchdown’s naked arrival to the first time you save on the toilet. Nemesis Badman inexplicably joins you for the ride, as you team up in an attempt to resurrect his daughter by beating the games.
Flat textures permeate the simulated environment, and already there’s a creeping sense that something’s not quite right. The shimmering trail of coins you feel compelled to collect is unsettling, and the maze-like corridors seem designed to intentionally frustrate. The Bugstreet Boys are your main enemies. Having infected the Death Drive’s old-school arcade games, these distorted entities swarm around you with baseball bats and exploding brains. Tangible memories of Robotron arise, as an endless stream of bugs gravitate towards you from the mouth of a huge skull. Travis might be spurting out expletives while you’re having a laugh at the toilet humour, but there’s always a sense of dread lurking somewhere in the game’s design.
Senseless numbers of collectables are hidden at dead ends – Azteca coins, Unreal Engine coins, skill chips , fruit – relics from the age of DK 64. . Ramen stalls manned by a dead chef provide nourishment and their descriptions make you feel as if you’ve eaten a meal. Travis Strikes Again’s satire of super fandom through the otaku’s craving for Japanese culture and senseless need to kill has you at once conspiring with Travis and reflecting on your actions.
In an era of achievements, the game also presents somewhat of a completionist’s nightmare, with a fixed camera and branching paths that give little indication of what’s ahead. This is emphasised by the crushed-in 4:3 aspect ratio. Searching the hotel for gearbox pieces in “Golden Dragon GP” takes this concept to extremes, and elsewhere huge patches of your peripheral vision are obscured in gaming’s first simulation of an ocular migraine. Why do you feel the need to collect these coins and meaningless artefacts, just so you can trade them in for a Hyper Light Drifter T-shirt?
Through all these pointless endeavours and plastic trinkets, Travis Strikes Again cannibalises its joke time and time again, and there’s only so long you can smile before it starts to hurt. One stage has you running through a mansion in search of coffee and doughnuts to revive its boss. Each door leads to a desert or jungle that can only be traversed on floating doughnuts. The joke’s kind of funny, until you finally give the spectre what he needs, and you realise that you’ll have to search for yet another serving of coffee and doughnuts. It dawns on you that these roadblocks will come to manifest themselves time and time again in the game’s make up. “Thank you, Travis. But our princess is in another castle.” It may become frustrating in a way, but this emanates from the game’s unique vision and plays an important role in how Travis Strikes Again makes you feel.
While the gimmicks change, and the sense of dread increases, the hack and slash combat remains largely the same. Using his trusty beam katana, Travis has a light attack that slices through waves of weaker enemies, and a heavy attack requiring more careful timing. Rolling allows you to get out of the way of trouble, and after building up your meter you can release a powerful charge combo with a couple of button presses and a wiggle of the controller. Controls are as smooth as your slick hairstyle and do justice to the blistering speed of play. Likewise, there’s a weight to the combat that provides gratifying feedback, as you flick away lower minions on impact and cut into stronger enemies.
A battery on the top left of the screen indicates when the katana is running out of juice, which can again be refilled by finding a safe zone (if there is such a place) and giving the controller another shake. While there’s no denying these tactile actions are daft ways to interact with the game, they do provide a surge of adrenaline, and this delivers a welcome reminder that the gameplay of the series has been shaped in part by the Wiimote’s design.
Travis can further expand his repertoire of attacks by collecting the skill chips, both hidden in the environments and gifted after boss fights. Providing flexibility, strategy and variety in combat, these abilities are indispensable particularly against the game’s bosses who are looking for a brave way to die.
Before booting up each of the arcade or indie-inspired game, Travis must hunt down each of the six death balls. These story segments play out as spectral visual adventures taken straight out of the DOS era, filled with all the satire and self-referential humour you’ve come to expect by this point. Paranoid conversations about the game’s metascore, existential philosophy and crude punch-ups fill out these dreamy flashbacks to Suda’s earlier explorations of interactive storytelling in The Silver Case and The 25th Ward.
This complete edition on PS4 and PC collects the original game and two packs of DLC – Black Dandelion and Bubblegum Fatale. These add additional story, levels and characters to play in the post-game. Local co-op also returns from the Switch version, allowing you to team up with Badman or any combination of the unlockable characters.
With repetitive combat, intentionally frustrating design and a phantasmagoric series of styles and images, Travis Strikes Again eventually gives you the dead eyes you’d inherit after hours of channel surfing. But it’s precisely through this glassy stare that you experience what the game has to offer and reflect on the meaningless actions you often perform in video games. It can be a bit much at times, but that’s kind of the point. It helps that the core combat system is incredibly fun, but what you’ll take away from Travis Strikes Again is much deeper than this or any of its other individual elements.
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