Like most people, I was truly hoping that NeverDead would be the Shadows of the Damned for 2012. It has the same type of look and quirky atmosphere that made Suda 51’s demon-hunting title one of my top ten games of last year. After spending ample time with Konami’s latest, I am disappointed to say that it isn’t quite on the same quality level as the aforementioned title, but it still retains a lot of what made that game stand apart from the crowd. The quirky humor, gruff main protagonist and a story that is just as bizarre as the enemy designs round out a package that, while not as polished as other titles, still makes for an enjoyable ride.
NeverDead tells the story of Bryce Boltzmann, an immortal demon hunter who cares more about his earnings than anything else. He teams up with Arcadia Maximille, who is obviously tossed into the mix for the cleavage quota. She serves to order Bryce around and deliver genuinely grating comments and insults. Over the course of the game, you are treated to cut scenes showcasing Bryce in action hundreds of years ago, as his connection to his wife is detailed. The story stumbles over its own feet more often than not, leaving you to ponder just how everything is supposed to hang together.
The dialogue is poorly written, and attempts to be humorous often fall flat. Characters are hard to like, especially a bubbly pop star you encounter early in the game that serves as rescue fodder far too often. Arcadia also quickly becomes a drag, as you constantly have to protect her from hordes of demons. She charges into battle headfirst without much regard for her own life. Perhaps someone should tell her she is not immortal as well.
As with so many of the action games lately, NeverDead offers up third-person combat with a combination of shooting and hack and slash. Bryce can wield two weapons, one in each hand, as well as a large sword he carries tucked away on his back. The hook here is that Bryce simply cannot die. His head, arms and legs can all be dismembered, but as long as you manage to roll your noggin back into place, you literally cannot die. There is a catch, though. Little creatures rolling around on the ground love to suck up body parts. If your head makes it in there, you have to partake in a sliding-bar mini-game to retrieve it. Fail, and it is game over.
For the most part, this gimmick works, but it seems the developers realized how the challenge for a game without the ability to die would cease to exist. To compensate, they have made some truly questionable design decisions that can make life frustrating. For starters, even the slightest attack can send limbs flying. You will be constantly collecting body parts (rolling over them will re-attach them) or re-growing them using the regeneration meter. There are also pick-ups you can grab when it is just your head that completely refill this bar. Nothing is more frustrating than being mid-combat, constantly ragdolled into oblivion and watching your limbs fly.
Speaking of combat, both varieties take some getting used to thanks to the slippery controls. Bryce moves like he is trying out for the hockey team, sliding around never feeling grounded. With two guns, comes two reticules that each spread the more you fire. Sword combat is interesting, though; you lock on with the left trigger and then swing the right analog stick in different directions depending on the enemy. Think of it as a poor man’s Zelda and you get the idea. The problem here is that nothing ever feels solid. You spend so much time just spraying bullets or wildly swinging your sword. The one part I did like, though, is that almost the entire level is destructible, and debris damage does wonders to enemies. There is nothing more satisfying than knocking down a wall and crushing your foes.
The dismemberment of your limbs is not simply for shock factor, it actually serves a purpose. This is where NeverDead shows its moments of brilliance. You can manually remove your head and limbs to perform environmental puzzles. Tossing your head into an air duct, or throwing your arm (gun still firing), into a crowd of enemies is ultimately satisfying. Bryce can also set himself on fire or charge himself with electric current to solve puzzles. Unfortunately, none of these features really manifest past the initial gimmick stage, outside of a few boss battles, which I have to say, are awesome. One that sticks out features Bryce tossing his arm inside the boss to shoot from the inside out. Now, that was clever.
There is also an upgrade system in place. You collect XP shards throughout the game and earn them from slaying enemies. You can then use your accumulated experience to purchase new abilities such as higher jumping and faster head rolling when you are decapitated. A lot of these upgrades really help, like faster regeneration and of course more damage. You can also improve the spread of your reticules, which I highly recommend early on. It makes the shooting much more tolerable later in the game.
Now, I will be honest, a lot of these issues really drag down an otherwise quirky and fun ride. I found myself frustrated at so many of the poor design choices that I almost couldn’t enjoy the game. What saved me was one simple flip of a switch, knocking the game down to easy. This gives you faster regeneration and more damage, making most of the game play issues less hair pulling. Sure, this is not ideal, and the designers should have made better decisions, but if you enjoy the quirky ideas, this at least makes them bearable.
Visually, the game jumps back and forth. In some places, like the environments and destruction, the game looks great. In others, it’s just awful. Weird clipping issues and repeating enemy styles really drag down an otherwise bright and unique design. Seeing Bryce’s limbs clip through the world is disengaging, and fighting the same two enemies over and over quickly becomes repetitive. The voice work is simply atrocious most of the time, and the poor writing doesn’t help. Nikki Summerfield is one of the most grating characters in recent memory, and Arcadia’s terrible lines will drive you to the edge of madness. Bryce is somewhat likeable, but even his stale sense of humor falls apart. The music is traditional butt-rock, but the main theme by Megadeth is incredibly awesome.
NeverDead is a unique game that is marred mostly by its poor design choices. Still, I found myself really enjoying the ridiculous premise and limb severing game play. As I said, playing on normal difficulty is entirely doable, it will just take you twice as long because of the drawn out battles. If you want to get your money’s worth, tone it down to easy and just have fun. In the end, isn’t that what games are supposed to be about anyways? NeverDead is definitely not a title I would drop $60 on, but with a hefty price cut I would definitely give it a whirl. The game is unique and so damn weird that you can’t help but smile.
Review copy of the game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.