Being immortal isn't as amazing as you might think. After spending five hundred years on this mortal coil, cursed demon hunter Bryce Boltzmann has become a cynical gun for hire; earning his crust by ridding the world of demons with his stocking-clad boss Arcadia and drowning his sorrows in cheap booze every night. Shinta Nojiri's non-Metal Gear directorial debut certainly has an exciting premise and a lead character who literally falls to pieces at a moment's notice, but does anyone really want to live forever?
At its core, NeverDead is a third person arena brawler that shares overt similarities (read: copies shamelessly from) the likes of Devil May Cry. Bryce and Arcadia are continually locked into tight arenas with a handful of vicious foes and some spawners - complete with plenty of bright red crystals to pick up and spend on a selection of limited upgrades. The dual-wielding gunplay mechanics are solid and slick, and compensates for its middling destructive power with the ability to topple mountains of debris onto enemies and sport different weapons in each hand. Your adversaries are essentially brainless damage sponges, but the tight controls and destructible scenery get the job done.
Many of the enemies are immune to gunfire, though, which is where Bryce's Butterfly blade comes in. In an interesting twist, melee attacks are mapped to the right analogue stick instead of traditional face buttons, and you'll need to hold down the left trigger in order to lock on to targets. After mastering the learning curve, this system surprisingly lends a satisfying dimension of control and directionality to the combat - some bladed enemies need to be slashed laterally whereas others can be softened up with quick vertical strikes. A ubiquitous dodge roll, directional blocks, jumps and optional slow motion rounds out the familiar package; all of which can be upgraded by locating pickups and collectibles for extra XP.
This system would have worked brilliantly if NeverDead focused on one-on-one engagements with humanoid adversaries who could be parried and blocked, but the action prefers to swamp you with hordes of simultaneous smaller foes. Constantly depressing the left trigger can lead to serious carpal tunnel pain, and the lock-on system doesn't let you engage multiple enemies with ease. Worse, you'll need to clunkily swap between using either the guns or the sword mid-battle, which stops the combat from ever feeling as organic and fluid as it should. Bayonetta this ain't.
Sadly, uninspired level design and a complete lack of variety drags NeverDead down into the deepest recesses of mediocrity. The reliance on spawners and cramped arenas quickly becomes tiresome, compounded by the fact that you can count the number of regular enemies on two hands with fingers to spare. Copy-pasted waves to near-identical encounters throughout the campaign, occasionally punctuated by some poorly designed boss battles that temper obvious weak points and repetitious attack patterns with an inordinate number of hit points. It's also worth noting that the bland colour palette is rarely interesting enough to match the raucous rock music - and a pitch black sewer level ranks amongst one of the worst-designed stages in recent memory.
It's high time we tackled NeverDead's unique selling point: Bryce's eternal yet fragile body. At any time, you can remove your head and use it to negotiate narrow passages, dismember yourself to create independently-aiming turrets or even deploy organic mines if you choose the right upgrades. Enemy attacks frequently sever body parts, which need to be rolled over to reattach. It's a great idea in theory, but in practice, it just isn't any fun at all. Even while blocking, most enemies will slice off an arm or leg and render you completely powerless, which in turn means that you'll spend most of your time crawling/hopping/rolling around to try and make yourself whole again rather than concentrating on the enemy onslaught. Throwing an arm away is completely pointless in real terms since it's far more useful to have both - just in case the other gets lopped off and leaves you unable to attack.
Seriously, most of the battles would take half as long to complete if Bryce just had a health bar like everyone else. He loses limbs when subjected to anything stronger than a light breeze and being forced to spend hours grubbing around on the floor (or waiting for a respawn timer to spin up) is no fun whatsoever. This should have been caught in the brainstorming stage!
The dismemberment mechanics never fulfil their potential. Some painfully contrived puzzles and a couple of optional collectibles are the only reason to voluntarily mutilate yourself - along with a boss who makes you throw your arm into its mouth and attack it from the inside. I wish this was a spoiler, but no, the game explicitly tells you to do it as an excuse to include the mechanics in the first place. Plus, it's always galling to be forced through a hazardous narrow pipe only to discover that Arcadia has just taken the stairs in the same amount of time. The last game to seperate its characters in such a pointless and transparent manner was, erm, Amy.
Seeing as the protagonst is immortal, we assumed that NeverDead's sense of risk would be provided by having to constantly nursemaid Arcadia like a glorified escort mission. Pleasingly, generous revival timers and her own impressive skills mean that this simply doesn't happen too often. Instead, NeverDead's only real challenge is offered by infinitely-respawning hordes of Grandbabies: tiny harmless demons that hoover up and digest discarded body parts. If they manage to eat your head, you'll be presented with a tricky QTE followed by momentary salvation or instant death. It's another idea that works well on paper but doesn't translate into fun gameplay, since you'll never be willing to throw your arms away for fear of them being instantly pilfered and scoffed - and spend far too long beholding demonic colons in the repetitive quicktime sequence. NeverDead would have been much easier without the Grandbabies, but we would also have been able to enjoy messing with the unique mechanics rather than slowly rolling away from little silvery footballs.
Bizarrely, I wish that there were more ways to die.
The competitive-cooperative multiplayer suite and bevy of persistent upgrades (carried through both singleplayer and online shenanigans) adds a fair bit of replay value to the proceedings, but they're both limited by design. Multiplayer missions suffer from the same repetitive drudge as the solo campaign, and playing as Bryce is a massive disadvantage compared to Arcadia's unique skill: keeping her limbs attached to her body. You'll spend many hours laughing at hapless fellow players - as there's oddly no way that you can help pull themselves together. The upgrades also carry little weight as you can upsettingly only equip a tiny number of them at once. There's no sense of progression.
Real personality and verve would have ultimately saved NeverDead from the jaws of mediocrity, but it never quite comes together despite no lack of trying. You've got the wisecracking badass who secretly has a heart of gold. Here's a feisty female foil who treats the protagonist with disdain but obviously has a soft spot for him. They're classic tropes to be sure, but the two characters share no real chemistry and the weak scripting leads to a complete dearth of any genuine humour or soul. To add insult to injury, Bryce's one-liners are doled out far too often and repeated far too frequently, to the point where you'll sometimes hear the same painfully unfunny quip six or seven times in the same encounter. NeverDead undeniably goes through the motions - over-designed enemies, quirky dialogue and overtly sexualised imagery abounds - but it's a purely functional facsimile of games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta with no personality of its own.
Every once in a while, you'll be treated to a cutscene from Bryce's past... and every time you'll wish you were playing that game instead. These scenes show off Nojiri's raw imagination and artistic flair much better than NeverDead's clichéd setting ever could. It's a damning indictement for what could have been one of 2012's most exciting left-field sleeper hits.
- Solid ranged combat
- Surprisingly enjoyable if flawed swordplay
- Some great ideas, enjoyable in parts
- Dismemberment and decapitation isn't actually any fun
- Contrived puzzles and boss fights
- Lacks variety and personality
The Short Version: NeverDead works better in brainstorming than it does on consoles. Imaginative yet flawed concepts fall prey to repetition and drudge at every opportunity, resulting in an experience that's worth much less than the sum of its (body) parts. Solid and functional, but not the revelation we were hoping for.