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PS3 (reviewed), X360
Released: Jan 31 2012
Developer: Rebellion Developments
There are many games out there which, while technically polished and exceedingly functional, fail to grab my attention. Whether it’s a military shooter obsessed with beating the terrorist Russians, a fantasy RPG cluttered with elves, or a thing where you jump on other things and maybe they die, it all gets a little predictable. Luckily, NeverDead is the opposite of that.
Fair warning, I’m about to tell you exactly why this is a terrible game. And why you should go and play it anyway.
Bryce Boltzmann is a demon hunter. He’s been one for a long time. 500 years ago he tried to stop the demon king from rising and destroying the Earth, but he was defeated. As some kind of elaborate prank, and after murdering Bryce’s partner, a demon cursed Bryce with immortality, that he may live forever with his failures. Present day Bryce is working for an agency specialising in demon extermination. He and his fragile human partner Arcadia keep the city safe from random scum, until the inevitable plot to do very bad things comes up.
NeverDead’s central plot device and gameplay mechanic revolve around the same idea: Bryce can never die. If he’s badly wounded in a fight, his limbs simply start coming off.
You can lose your arms, legs and even your torso during a fight, until you’re nothing but a wisecracking head rolling around the room. You can pick up your lost pieces - if you can find them - by rolling over them, or you can wait until a tiny meter in the corner fills up and regenerate all your parts at once. For the most part it works, replacing the concept of health with ever-reduced fighting capability.
As the game goes on you’ll be given more and more creative ways to use your abilities. Early on you discover Bryce can rip off his own head and hurl it in any direction, generally to solve puzzles. Later he can also rip off his arms and do the same, retaining the ability to shoot with the detached arms because of reasons. Puzzles are rarely complex, but watching Bryce electrocute himself to pieces to open a door, or drop six floors down an open elevator shaft is satisfying and silly. You can even set yourself on fire to burn any attackers. Rebellion deserve some credit for working the immortality into the gameplay so often.
The game will try to trick you at first, telling you it’s a third-person shooter. Bryce is indeed equipped with dual pistols (and soon enough some heavier ordnance) but they might as well be rubber bands for all the damage they do. The guns are so useless that were they your only option the game would be completely unplayable. Luckily, you also come equipped with a badass giant sword that works much, much better, slicing through demons like a giant sword through evil butter. While the swordplay is fun - utilising the analog stick to mimic the direction of your strikes - just a little extra damage for firearms would have made you feel a little less fucked at long range.
Using the sword also puts you at greater risk of being torn to pieces. Make no mistake, watching arms and legs fly off and seeing your head punted a quarter mile from your body is funny and completely surreal, but it can get tedious. NeverDead removes the annoyance of death, but in exchange sacrifices pacing in combat, as you often find yourself slowly rolling from one side of a room to another, Bryce making gruff, head-based puns, only to be eviscerated as soon as you find the rest of your ragdoll.
On top of that, some of the bugs in the game will fill your frustration meter. I hesitate to call them bugs, as most of them are products of design. Parts of your body become trapped under bits of scenery with no way out. Limbs detach and fly off to blocked sections of the level. Bryce comes to pieces far to easily, meaning you spend half your time playing jigsaw instead of fighting.
There are problems with immortality too, and not just philosophical ones. As I said, battles go on for way longer than they should, simply because you can’t get a traditional game over. Rebellion have tried to add a few remedies. Bryce often has mortal companions to protect and revive if necessary. I gagged at the thought of the usual escort mission horror, but it actually doesn’t come up much as your sidekick can hold her own and only a button press is required to save her from death. On the other hand, the addition of an enemy called a Grandbaby. These tiny squeaking sea urchin-like demons will eat pieces of Bryce as they come off. Losing a limb isn’t so bad, but if they catch your head you have to perform a reflex QTE or it’s an instant game over. Poor form, Rebellion.
In general, the enemy designs are fantastic, if limited in scope. There are giant-mouthed dogs called puppies which hurl themselves at you, giant walking blades designed to cut you in half, skittering spider-like demons which roll and jump like hyperactive gymnastic murder machines and giant, hundred-eye beasts that send your immortal appendages rocketing in all directions. Bigger enemies and boss characters tend to default to the tried and true “shoot the glowing weak points” strategy, but a few stand out. One in particular requires that you actually let it swallow part of you to take it down. Most demons look like something out of a very disturbed 10 year old boy’s notebook, and I mean that as a compliment in a world of soldiers and modified Tolkien thefts.
But that’s NeverDead all over. The game practically oozes oddness, and makes no apologies or attempts to explain itself. It starts with an enemy who looks like a body-builder, dresses like a Victorian dandy and speaks with a campy southern accent. We meet the main character after his partner shoots him in the head for laughs. Despite being set in a demon-infested version of the real world, Bryce used the same automatic handguns 500 years ago as he does in the present day. Enemies with giant swords for heads are called “Spoons”, gigantic whale-shaped demons are called “Hippos”, hulking gorilla types are “Panda Bears” and half-fish, half-possum things are “Sword Pigs”. Obviously.
The list of silly nonsense goes on and on, from saving a pop idol in a museum to firing your head out of sewer pipes to gain distance. Hitting a wall with handgun bullets will make concrete explode outwards and crush everything in the room. Downtime sequences between missions let you earn experience by looking at a woman’s panties, washing your own head and drinking beer. Don’t put your head in the washing machine though, that’s a game over. Why? Because NeverDead says so, that’s why. Stop asking stupid questions and find my damn leg!
This is a terrible game. The enemies are repetitive, the guns don’t work and there are parts of the game where you can literally get stuck forever because a glitch stopped one of the doors opening. It has a multiplayer mode so irrelvant nobody is ever playing. The game too often uses immortality as a crutch to avoid making combat fair, and the ending boss battles are so horrifically annoying that I almost turned off the game and set it on fire.
But I didn’t. In fact, the pure fun of cutting up demons with a giant sword, only to clip an exploding barrel (of which there are thousands in the game, because reasons) and have your decapitated head fly into the atmosphere so you can roll your arms and legs into a wiggling ball of stupid makes up for the technical shortcomings. Try it, and hope they make better ones like it. Make no mistake, NeverDead is garbage in many ways, but at least it’s interesting garbage.