Release Date: Out now in the US. Out February 3rd in the UK.
Multiplayer: Yes 1-4 players
(Thanks to Konami for providing a copy of NeverDead for review)
Y’know, over the years I sort of thought I’d seen pretty much everything in gaming, from chainsaw guns to the mad-cap antics of Dante through to the even more mad-cap antics of Bayonetta and that freaky hair of hers, but every now and then something else comes along that surprises me: NeverDead is one such game. While in most games your characters limbs being severed from their body is a bad thing, in NeverDead it’s quite normal to have every limb ripped off by a pack of ravenous demon-dog things, leaving you in control of your rolling head as you desperately try to make it to back to your torso so you can continue fighting. It’s goofy, utterly mad and a complete pain in the ass to write a review about.
Allow to explain: NeverDead is, quite honestly, the very definition of a mixed bag – and they’re the worst sort of games to write about. There are good moments, bad moments, charming moments and groan worthy moments, all rolled into one package making it a nightmare to form an opinion on and then write about. The simple truth, though, is that NeverDead’s flaws outweigh its strengths, and yet there’s a rough sort of charm to be found here that I’m almost positive will gain it a cult following, of which I’m likely to be a part of, because you know what, I had fun playing NeverDead. Not “OMG this is the greatest thing ever” fun, but fun nonetheless.
Starting with the story, as is fast becoming my tradition, our anti-hero Bryce Boltzmaan is a young, fiery demon hunter brimming with confidence. Sadly such things aren’t enough to save our hero when he comes up against the Demon King, Astaroth, who soundly kicks his arse all over the metaphorical shop. But being the evil bastard that he is Astaroth doesn’t kill Bryce: instead he imbues him with an evil eye, essentially turning Bryce into a demon himself, and then curses him to live forever. Skip forward 500-years and Bryce is a shadow of his former self working for NADA (National Anti-Demon Agency) with his mortal partner Arcadia, where his demon hunting skills are put to use investigating possible demonic incursions. He’s a pale imitation of what he once was: he’s a drunken, disheveled, scarred wreck of a being, driven forward only by a lust for vengeance and a tenuous relationship with Arcadia. And then, in fine gaming tradition, everything goes to hell as demons start showing up all over the bloody place, heralding the return of Astaroth himself and giving Bryce the chance for revenge.
Bryce himself is, at first, a hard character to actually like. He’s constantly delivering one liners that the writers clearly thought were funny, but really aren’t apart, and has a tinge of Dante’s cockiness. In many ways Bryce is actually quite like Hellboy: he works for an agency investigating weird events, tends to drink a lot, doesn’t have much time for cleanliness and is generally just a bit of a wreck and a slob. He’s world-weary and withdrawn, and yet there’s still hints of his former self in the way he speaks to Arcadia, always hinting that his fiery former personality hasn’t left him entirely. And like HellBoy, he does a rough charm to him that grows on your throughout the game, especially once you discover, through the continuing flashbacks, that Bryce has got a very good reason for his descent into his current state. With that one, albeit predictable, revelation his behavior, attitude and personality begin to make sense and it makes him a far easier character to connect with and understand. In a way, it makes him human, or it would if he wasn’t, y’know, a demon. But then the writers make a few more terrible jokes, including one scene where Bryce checks out Arcadia’s lingerie in her apartment, that start to drag poor Bryce back into the realms of being unlikable, and that leaves me at a bit of an impasse: I could argue that Bryce is perhaps an interesting study on human nature, questioning what someone would actually become after 500-years of watching friends and family die around them without being able to die themselves, always having to live on the outer fringes of society. I can easily imagine such a person becoming like Bryce, simply continuing to exist because he has no other choice. And then on the other hand some of his jokes are just really bad.
For the most part the story is actually a rather enjoyable, if convoluted, romp filled with plenty of bizarre moments, but there are some things that were disappointing, such as one character, a fellow immortal called Alex, not getting as fleshed out as he deserved or the screen time that his importance to the story would seem to demand. Likewise Arcadia, who acts as Bryce’s love interest, is a rather bland and witless character who never seems to be more than just your stereotypical over-the-top action girl with a pretty face. She’s got no depth, and frankly I never really gave a damn about her, although some of her back and forth flirting/insult banter with Bryce is amusing, for about five minutes. The same goes for Nikki Summerfield, a girl you rescue early in the game who is somehow linked to the return of Astaroth: she’s just annoying and bland. The final flaw I’ll mention is there is a few moments of truly horrendous dialogue to be witnessed during the game that made me want to hit the mute button. Still, despite these problems the story, which also has a distinct Devil May Cry vibe running through it, kept me smiling, for various reasons, through the entire eight or so hours it took to complete the singleplayer campaign. Sure, it’s not an award-winning story by any means, but provided you don’t take it too seriously, which the slightly hokey voice acting helps to ensure, then you shouldn’t have a problem with it. Of course, like the rest of this game, there’s also a chance that you’re going to hate its weirdness with a passion.
Central to the gameplay is the idea that Bryce, being an immortal demon, is able to survive absolutely anything, which includes being brutally dismembered in a variety of ways, such as being electrocuted, sliced up, falling from heights, being blown up and even just holding down the appropriate buttons – yup, you read that right: you can remove your own limbs and rip off your head at will. God damn, aren’t games great? Regaining these currently missing limbs is as easy as using the games combat roll to roll right over the top of them, or if that’s not an option you can just use Bryce’s ability to regenerate his missing appendages. Lose a leg and Bryce will just hop around. Lose both and he’ll crawl along the floor. Lose all four limbs and he’ll flop around on his torso. Get decapitated and you’ll simply find yourself in control a lonely head, able to roll around the place, forlornly searching for the rest of your body.
On paper this all sounds like an utterly awesome concept that could be used to create all manner of great moments and fantastic puzzle designs, but sadly Rebellion, the games developers, never actually use Bryce’s ability to fall to pieces to its fullest. In fact, it quickly becomes more of a problem than a strength. There are indeed a few puzzles thrown into the game, but they’re incredibly simplistic and never really challenge you to use Bryce’s unique ability: for example, taking off your own head and throwing it down a ventilation shaft to access a new area is at first neat, but then you have to do it again, and again, and again. Perhaps the most ingenious use of Bryce’s immortality are a few rare moments when you have to deliberately electrocute him so that you can activate a lift, or set him on fire so you can find your way around a dark room. Another interesting idea that doesn’t quite deliver is Bryce’s ability to fire his gun even if his arm isn’t attached to his body, allowing you to fling his arm across a room and then open fire, but mostly this just either results in the gun pointing at a wall, thus halving your firepower for no reason, or it’ll spin in circles madly, which does indeed damage some enemies but still doesn’t really make it that useful an option. For more useful is an ability that can be purchased, for a high price, that allows you to use arms like grenades. In fact this concept is so good – essentially asking you to trade half your ranged firepower for a grenade – that it feels like an ability that should be given to you during the course of the game, rather than having to buy it.
But ultimately it’s in the combat where Bryce’s unique ability really fails, because you see Bryce is actually pretty easy to take apart: practically every hit from an enemy will rip of a limb or decapitate him, sending his head hurtling across the room like its been fired from a cannon. At first this is all very amusing, but due to the sheer amount of enemies the game throws at you it soon becomes incredibly annoying. Eventually you end up spending more time searching for your torso as a disembodied hear or crawling around the place searching for your arms than you actually do fighting! Whats more annoying is that enemies will often attack your head, sending it flying across the room where you’ve then got to slowly work your way back across the room again to reach your torso, and then, once you’ve finally reconnected to your body, you’ll be decapitated yet again during Bryce’s animations where he gets up. At times it feels more like being stuck in a pinball machine that’s intent on mashing your face into walls. Worst of all, though, is that this constant dismemberment means that Bryce never feels like a badass demon hunter, but more like an idiot bumbling through by using sheer perseverance.
Speaking of the combat I really should get to that, because that’s ultimately the focus of the game, and once again NeverDead delivers something of a mixed bag. From a cursory glance at the screenshots you’ll have noticed that our demonic nutter of a hero is wielding dual fire-arms and a sword, and so given the nature of the game you’d be forgiven for believing that NeverDead is going for a Devil May Cry style of combat. Hell, even I thought that when I first began playing the game, but that’s not the case here: there’s no seamless shifting between guns and blade to create beautiful combos, instead it’s best to think of combat has having two different modes that you can switch between: ranged and melee. Sure, you can swap between them in a fight, but they’re not a single entity that’s woven together like Devil May Cry or other action games we’ve seen in the past. So I’ll start with the weakest of the two: the bangsticks, the bullet-flingers, the guns! Why are they weakest aspect, I hear you ask? Because they’ve got no kick, they’ve got no bang, man! At the start of the game Bryce wields dual pistols, but along the way he’ll pick up a few more items to add to the armory, but really until you get the shotgun and, almost at the end of the game, the grenade launcher, the ranged weapons pack very little punch, in terms of both feeling to fire and actual effectiveness. Pulling the trigger on your dual pistols results in very little kick, a slight motion, a depressingly small bang and the tiniest sliver of health being removed from the enemy. Even the almighty shotgun, which does at least do some hefty damage, doesn’t feel that powerful to fire, and that’s just not right.
Meanwhile, Bryce’s melee option, which is his Butterfly sword, goes in completely the opposite direction of the guns by being far too powerful, generally meaning that it’s far easier to wade in with the sword, completely abandoning the concept of guns unless you absolutely have to use them. Strangely the sword, like the guns, also lacks any real sense of impact when hitting enemies, who also tend to fail to react to bullets and sword strikes alike. Actually using the sword is a little different than in most games: you need to hold down the left trigger to target an enemy, which can be a bit temperamental, and then you use the right stick to slash with the sword by literally making striking motions with the stick. The game suggests that slow, measured strikes do the most damage, and this is completely true, but since the game insists on throwing arse-loads of enemies at you this concept quickly gets chucked out the window and replaced with the good old-fashioned method of going bloody ballistic and just hacking away at absolutely everything until it dies. It should also be noted that having to hold the left trigger to use the sword also takes away camera control, so you’ll often find yourself staring at a wall or other bit of scenery as you frantically waggle the stick. Also not helping matters is that the block ability is a bit of a pain in the ass to use in the heat of combat. Going on a frenzied rampage with the analogue stick is actually quite enjoyable, though, but ultimately the combat in NeverDead doesn’t have much to offer: there’s no real depth to it all – you’re either blasting things or your just hacking at things. Does that mean I hated the combat? No, I enjoyed it, but I also felt there could have been a lot more done with it.
But the simple combat wouldn’t have been quite such a noticeable flaw if the game had gone to the trouble of mixing up its combat scenarios, but it doesn’t. At all. Upon entering a new room or area in NeverDead you’re greeted with one of two scenarios: the first is that the exit gets blocked off by a magic door that won’t budge until everything is dead, while the second uses “wombs” that spawn infinite enemies until you destroy said Wombs , which can take a while as they’re sodding tough! Eventually this continuous barrage of enemies, with only the occasional new demon introduced, really begins to grate. Every moment in NeverDead spent not viewing a cutscene or in one of the boss battles, which are actually good fun, is spent fighting through these two scenarios over and over, and it’s just not enough to keep the game feeling fresh by time the finale rolls around. Perhaps a few more puzzles would have helped alleviate this problem, but they abruptly seem to stop just a few chapters in.
There is one rather interesting element that helps to make combat a little more interesting, though, and that’s the destroyable environments which can be used to crush enemies to a pulp, which also looks pretty damn cool. With swords, guns or explosive barrels Bryce can destroy pillars or chunks of wall to bring parts of scenery tumbling down upon the enemy. Sadly this tactic can be a little hit and miss to use as it can be a bit tricky to predict how the physics system is going to react, making it tough to judge whether you’ll bring down a pillar on an enemy or on yourself, which is a little embarrassing. Still, going on a rampage through the environment and chopping it all down is quite entertaining.
By this point you might be thinking that if Bryce is immortal and can survive being hacked to pieces, then how can NeverDead provide a challenge? And the answer is that it doesn’t. Well, not much of one, anyway. You see Rebellion, the games developers, also came to this very conclusion and so they created two different ways to fail in NeverDead and have to restart from the last checkpoint. The first is that you’re tasked with keeping Arcadia, and sometimes a random civilian(s) alive. Should they die you’ll have to restart from the last checkpoint, but really this isn’t much of a problem because Arcadia is actually surprisingly adept at keeping herself out of trouble, and on the rare occasions when she does fall it’s possible to revive her from quite a distance away. In fact it’s entirely likely that you’ll go through the entire game without ever having Arcadia die on you. The second way to get a “game over” is to have your head swallowed by a strange creature that runs around the place whenever there’s a battle going on. These little bastards will gobble up your head and attempt to imprison you inside their gut forever unless you successfully win a mini-game. Again, though, this mini-game is very easy to succeed at, so it’s unlikely you’ll fail on account of it. Considering how often you get decapitated, and how quickly the little bleeders move compared to your head, you’ll also get tired pretty quickly of having your head swallowed.
Included in NeverDead is the now seemingly mandatory upgrade system, and it does actually contain a fair wack of stuff to buy. Using XP gained from killing enemies and picking up the masses of collectibles that can be found lying around the place Bryce can buy damage upgrades for his weapons, the ability to fire electrical bullets, regenerate quicker, sprint a bit quicker and more. Sadly there’s no unlockable moves to give combat a bit more depth, but there’s still a surprisingly vast amount of upgrades to be bought. Suffice to say that there’s no way you’ll be getting them all on your first play-through of the game. Perhaps not even your second, but then all of your XP and upgrades carries over to the multiplayer and vice versa, so that does help considerably. The amount of upgrades that can be equipped at any given time is also limited, presumably to ensure that you try to pick those that compliment your style best, but you can actually swap them out mid-level anyway, so you can just change them up to help deal with whatever you are fighting against at the time.
On the presentation front NeverDead fares pretty well, in both visual and audio terms. Both its art style and its technical ability sits squarely in the realms of being a solid, good-looking, if largely unspectacular title, but there are a couple of rather fine-looking moments such as a striking ruined city which pops up later in the game to admire, and it has a nice streak of color running through it which is always nice to see in this current industry trend of making everything bloody gray. Its CGI cutscenes are also surprisingly good, so it’s a bit of a shame that it doesn’t use them a little more, especially during one cringe-worthy moment between Bryce and Arcadia where the in-game animations just fails completely. Sure, NeverDead isn’t going to be blowing away the big boys with its looks, but it still looks good. In the audio side of the fence the voice acting is, for the most part, a solid, albeit slightly hokey, affair. Bryce’s world-weary and slightly cocky attitude comes off well and the actor even manages to deliver a little subtly in some of his lines. Arcadia’s actor simply does the job and little more, as does the majority of the rest of the cast. The game’s music is provided by Megadeth, so battles are backed by some tasty metal that suits the tone of the game very well, but sadly the music itself is largely forgettable, repeated a bit too often and starts to blur together after a while. Still, there’s just something about facing down a demon horde with a sword in hand and some sweet riffs playing that gets the blood pumping.
Finally the game also packs some multiplayer offerings in the form of competitive and cooperative challenges, but at the time of writing this review it wasn’t possible to test the online components properly and so I’m not going to do into much depth about them. Suffice to that in the few games I did get a chance to play there didn’t seem to be any obvious connection issues. There’s a selection of challenges available, ranging from horde-style survival to checkpoint racing that has you kill everything at checkpoint to advance, all of which can be played with up to 4-players. But the most interesting part is that all of the upgrades you purchase in singleplayer carries over to the multiplayer where you can also earn XP.
So now we’ve come to the end of the review, the segment where I usually summarise my feelings about the game before launching into the scores, and as mentioned at the beginning of this long-winded review, that’s a tough prospect. Truthfully this review comes off far more negatively than I actually feel about the game, and that’s because I was disappointed by NeverDead: I was disappointed that it’s unique concept never got used to its full potential and I was disappointed by the rather simple combat, and that disappointment makes it easy to focus on the flaws more than the good points. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I believe NeverDead will get a bit of a cult following and that I’d likely be part of it. I stand by that statement because ultimately I did have fun with NeverDead: sure, it didn’t deliver what I hoped it would, but there was still a rough charm to it that kept me playing. But that doesn’t cover the fact that NeverDead is a flawed game, and as such I feel the final score is a fair one.
+ Going nuts with a sword.
+ Bryce has his moments.
+ Ripping off your own head and throwing it through basketballs hoops. Never gets old.
– Being constantly dismembered during combat.
– Bryce’s immortality is never used to its full potential.
– Repetitive fights.
Actually a rather good-looking game, though there are a few dodgy animations and moments.
Voice acting is cheesy but solid. Megadeth’s backing track suits the game well, but isn’t very memorable.
Arguably NeverDead’s story is too weird for most people to enjoy, but it’s an entertaining romp that makes some mistakes along the way.
The combat system is solid but simplistic and the concept of dismemberment actually becomes more annoying than fun and innovative. But really it’s the repetitive combat scenarios that drag the game down.
Around 8-10 hours will see you through the singleplayer, but you’ve then got the option to go back and play any level you wish with all your upgrades. Multiplayer looks like it should add a few more hours of enjoyment.
The Verdict: 7
As a fresh, new IP on the block NeverDead doesn’t make the splash I hoped it would, but there’s some good fun to be found, provided you’re willing to overlook some flaws. A sequel that full makes use of the games ideas is certainly in order. In short, NeverDead is decent hack ‘n’ slash adventure that’s worth a purchase, but not at full price.