Death is more of a minor annoyance for the modern video game character. Taking one too many bullets will usually just take you back five minutes in time. I’ve personally watched Uncharted’s Nathan Drake die a hundred times in a dozen ways and each time he shook it off and told a joke. So, while NeverDead letting you play as an immortal character isn’t too odd, the fact that he can lose his limbs and keep going is.
Um ... little help?
In NeverDead, you play as Bryce Boltzmann. A demon killed his wife and then made him immortal, because that’s how demons roll apparently. He has taken the curse/gift and become a drunken anti-hero who spouts lame wise-cracks before he slays a monster.
Not cliché enough for you? What if I said he was sometimes joined by an attractive by-the-book private investigator lady named Arcadia Maximille. They make quite the odd couple with antagonistic chemistry. She wears racy outfits that seem oddly out of character. He calls her “sweet cheeks” because that's how you talk to women. She coyly scolds him for being so gruff. Did I say coyly? I meant constantly. Well, the characters are nothing to brag about, but what about the gameplay?
NeverDead’s gameplay is at its core a standard third person action game. You have plenty of guns and a butterfly blade for melee combat. The gunplay controls are passable. Unfortunately, all ranged attacks feel terribly underpowered and the floaty aiming is extremely unsatisfying. Luckily, much of the time you can simply melee your way through the enemies. That is if you can ever get used to the odd choice in melee controls. You have to shift out of ranged mode and into melee mode by holding down one of the shoulder buttons and waggling the second analog stick to swing your blade. This doesn’t mean you have to strategically dismember your enemies; you just smack them around till they stop moving. I guess they thought the tried and true “using one of the face buttons” was beneath them. At least switching into melee mode activates a lock on so you aren’t flailing around hitting the air too much.
The big gameplay hook is your character’s ability to fall apart and stay alive. You can lose a leg and keep hopping; lose both and you’ll have to drag yourself around. If you lose your head you can roll it around to pick up your pieces and pull yourself back together. This is a concept that holds a lot of promise. If a tunnel is too dark, you can light yourself on fire to become a human torch (Flame on, indeed). You can pull off your left arm and throw it and it will continue to fire the gun it is holding as a diversion tactic. Numerous puzzles require you to remove your own head so it can roll through areas that are too small for you to fit. This does feel a bit like using the morph ball mode in 3D Metroid games, though this game does add in the challenge that a head is not a perfect sphere and thus is a little tougher to roll around in a straight line. Which is a nice touch, I'll admit.
For some reason I have Ice Ice Baby stuck in my head
Any fun you might have been able to pull out of this set up gets squashed pretty fast. Being attacked on multiple sides usually means you will take a hit. Bryce controls like a human tank armed with a peashooter; he’s not built for tons of dodging. Of course, he’s supposed to be immortal so he should be able to take a beating and keep on trucking. The problem comes when you realize that Bryce is as structurally stable as a house of cards. Any damage he receives will result in a limb loss or sometimes two. He already isn’t a graceful character, but hopping around like a jackass to retrieve your leg in the middle of a fight is not a proud moment. Heck, you will most likely lose an arm and a leg on your way to the first missing leg because of how not-quite-perfect the hit detection can be. I can already hear people saying, “But that's just part of the challenge.” No, that is part of the frustration that kills the pacing of the combat. Bryce Boltzmann is a human piñata that instead of being filled with sweet, sweet candy is filled with liquid annoyance.
Naturally the claim that you cannot die in NeverDead is not strictly true. During practically every combat section there are these little puffer-fish enemies, which don't attack you and you can’t attack. Their main function is to suck in your limbs after they have been dismembered, kind of like a demented demon Kirby. So not only will you usually have to reclaim your limbs in a fight, but if you don’t get to them quickly enough you'll have to steal them back from these jerks who grab your pieces and go hide in a corner. If they happen get your head, you will have to play a sliding mini game to be released. Failing this means you are trapped in their maw for all time and this gets you a game over screen. This, of course, is like any modern action game hero death and just drops you back at the last checkpoint.
And somewhere along the way this happens
The rotten cherry on the top of this sludge sundae is that almost every enemy encounter in the game features respawning baddies that will never stop unless you track down their regenerator (called a demon womb). So not only will you run into less than a dozen different enemy types in the entire game, but endless clones of them will swarm you until you locate a giant purple demon prune that is birthing them. This turns every battle into a test of the player’s determination. Slowly fighting uphill, reconstructing yourself often, until you find the source, and then cleaning up the rest just so you can go to the next room and start the whole damn thing again. Not even to mention that half the time that plucky partner lady is in the room as well and, even if she can usually hold her own in a fight, her death equals a game over for you. At least a couple times I hacked my way over to a demon womb and had Arcadia keel over on the other side of the room. I’ve never been so happy that a game is only eight hours long.
After a final boss battle that needlessly overstays its welcome you get to watch the credits roll. Ah, but there are also four multiplayer modes to subject yourself to. “Onslaught” unleashes unyielding waves of enemies that’ll… you know what? It’s Horde Mode. Moving on. “Fragile Alliance” is more of a race through checkpoints. “Search and Rescue” has you shepherding civilians through a field of demons that is about as much fun as tearing off your own arm. Finally, “Egg Hunt” is just a 'find the treasure before the others do' mode, which might have been fun except there is no mini-map so you will spend the match stumbling around the bland maze of hallways questioning how much of your precious life you are wasting. Online is pretty much a ghost town anyway. You could play the co-op modes, if you feel you have an overabundance of gamer friends. There are also thirteen challenges, which are small variations on the rules of the game that are a brief distraction if anything.
This puzzle sure is a head scratcher
At least graphically NeverDead is surprisingly impressive. The characters animate fluidly and the cutscenes are well done. The set pieces don’t seem to have the same imagination as the character designs but they don’t look bad per se. The sound is fine, but it is killed with characters that won’t shut up and have nothing useful to say. I would gladly replace Arcadia with Navi from LoZ: Ocarina of Time. Oh, you mean I should attack the part of the boss that is glowing as he stands there stunned? How would I have ever figured that out for myself? You know what? You make sure to tell me to do that every single time I can damage the guy during the fight! It's helpful and not at all annoying!
NeverDead is a prime example of a game that has an excellent premise, but then suffocates it with bafflingly bad design choices. Gamers don't play games to be exhausted, we play them to have fun, and there are just too many moments in this game that feel like a chore.
Do not buy this game. Do not rent this game. Do not look at this game. Do not associate with people who own this game. It is everything wrong with the action genre of games with a chocolate coating of pretty visuals. Let it fall into the bargain bin and fester there until end times.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of NeverDead.